#FridayFlashbook: Wintersteel

A bookblogger roundup on a book that’s been around

Many thanks to Gary Mitchelhill of Rapidsnap at Deviant Art for the banner picture!

On Fridays, I’m going to be sharing reviews on a book on my TBR that I keep hearing about. Today, it’s the self-published book that made it to the semifinals of Goodreads Fantasy category, Will Wight’s Wintersteel, and it’s a rave fest. Reviews are in alphabetical order, and I want to include at least one audiobook review each time.

The Book Dude

An audiobook review broken down into categories. Includes trigger warnings.

I have read a lot of books this year (Wintersteel being number 65), and quite a few of them were excellent (The Library at Mount Char, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Gideon the Ninth, etc). I can, with some measurable degree of certainty, say that Wintersteel was amongst my very favorites of this list. In fact, Wintersteel is probably one of my favorite books, period. I could not stop listening to this book. 

Jeff Chandler, “Wintersteel by Will Wight, a review,The Book Dude

Bryce Moore

A writer and librarian’s perspective with some good analysis.

So the fact that I bought Will Wight’s Wintersteel the very night it released, cleared my schedule to read it, and finished it two days later, says all you really need to know about the book. 

Bryce Moore, “Book Review: Wintersteel,” Bryce Moore

Feminist Quill

Packed with quotes that places the book into its context within the Cradle series. Depending on your information tolerance, might contain spoilers.

I think I remember complaining Uncrowned was too short. Wintersteel more than makes up for that. And the book isn’t just long. It is also insanely packed with story.

Anonymous, “Cradle #8 – Wintersteel,Feminist Quill

Novel Notions

A very thoughtful evaluation, with quotes, rating, and genre labels.

Wintersteel, in every sense of the content, is a direct continuation of Uncrowned, and I know it would go against the nature of the series to do this, but I did feel that both Uncrowned and Wintersteel would’ve been even better as one tome. Unlike many readers of the series, I actually considered Uncrowned to be one of the best installments in the series despite the abrupt ending. If you’re reading this review but haven’t started the series or read Uncrowned yet, I strongly suggest you binge-read Uncrowned and Wintersteel back to back.

Petrik Leo, “Book Review: Wintersteel (CRADLE, #8) by Will Wight,” Novel Notions

Someday I’ll get through that TBR and have a chance to review it myself—these guys have made me want to check it out.

Happy Friday!

A changed man

An Xpresso blog book blitz & review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced adventure through Hollywood with human turned avenging angel, private first class.

Urban fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 337

Publisher: White Sun Press

Register to win a $25 Amazon gift card at Rafflecopter during the book blitz!

From the publisher: I never asked to be an angel. Truthfully, being an angel kinda sucks.

But some angels don’t get harps. We hunt demons.

I might be a social weirdo. And okay, I black out whenever I fly and wake up naked in random places. I can only sleep in windowless rooms. I have that gun problem. Oh, and I can’t drink alcohol, since I randomly start fires.

But I, Dags Jourdain, do good. Sort of. I mean, I try.

When I’m not hunting demons, I work as a P.I. in Hollywood, California.

One night, I get in a demon fight in an alley, and accidentally save the life of a movie star, and everything changes for me.

Meanwhile, someone opened a hell portal under the Hollywood sign, a dead guy left me his dog, and a homicide detective who hates me from high school is trying to decide if I’m a serial killer.

Did I mention being an angel kinda sucks?

Thank you, Xpresso book tours, for the advance review copy.

Review

The worst part about this book: It ended before I was ready for it to. The fast pace, the clever dialogue, and the fun characters made it a ride I wasn’t ready to get off yet. Part of it was that there are so many unanswered questions, although it was a logical break point.

Be prepared, though—given the blurb about the book was done in first person, I was a little thrown when I started reading and it was a third person narration. But that lasted only momentarily, as I was immediately drawn into the story.

“You’re going to keep the dog of the guy who tried to kill you? Really?”

Dags shrugged, deadpan. “It’s not the dog’s fault.”

Julie Light, I, Angel

If you want long, lyric passages, this probably isn’t your book—but that’s not what this book is about. It’s about discovery. How to figure out what’s happened to you and your environment on the fly as you cope with what life is throwing you.

She held herself still, almost unnaturally still as she stared up at the two of them, her eyes lit by the red light in the hot tub and the firelight from the torches on either side.

Now she looked like Hell’s Queen.

