Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

09 December 2019

The Book Review Jungle


Years ago, publishers sent out about 6000 advanced reading copies (ARC) two or three months before a book's release. Those copies went to the reviewers at newspapers and magazines, and some radio or TV stations that promoted books they liked. I remember when I could open the New York Times and read a thoughtful review by the likes of John Updike or another literary icon. Today, authors still review, but not as frequently.
The prevailing wisdom was that good reviews sold books, which was why publishers produced and distributed so many ARCs. But as fewer and fewer publications have reviewers, you're pretty much on your own getting a review, and if you're indie or self-pubbed, good luck. I invite reviews in the back of my book (An idea I borrowed from another writer), but seldom get them.

Kirkus Review, a once-revered arbiter used by libraries to guide their purchasing, now will review your book for a price. They charge $425 for a review that may appear in 9 weeks, and $575 for a review with a 4-6-week turnaround. They seldom if ever star a review anymore, even for a well-known author, and your review may be buried by hundreds of others with no ranking. They don't guarantee a positive review, either (If they did, I wouldn't even mention them because they would be promoters, not reviewers). For that money, you might have better luck with a blind date through a hook-up site.

Michael Sauret (Google him and his article) discusses his fate with Kirkus and lists other alternatives. Some charge $125 for an 8-10-week return, and some go higher. Some are free, but I've never heard of them. The point is, you may not get what you think you're paying for.

The literary equivalent of Gresham's law has taken over, and bad reviewing has driven out the good. If you don't believe it, look at Amazon or Goodreads. People give a one-star review--sometimes without reading the book--and the entire review is something like "It was stupid/boring/dumb/wrong. I didn't like it."

Even a five-star review might have only a few sentences, and they may use buzzwords, too. "Thrilling, clever, couldn't put it down" seem to say it all.

Those aren't reviews. They're either a puff piece or a drive-by. A few years ago, a Publisher's Weekly article explained at great length why most Amazon reviews were useless. Nothing has changed. I used to review there, but after a couple of ugly clashes with trolls, I removed about 80 reviews from the site and now seldom read a review there for any reason except morbid curiosity.

I do occasionally review for an online site, though, and it reminds me that writing a serious positive review is much easier than writing a bad one. A good review almost writes itself. I give a brief plot overview that shows how well the story works, discuss the major characters to prove they're well-drawn, and mention a few details that make the book either unique or a good representative of its genre. My standard review is between 600 and 800 words.

Bad reviews...wow. Writing a review should be like teaching. Anyone can bash a kid's paper and give him a low grade. But if you're really a teacher, you have to show him WHY something is a weakness or bad choice. Then you have to show him how to make it better. That's hard. And it's why most reviews I read fail.



I have only written three or four very negative reviews over the last two years, and I remember all those books clearly. Why? Because I can write a glowing review after reading a book once, but I always read a book two or even three times before going low. I need to be sure I didn't misread or skip over an important point before I call a writer to task. Sometimes, I find that I did miss something, and it changes my outlook. If I don't find it, I've now read the book two or three times and I'm ticked off about wasting all that extra time.

If you read one of my negative reviews, it should be like the notes I wrote to students back in my classroom. This is what I see you did, this is why I think it's a bad choice, and this is how you can make it better. It's not an exact science, but praise is easy and seldom challenged, while criticism demands proof. It's like a courtroom.

Recently, I did a Highland fling all over a book, and one of my concerns was that it introduced a deus ex machina three pages from the end...which would lead to another book as a sequel. It was a cheat, but I couldn't reveal what it was because it would be a spoiler. Sometimes, you have to find a way around that, too. That review ran to nearly 1200 words because I needed to justify my disenchantment.

Do reviews really help anymore? I don't know. I don't think any of my books has more than four or five reviews, but they're mostly positive (Before writing this, I noticed that one negative review of my last book has actually been removed). Maybe they help, maybe they don't. In a good month, my royalties will fill my gas tank, so who knows.

I suspect that my bad review won't hurt the perennial  bestseller. If it does, maybe the RNC will buy thousands of copies to keep the book on the New York Times bestseller list anyway.