Julie Light, I, Angel

It’s also not for you if you’re not fond of riddles. Most of them are not solved by the end of the novel, but it’s not like some of the books I’ve read, where it’s as if the book just stopped.

Instead, this feels almost like the end of an episode of a television show, perhaps along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the beginning of the season—or most of Joss Whedon’s series—where you’re learning about the characters and getting exposed to the world, but you’re still not sure what the hell is going on.

“Damn it, Dags. You’ve got to know it looks weird. All of this looks weird. You’re like a magnet for bad things—”

“I’m aware of that,” Dags growled.

Julie Light, I, Angel

But like Whedon, Julie Light has got you hooked and anxious to see what’s next. I have high hopes that the next installment will be even better.

Apophis by Raj Anand

A Goddess Fish Book Tour

Enter to win a $25 Amazon/BN Gift Card – A Rafflecopter giveaway. The more you follow and comment the blog tour, the better your chances. And this book is FREE through December 5, 2020.

From the publisher: December, 2012: Five sentient beings born in different cities – New York, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Azores Islands and Istanbul, discover amongst haunting memories of their phantasmal past lives, that it is their destiny to save humanity from the evil forces unleashed by the alien fiends—the Skyllats.

And now, the reincarnated 9-year-olds must rely on their shared, ancient wisdom to prepare humanity for the war across the galaxy that is imminent.

A sampling of quotes:

Mystified, Agasthi peered deeper into this amplified, spherical, translucent world—seeded with infinite moons and transient stars—when an eerie, dark colossus with a serpent-like head and carmine eyes emerged. Swimming within this dark sea, it swallowed entire moons and thousands of stars, before it turned and glared at a petrified Agasthi.

Raj Anand, Apophis

This Gulfstream G550, manufactured by General Dynamics in the United States, was specially fitted with the Airborne Early Warning and Control Multi-Band Radar System developed by Israel Aerospace.

Raj Anand, Aphophis

For, this war was never fought in the open; it had been fought over centuries between the crevices of a strange reality.

Raj Anand, Apophis

Perhaps God was giving him another chance—a gift. Maybe God was asking for forgiveness. A forgiveness that Lazarok was not prepared to give—just yet.

Raj Anand, Apophis

Karen Leung, with her short hair, narrow black eyes, and a confident, muscular frame exuded the verdant tranquility of an alpha, ever ready to dominate any battlefield across a dangerous urban jungle.

Raj Anand, Apophis

The sun decided to cut itself into two this early winter morning. Unsure whether it wanted to rise from the fathomless depths of the Atlantic Ocean or from the Island of San Miguel.

Raj Anand, Apophis

All punctuation is that of the author. This post is provided in exchange for an advance review copy of the book from Goddess Fish.

Book tour gone bad

r/suggestmeabook: I want a cozy mystery steeped in publishing and fandom focused on solving a murder.

Cozy mystery

Rating: PG

Pages: TBA

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Publication date:  June 8, 2021

From the publisher: Meeting your favorite author in the flesh can be the chance of a lifetime. But for one unlucky fan, her plum place in line at a book signing will lead to her untimely demise.

First, let’s get the disclosure out of the way: I didn’t read the first book, so some of my issues might be solved by reading it. But it won’t cure all the ills I perceive in this cozy mystery.

tldr: Flat characterization; tell, don’t show; hard-to-swallow situations

Victoria Gilbert has posed a good puzzle. Most of the clues are there at the beginning, although the key clue isn’t given until toward the end. If your taste runs to plot uber alles, then you may be fine with this story.

I’m a character junkie, and this book just didn’t give me my fix. There was very little to distinguish among the characters aside from the initial physical descriptions and names. I was constantly having that moment of “Now, who is this again?” among a cast of less than fifteen (I think), which is a magnitude lower than the epic fantasies I have less trouble keeping up with the characters.

They all have the same voice. Granted, you’re getting everything filtered through the first person protagonist, but even so, I’m spoiled by first person protagonists who have the gift of mimicking the people around them. Charlotte, the amateur sleuth and narrator, tells us often that she was a high school teacher, and perhaps that’s what we’re hearing—she flattens everyone out with the same speech patterns, making them all speak proper, grammatical English.

“Sounds like a good beach read,” Ellen said.

“Definitely perfect for that. And it is written pretty well. The English teacher in me can’t fault Ms. Nobel on her writing.”

Victoria Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Not only that, Gilbert repeatedly violates the common mantra for fiction: Show, don’t tell. Again, in a first person narrative, I expect to hear the thoughts and opinions of the narrator, but I also expect to have enough to go on to make my own conclusions. Instead, many of the characterizations are made up of conclusory statements and it feels unskillful to write a description of a person in a way that the actions don’t speak for themselves.

For example, several of the characters are described as having bad tempers (as part of the reason they might be suspects), and yet the most I saw any of those characters get huffy was one who bangs his fist on a table. Okay, I said “several,” and it turns out there were only two. Seemed like more, perhaps because it was repeated several times and I didn’t have the names connected solidly to the characters (see flatness, above).

“She had a real bad temper, at least back then. The hair-trigger kind. She’d be all fine and cheerful, but someone would say or do something that ticked her off and bam!”—Damian snapped the twisted towel through the air—”just like that, she’d go off on them.”

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

Likewise, almost all of the background information needed for the solution of the mystery is provided in talking head sequences. There’s very little sleuthing involved, and people divulge the information in long speeches with little prompting. Little of the dialogue was just for fun, and when it wasn’t about the mystery, it seemed to often run to the mundane. Some of it was to set an atmosphere (“Would you like a lemonade?” appears to be an exceedingly common question in the summer in coastal North Carolina), but my overall impression was there was a lot of filler.

Let me get to the trickiest part of this review, something I feel I have to raise, even though I’m not really qualified to weigh in on as a white, older, middle-class female. Yes, it’s about the depiction of Black characters (I think they’re supposed to be Black—more to come on that). I would have loved to refer you to a reviewer who could, but this is an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley, and none of the other reviewers on Goodreads (when I checked) self-identified as Black or any other POC, so I didn’t have that option.

I fretted about what to do about this, and posted about it to solicit opinions, and I can’t tell you whether the depictions are problematic. As I said in the previous post, I get that white authors have a dilemma—you don’t want to posit an all white world and erase POCs from the picture, but you also may be challenged in your depictions of those characters if you include them.

Let me be crystal clear on this: I AM NOT SAYING THE AUTHOR IS RACIST. I am saying that we live in a world that privileges whites, and that even the most well intentioned author in the world can miss the notes on this, because it is so very difficult to play the songs correctly. However, as one of the commenters on the post of doom mentioned, (I’m paraphrasing) even if there was no malicious intent (or even a positive intent), if the effect of the writing still promotes institutional racism, then there’s still an issue.

Anyway, the depictions made me raise my eyebrows, partially because of the way they were coded as Black. The flatness of character is a universal issue in the book, so it’s harder to say that they should have been excepted from the general shortcoming to be well-rounded. But the first one to come up, Alicia, is described as a “short, plump woman in her early sixties” without a job title, simply as having worked in the B&B forever. Because of the bigger problem of being trapped in my own whiteness in the world, I consciously process it, but I defaulted to thinking of the character as white.

But then there was this:

Pete and Sandy Nelson…always claimed I’d inherited Alicia along with the B and B. I suppose that was true, in a way, although it wasn’t a sentiment I liked to repeat out loud. Although I admitted that Alicia was integral to the success of Chapters, she was a person, and not some object my great-aunt could pass down, as she had the extensive collection of books that filled Chapters’s library and guest rooms.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

I found it a little clumsy on first reading, but was pulled out of the story later when I processed that in the context of later statements, thinking, “Wait. Alicia’s supposed to be Black? What did I miss?” Am I supposed to realize that because she’s essentially Calpurnia for the B&B? Is it more racist to default to her being white if not specified? As you can see, it triggered my own concerns about how to be anti-racist, and I sought help in the afore-mentioned post and on Twitter.

It could be read as an attempt to be sensitive; it could also be read as an issue that it’s even been included. IDK.

Later, I was relieved when the narrator said this:

I frowned as I realized how little I knew about Alicia’s life before Chapters. Because you never asked, I thought, flushing with embarrassment. Perhaps I had treated her like something I’d inherited along with the house than a person with her own, independent life. At least, more than I liked to admit.

Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder

“So she’s going to show this as a character arc,” I thought. I can get behind that, even if I do still have some issues about how the two Black characters were coded, which, to my mind, raises questions about the extent to which they reinforce stereotypes.

But then the quoted sentiment was never followed up on. Perhaps in the next book? Maybe it’s supposed to be a flaw in the character, even if she’s supposed to be the heroine?

As I said, I can’t say anything about the Black experience or how Black readers might react, but it bothered me enough to raise it. I’d suggest referring the novel to a sensitivity reader specializing in race issues, as it may be an easy fix.