Me with one of my former students and her daughter at a workshop. Time flies quickly.

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  


In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?



Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.

18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie


For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues


Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?

06 November 2016

The Accountant


Suspend disbelief. Suspend disbelief… Feel sleepy, very sleepy… Count backward from zero, suspend disbelief, accountancy is not boring…

A couple of weeks ago when I found myself at loose ends, my friend Geri and I went to see The Accountant. We… were… surprisingly impressed.

A mere 50% of film critics gave it a thumbs-up, but (IMDB IMHO) audiences got it right– 85% liked it, giving it an A on an A+—F scale. Why the huge gap? Most of the critics couldn’t buy the concept of an autistic, kick-boxing/kick-ass accountant. The film– trust me in this– makes the premise painless.

The Accountant contains a surprisingly intelligent plot for a film surfeited with low-brow violent action. This is not a movie for children although one critic suggested it gives autistic kids their own superhero. Think Bruce Wayne gone totally bats. Or Bruce Willis… either works.

The superhero feel might not be a fluke. It appears Warner Bros may have worked out a deal with DC comics. See animated prequel below.

One Ben Affleck scene might flip stomachs, a scene that features the protagonist in his own bedroom fighting his demons. As a couple of characters discuss, it’s impossible to argue the story doesn’t glorify violence. The saving grace is the Accountant’s moral code.

A Puzzling Error


A couple of times in the screenplay the question arises, “Do you like puzzles?”

Me personally, yes, as readers might recall from past columns. One scene in the film raised a flag, although I didn’t tumble to the reason until I later replayed it in my mind. It dawned on me that the dialogue included a classic puzzle. Surprisingly for a movie about math, they got it wrong. I won’t give away the error, but listen carefully when the Accountant mentions he’d lived in 34 locations in 17 years.

The Prequel

23 January 2016

Star Ratings and what they Mean (in which we get serious for a short while...)


When my first novel was published, my mentor told me: “Don’t look at your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  Particularly Goodreads.  No, really.  Don’t.  If your book continues to sell, then you know it is good.  If your publisher buys your next book, then you know it is good.  Don’t  torture yourself by reading the criticism of non-writers.”

I found it next to impossible to follow his advice.  The lure of reviews on your work is pretty strong.

It took ten books – all published by traditional publishers – before I really felt I had a handle on ‘the dreaded review star rating.’  Here’s my list. (My opinion only, everyone. You may have a different interpretation.)

Anatomy of Star ratings

Five stars:  Just one word: Joy!
Bless them, every one.  A million thanks to reviewers who take the time to tell you they loved your book.

Four stars:  Okay, they really liked it. Maybe even loved it.  But even if they loved it, some people  reserve five stars for their very favourite authors, and the masters, like Jane Austen.  And literary writers.  A genre novel is...well…a genre novel.  Not quite as worthy (in some eyes).  But they really enjoyed it.

Three stars:  These are the ones that make me sad.  A reader is telling me that the book was okay.  I want them to think it was great!  Sometimes, this can be a reader who loved your books in another genre, and decided to try this book that is in a different genre, one they don’t normally read.  Often, they will give you that clue in the review (“I don’t normally read scifi”). 

For instance, I have enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series very much.  Recently, I tried one of her romantic comedies (classified under the Romance genre.)  I am not a romance reader, and not surprisingly, I found this book lacking in the type of fast-paced plot I enjoy.  I would probably give it a 3 rating, where no doubt a seasoned romance reader would give it a 4 or 5.

Two stars:  These are often people who wandered into your book by mistake.  They thought it sounded interesting, so they bought it thinking it was one thing, and it wasn’t.  They’re mad at having spent money on something that isn’t their thing.  It’s not a happy event when you get these, but understand that these people aren’t your market.

One star:  These are simply people who enjoy hurting others.  Ignore them.  I do.

Here’s my advice, if you find that reviews haunt you, and keep you from writing:

1.  Stop reading them.  Really.  

2.  Never comment on a review.  Never.

3.   If you can, employ a personal assistant to read your reviews as they come in, and forward you the good ones only.  (This is my dream.  One day.)