Wow. Glad to have gotten through that mess.

Last on my list of complaints is definitely the most idiosyncratic problem, and one I wouldn’t have downgraded the book on if it had been the only issue: things that I can’t suspend disbelief over. First there’s the neighbor who’s a retired spy. Again, I haven’t read the first book, so perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for how she knows that, but the retired spy’s openness is just mind-boggling to me. I have relatives who were in various classified areas of the military, and they won’t tell their children, spouses, or parents any details, so I just can’t buy into anything but an absolute need-to-know.

Similarly, I have issues with the characterization of the police detective. She doesn’t sound like any I’ve known, but, of course, geography matters. All but one of the cops I’ve known were from large metropolitan areas in Texas, not a small-time PD in North Carolina. But it bothered me.

Believe it or not, the review is about to come to a conclusion. The writing is competent, but sterile, and the characters flat. I don’t get enough opportunity to observe the characters to determine who they are; the narrator or others mostly just tell me. Gilbert is good on plotting and descriptions of the environment, but that’s just not enough for me.


A reviewer’s dilemma

A self-indulgent ramble on anti-racism, writing, and reviewing

Brandon deWilde, Ethel Waters, and Julie Harris in Member of the Wedding, from the novel by Carson McCullers, a novelist noted for groundbreaking portrayals of Black characters.

I’m about to review a book that has raised my hackles about how the author has written about two Black characters, which has raised a big question for me. How do I, a white woman, critique another white woman’s depiction of these characters. (And what am I going to do about the capitalization of white/White?)

As usual, I start with research, and started Googling the issue. Laura Lipman’s article in the Washington Post basically told me not to ask any Black acquaintances, and I get her point, but that’s not helping me decide what to do or say.

This article from Writer Unboxed was great, but, again, didn’t really help me from a reviewer’s point of view. Additionally, the specifics she raises doesn’t really address the particular situation.

The thoughtful article by Sarah Schulman, White Writer, gave a better theoretical framework for considering the issue. To oversimplify, the idea is that white writers addressing Black characters should make sure they are not reinforcing privilege and “cultural dominance.”

I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my own evolution in the struggle for anti-racism. I grew up as a military brat, and, although I can’t say there wasn’t racism, there was at least a good faith effort (well, I perceived it as good faith) to create a more equal environment. My first experience of the N-word was on a school bus on the way to Hamura Elementary, a DoD school that occupied a former Japanese POW camp sometime in the late 60s. (Take a second and unpack that. I’ve tried to find more info about it as an adult, but no joy yet.)

Some kid yelled the word at another kid, and a chorus welled up from listeners. “OOoooh, your dad is gonna get in trouble for that,” was the main version, although the phrase “court martial” was also thrown around. I was in second grade.

My next memory of awareness was in recess at the same school, a year or so later, when I was confronted with the choice of playing with a Black girl. I didn’t like her, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t dislike her because she was Black regardless of her character. I played with her, begrudgingly.

Makes me think of this bit from 30 Rock, particularly the interplay between Tina Fey and Wayne Brady:

Fast forward to the 90s (I’ll omit the rather long story of moving to Alabama in 1972). For various reasons in my life and surroundings, I had few Black acquaintances until my thirties. First was my husband’s work friend, another military brat with whom I had more in common with as a result of that shared experience than with many white friends. The second shaping experience was a multitude of interactions with my students when I started teaching at the local community college.

At that point, I was consciously raising racial issues in classes. I’d learned late about white privilege, and was determined to get that out there, as well as historical perspectives on how we got to where we are. This forced me to really think hard about how to talk about difference.

I realized that I had originally thought anti-racism was just pretending nonwhites were white. I had trouble identifying someone as Black or Mexican American (San Antonio, remember) for a long time, as though it might embarrass them somehow–as if it were a social disease.

But I realized that was a paternalistic racism, an attempt to erase difference in favor of the white version of reality. So I started facing the issue head-on, asking questions in classes made up of Black, hispanic, and white kids. I found that there was often ignorance of each other all the way around, and the conversations were useful. (I still remember a Mexican-American kid saying after one of the movies I showed (I want to say Mississippi Burning) that he didn’t realize how bad it had been for Blacks. My jaw about dropped.)

One consistent reaction was to my presentation on white privilege. The white kids usually were unaware of the concept, and the Brown and Black kids had a hard time understanding how they couldn’t be. That blindness, the inability to see the food sticking in our teeth and swiped across our faces, is what makes us ask the dumb questions about “is this racist?” to friends and acquaintances of color. (My favorite comment in response to something I’d said and then questioned was, “Probably, but you mean well.”)

So in the current climate, where we are elevating the discussion of anti-racism and looking at our issues, it seems remiss not to discuss what I find to be insensitive handling of race in a book I’m reviewing. On the other hand, it’s so charged that I anticipate an overreaction if I raise it.

In this case, I wouldn’t say that you could simply omit the Black characters. It’s set in North Carolina, and the two Black characters are the housekeeper and a cook/chef. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, so to pretend that it’s otherwise would be inauthentic.

But it seems like the writer is trying to dodge around their Blackness, which seems to me to be as big a problem as caricaturing them. It triggers my judged past of treating Blackness as a social disease. But i’m not sure how I’d tell her to fix it beyond not ignoring it and them making those characters fully rounded individuals, not just place holders. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book yet, but that’s where I am in the process.

I understand that there’s a problem inherent in this situation for the white writer: how do you write the Black characters in a way that doesn’t exclude them, but doesn’t pretend you know something that you don’t, nor does it whitewash them? (Guys, really, read Sarah Schulman’s White Writer,)

And then another thorny bit: there’s a reference to a joke about the protagonist inheriting the housekeeper with the house. I didn’t realize until that point that the housekeeper was supposed to be Black, and it was only because of a clumsy attempt to distance the protagonist (it’s first person) from the joke which more clearly references slavery. It could be argued that it’s a way to get the protagonist, that you need to see her flaws, but it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to me for that—more that the author doesn’t even realize it’s problematic.

What’s a reviewer who wants to be sensitive to both the race issues and to the writer do? Truly. I’m asking. What do y’all think?

A tale of three gardens

A prepublication Big5+ review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a drama about women of various eras dealing with similar issues about work and love.

Edwardian, WWII and contemporary

Rating: PG

Publication date: 1/12/2021

From the publisher:

From the publisher: Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life.

Julia Kelly expertly explores the themes of women and work in two major past periods and contemporary England through the frame of a garden. What will you give up for your dream of work or your dream of love? We used to think we could have it all, but Kelly does a good job of showing that from the dawn of professional female artists, compromises have had to be made.

With blonde hair that was beginning to streak with silver, it would have been easy to think that the woman who dressed in demure pastels and high lace collars would be compassionate. Five minutes with Cynthia, however, and anyone would have been disabused of that notion. Cynthia was made of flint and dogma.

Julia Kelly, The Last Garden in England

At first, it was a little difficult to keep up with whose point of view was being discussed, despite the labeling of each chapter with each of the five women’s names.

Venetia was easy enough, given the unique name coupled with the earlier period, but I had a more trouble remembering which of the other four names matched which woman. The tone is fairly consistent for all these points of view, despite the fact that Venetia is first person and the other four are third party close.

Another theme she explores is the one of home: what constitutes one and when do we start wanting one? All of the women have different answers, and the answers morph with their character arcs, which are developed at a believable pace, as seasons change.

The choice to explore three different women during WWII is interesting. Of late, it feels like land girls and occupied country estates have been fairly thoroughly explored, but juxtaposing the land girl, the lady of the house, and the cook for the great house helps illuminate all of them in new and interesting ways.

The garden itself is lost on me. I have a vague sense of all the plants she was describing, but not the specifics of them or what a room in a garden is. However, it still worked for me, as the love of the various characters for the garden and what it symbolized to each of them came through.

A solid piece of historical fiction—probably not one to haunt my dreams, but The Last Garden in England was a good meat and potatoes read.


The little things that make me say no to SPs

a note to indie authors

I tell myself that I shouldn’t judge on such superficial things. But when there are so very many books to choose among, there are things that immediately make me prejudge a book as being sloppy or amateurish. I was tempted to put the covers up here as examples, but I’m not a fan of shaming people.

For the most part, my pet peeves boil down to my dislike of being careless about communication. If authors aren’t careful about these issues that directly impact the perception of their book, how can I trust them to communicate effectively in the book itself?

For the most part, my pet peeves boil down to my dislike of being careless about communication. If authors aren’t careful about these issues that directly impact the perception of their book, how can I trust them to communicate effectively in the book itself?

These are in no particular order of importance.

Typo in the title: An immediate turnoff. I found two like that yesterday looking for new releases. One lacked an apostrophe for a possessive, the other had a misspelling.

Including a description or promo in the title: This kind of thing: Bibliostatic, a wonderful book review blog that all should read–or even just Bibiliostatic, a book review about fantasy books. When I see this on Amazon, I cringe. It’s not just unprofessional—it strikes me as needy.

Not formatting the book correctly: If I open the book and the text is not separate from the front matter or the font size or line height makes it difficult to read, I peace out.

Not listing a publisher: It’s a really stupid prejudice on my part, but I want to see that the author is serious enough that they set up an imprint to publish under. So often indie authors omit this step.

Listing the publisher with “LLC”: Look at how the Big5 or small presses do it (which is pretty good advice across the board). They just put the name of the publisher, not the corporate entity ending. That may be the legal name of the company, but there’s no reason to include it here. Again, it feels like a failure to adequately educate yourself about the business you’ve entered into.

Listing a support service as the publisher: There are various services for self-publishing. If they say the word “self-publishing,” they are not your publisher! A few of these I’ve seen listed as the publisher: PublishNation, CreateSpace, and Ingram Spark.

Using the same title as a bunch of other books: Rather than carelessness, this reflects a concern that the book is unimaginative or trite if they can’t come up with something new.

Messy/difficult-to-read cover: This is a hard one to explain without showing examples, so I made a faux one. If the cover is, well, covered from top to bottom with text, it bothers me.

First, there’s just too much text. Second, many of the letters are lost because of the lack of contrast. Third, it’s not easy to read at a glance.

I’d go with the same idea that designers are *supposed* to use with billboards: something that can be read at a glance while traveling at high speed.

Asha at A Cat, A Book, And A Cup Of Tea was kind enough to share her turn-offs: “poor cover artwork, bad reviews noting poor grammar/spelling, authors promoting inappropriately on social media (DMs, cold-tagging, replying to irrelevant tweets with buy links), authors who don’t read review policies!” Asha notes that these problems are not confined to self-published books. I agree, although the issues seem to come up less often in traditionally published books.

The point of all this is to say that indie authors have control over all of these issues in a way traditionally published authors don’t, so use that control so that readers will look at the candy, not the wrapper.

Any superficial qualities that make you avoid a self-published book?

The good vamp

r/suggestmeabook: I want a series with a hunky, emotionally unavailable vampire guiding me through his unwilling quest to stop being a lone wolf.

Paranormal mystery

Rated: R

There’s a giveaway for the blitz for Book 5: books, audiobooks, and swag.

Book 5 blurb: Miriam Murphy loves being a librarian. It’s all she’s ever wanted—to eat, breathe, and sleep books. But when she hired Michael, a handsome college student, she had no idea he was a four-hundred-year-old vampire.

I haven’t read more than the summary of Book 5, being promoted right now, nor 2-4. I just completed the first of the series, so my rating is based on Book 1 as a representative.

The voice of Michael Vanderhorst, the vampire in question, is strong—he’s the narrator of the series, so it strikes me as odd that the blurb is from Miriam’s point of view. At any rate, Mimi Jean Pamfiloff has done a great job of making it easy to believe he is older than his apparent years. He’s a little repetitive at times (yeah, yeah, not into any emotions, all about the loyalty), but generally well done.

There are also some lovely supporting characters—I, for one, am mostly interested in seeing more of Mr. Nice, the idiosyncratic eldest of vampires.

But I have a couple of issues, which may be addressed in later volumes. First, there’s virtually no character development of Miriam—all that exists in the first volume is her klutziness and the projections of Michael. We really don’t get to know her at all. I hope that has changed by the fifth volume.

Next, the climax of the novel seemed to be over far too fast. It felt like a lot of build up to a rushed conclusion.

However, all in all I was pleasantly surprised. The cover and blurbs reeked of Romance with the capital R, but it deftly avoided most of the tropes it could have fallen prey to.

So if your thirst for vampire love hasn’t been quenched yet, check the series out. You may find Pamfiloff’s version of vamps a nice change of pace: socially responsible with a taste for spicy wrongdoers.

Thank you, Xpresso Tours, for providing me with an advance review copy.

An Englishman in Newport

A prepublication Big5+ review

Gilded Age amateur sleuth

r/suggestmeabook: I want a sedate journey through Gilded Age high society with a little murder mixed in.

Rating: G

Publication date: 2/16/2021

From the publisher: London, 1878. “An Extravagant Death” finds Sir Charles Lenox traveling to Gilded Age Newport and New York to investigate the death of a beautiful socialite.

Charles Finch has managed to capture the sedate pace of a period before cell phones and Google. The first ten chapters are part history lesson, part travelogue. As a denizen of the hurry-up present, that didn’t feel sedate; it felt slow, but in a way Louisa May Alcott doesn’t feel for me. Instead, it felt like a delay to get to the meat of the novel—ten chapters to get to the damn murder.

The book blurb doesn’t help: It makes it sound as though the protagonist has gone to the States specifically to solve the murder, but that’s not how it works at all.

Obviously a great deal of historical research has gone into the story, but sometimes the inclusion of the lovely bits feels a little forced, as is the case of the multiple mentions of “back log.” We meet historic personages and places with no bearing on the plot—which, coupled with the delay in getting to the main subject of the book, isn’t as interesting as it could be if better integrated into the mains storyline.

On the other hand, very young men accustomed to all their wishes being granted could be unpredictable; more than that, were one of the great lurking threats in the world, in Lenox’s experience.

Charles Finch, “An Extravagant Death”

The subtle wit is a pleasure, though, and is well-suited to evoking Victorian England and the American Gilded Age. Once the murder mystery starts to unfold, it’s absorbing enough, although there’s nothing aside from the costume it’s wearing to distinguish it.

It’s off to me that the full blurb bothers mentioning the two children, as they, and his wife, are at best peripheral. To be fair, the novel is part of a series, so the mentions of characters as though I should care about them, when nothing in this book has created any feelings for them, could be an explanation for an assumption that cursory references suffice.

Reading it as a standalone, though, I’m not engaged enough with the characters to want to spend anymore time with them than this one book. Perhaps I would feel differently if I started at the beginning, but it’s too late for that now. This is the kind of trip down memory lane that makes the past seem tedious.

Criticism, writing, and readers

an aside to writers in honor of NaNoWriMo

I was talking to my son about a piece I wrote because I wanted feedback about what I was getting across with the meaning of a piece. In the conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts that I wish I’d head in the 90s when I was first teaching writing. Granted, it wasn’t creative writing, but some of the same principles underlie all good writing.

Let me give you a little background. My son is a visual artist. The short version is that he didn’t opt for art school for multiple reasons, and one of them he is thankful for is that he doesn’t have to make art to make a living. He is passionate about art for Art’s sake.

I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

So in that context, he gave me a response about the writing piece which I suspected about this first draft: it was kind of all over the place. “I can’t tell if your article is an Allegory for white flight, racism in America, or someone earnestly trying to bring awareness about birds in SA.”

After a little discussion about the content of that statement, I asked, “ Do you think it’s worth pursuing as is?”

For me, that was a question about technique. I wanted to know if what I’d done could conceivably achieve the effect I desired. I think the question, if posed to a visual artist, would be “Do you think this drawing that you can’t tell is a bird or a cat can be worked on so that it looks like a cat, or is it too far gone and I should just get a new piece of paper?”

He took the question as “Is it worth drawing a cat?” and went on to make valuable points about not getting tied up “in the get,” as my daughter would say:

“I would just set the expectation that this is for you, and maybe other ppl will like it or not, but it should be about your expression first and foremost.”

On the other hand, there is technique.

I agree with that statement. I believe that in creative writing, you shouldn’t make art just for others. If you get too tied up in the salability or popularity of the book, you’ll end up strangling the work.

On the other hand, there is technique. In visual art, it’s a  little easier to separate the output from the technique (or maybe is just my ignorance that makes me think so). I hadn’t thought of it that way, though, until this discussion.

My response was this: “Yes and no. Because writing is about communicating with others, clarity about what the writing is is a matter of technique, so getting feedback is made akin to asking how to mix the color you want (or what choices you might have according to color theory). It’s a tricky line in writing, i think, trying to separate technique from substance.”

I realized that not separating technique from substance is part of the problem with getting criticism, whether constructive or not, on something you’ve written, whether it’s in the editing stage out of the final product, as in a book review.

In art, sometimes you hear people speak in terms  of craft (as well as it being an arbitrary distinction between arts and crafts, but I’ll pass on that digression). Craft refers to how clean and finished it is,  how much you can tell that a maker has figured out how to use the materials. If you’re not versed in the craft, it can be very hard to tell when a piece is lumpy because they didn’t know what they were doing or that they’re making a point about lumpiness. You just know whether you like it or not.

I believe I try to sort out substance from technique by trying to say upfront what I don’t like about a book that is a matter of taste: I don’t like peanut butter or horror. Not a judgement on the validity of someone making or eating the one or writing out reading the other. Just me.

The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

But since it’s hard to separate what you’re trying to say with how you say it, sometimes both the reviewer and the writer make errors in the how when trying to get to the what. The question isn’t, fundamentally, did the reviewer like it, but did the piece have the effect I wanted.

So, say, for example, that you want to leave people with an ending that is ambiguous, letting them fill in the blanks. For me, what I’m about to say could be a spoiler, but I’m a little overboard on my definition, which will be the subject of another post.

A great example of ambiguous endings is Washington Black by Esi Edugan. It’s won all kinds of awards, and is an excellent piece of writing. It’s a little risky to end the book the way she did because of the way endings can change how we feel about the entire book, but that was the choice she made.

I hated the ending, and it did affect how I felt about the book as a whole, which I was enjoying immensely until it ended. I felt like it just stopped and there was no resolution, and, dadgummit, I wanted to know what happened to this character I’d come to love.

Which brings us to the problem specific to reviews, a problem endemic to our society that begins in kindergarten: grading or rating.

We have been graded our whole lives, so we think we know what grades mean. Grades are easy. They don’t require us to think critically, and we can quickly review many choices to find what we want. It’s a symptom of both abundance and mass production. We have so many choices because things are mass produced, but to mass produce, you must have uniformity, requiring grading and sorting of things that aren’t really uniform.

Hence the pressure in reviews to rate, whether 5 stars or ten, stars or pickles. As a writer, it is tempting to see that as a comment on substance rather than technique, when it could be either.

In the case of Washington Black, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which was kind of meaningless, because it was a compromise between what I thought about her technique (5) and whether I’d recommend it to someone (debatable, but maybe a 1, because the ending pissed me off because it wasn’t how I wanted it to end).

So if Edugan cared what I thought, she’d read the review to see why I rated it like that. But because I rated it in the middle, splitting the difference between my rating of her mastery of the craft with the rating of whether I’d recommend it, it would be lost in the averages. If, hypothetically, she was trying to get feedback on the effect she was having in the exercise of that craft, then a one-star review would have been more useful for her, as that flags it as something someone felt passionate enough to rate it that way.

Book reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

Frankly, I didn’t want to give it a one because Black writers have more barriers to get thorough to have their work read, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Edugan is a fabulous writer and deserves to be read. It was just a case of me not liking the aftertaste.

So when reading a particular review about your own writing, you should ask yourself whether the criticism addresses what you’re trying to achieve. Does this reviewer think it’s a bird when it’s supposed to be a cat? Or does the reviewer want it to be a bird because he doesn’t like cats? Those are important distinctions, and not always easy to sort out.

Of course, if you’re trying to make them wonder if it’sa bird or a cat, then, again, congratulations, you’ve done it. But this analogy is assuming you want them to talk the difference.

As a reader, one rating can’t tell you whether a book is worth reading; you have to read the substance of the review to see if you, as a cat-lover, would agree with the reviewer who dislikes a book because it’s not a bird.

However, an aggregate rating is more informative. If a hundred people have rated a book, and it’s got less than a three-star rating, maybe it’s because the craft hasn’t been mastered—or it may just not have found the right readers yet. If a thousand people have rated a book that low, it’s becoming more likely that it’s a matter of craft rather than substance unless it’s trying to make a point about lumpiness that only a small number of people will get.

Or if it’s particularly controversial, but that tends to be clear at the outset, and relatively fewer people will read a book they know they won’t like, although trolling is definitely a thing. For the most part, though, a book had to have reached enough readers who liked it to gain the attention of trolls, so for a newer or more obscure book, it’s less likely to be an issue. But for bots. Okay, I’ll stop looking for exceptions.

So the point here is that reviews, like any feedback, are useful to the degree that they succeed in telling you something about how a reader experiences the book. Book reviews are supposed to be for other readers, not for the writer, so the thrust is why I did or did not like the book, regardless of whether it is technique or substance.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

That’s why my review process is an attempt to separate the two. If I think it’s an issue of insufficient attention or mastery of the craft, it ends up in the “Not ready for primetime” summary reviews. Full reviews assume that the book is competently written and are focused more on matters of taste, just as the Big 5 won’t publish a book if the author hasn’t adequately mastered craft.

For me, that’s part of raising the status of indie authors and publishers: trying to spotlight what’s good quality writing regardless of whether I like what someone is writing about.

For another point of view, see this awesome post by Ryan Howse, Books Are Awesome. A short quote from his article: “Books need to be judged on what they are attempting to do, not on a predetermined checklist.”