One more thing: When you give away a book for free, there is a downside: you often get people picking it up who wouldn't normally spend money on that type of book.  Not surprisingly, they might not like it, as they are not your market.  Always expect some poor reviews, if you give a book away.  There are still many good reasons to do so.  Just be prepared.

Just out!
Book 4 in the award-winning Goddaughter screwball mob caper series ("Hilarious" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

The Goddaughter Caper
Available pretty much everywhere, but here's the link to Amazon

23 May 2015

Worst Typos Ever - Take 2!



It happened again, and this time it was my fault.

You know how it happens.  Spellchecker has an evil twin that changes your word by one letter, and you don’t notice it until it goes to print.  

Public becomes Pubic.  Corporate Assets becomes Corporate Asses.  The Provincial Health Minister becomes Provincial Health Monster.  We’ve all been there.

Readers may recall that last year, I wasn’t too happy when the virtual blog tour company paid by my publisher changed the title Rowena and the Dark Lord to Rowena and the Dark Lard.  Sales were not stellar.  However, the hilarity that ensued was probably worth the typo.  Seems there were all sorts of people willing to suggest alternative plot lines for a book about Dark Lard.  Many were a mite more entertaining than the original concept (she said ruefully.)

Here’s a small sample:
Protagonist moves back to Land’s End and opens up a bakery.

Protagonist and love interest return to Land’s End and become pig farmers.

Protagonist messes up another spell that causes all who look at her to turn into donuts.

It’s enough to make a grown writer cry.

Well, this time I did it to myself.

REALLY not cool to request a formal industry review for a book and misspell the title.

No matter how it reads, "Cod Name: Gypsy Moth" is not a tale <sic> about an undercover fish running a bar off the coast of Newfoundland...

That wasn’t enough.  People were quick to respond with suggested plot lines on Facebook.  Other authors (22 in fact) had to wade in <sic>.

he'd have to scale back his expectations - a bar like that would be underwater in no time.

and here's me waiting with 'baited' breath

Readers will dive right into that

That's a whale of a tale

that book will really "hook" a reader

Smells pretty fishy to me

definitely the wrong plaice at the wrong time.

We're really floundering here; no trout about it.

Okay!  In the interest of sane people everywhere, I’ll stop on that last one. 

The real name of the book? 
CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
“Comedy and Space Opera – a blast to read” (former editor Distant Suns magazine)
“a worthy tribute to Douglas Adams”  (prepub review)

It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier...especially when you’re also a spy!
Nell Romana loves two things: the Blue Angel Bar, and Dalamar, a notorious modern-day knight for hire.  Too bad he doesn't know she is actually an undercover agent. 

The bar is a magnet for all sorts of thirsty frontier types, and some of them don’t have civilized manners. That’s no problem for Dalamar, who is built like a warlord and keeps everyone in line. But when Dal is called away on a routine job, Nell uncovers a rebel plot to overthrow the Federation.  She has to act fast and alone.

Then the worst happens.  Her cover is blown …

Buy link AMAZON
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14 February 2015

The Charmed Life of a Book Reviewer


by Steve Steinbock

When Melodie Campbell asked me to fill in , I was delighted. Earlier in the week I settled on the idea of writing a column to three men, all whom I met at my first Bouchercon in 1994, all who were greats in the Mystery world, and all who died before their time.

The article was long, serious, and three-quarters written. I still hope to use, maybe in a future visit to Sleuthsayers. But it was too somber for a fill-in for Melodie. I know can't be as funny as Melodie Campbell, but I don't want to write something that will make people (me especially) cry.

This is my son threatening me with a shovel if I don't
put away my phone. And yes, my house really is pink. 
This is my last winter in Maine. This summer I will migrate West returning to my roots. I'll miss Maine, but I won't miss it's winters. The last two have been brutal. I've only made a dent in cleaning away the snow from last storm, and another one is threatening to drop 18 to 24 more inches this weekend. I'm listening now to the plop-plop of water dripping into a bucket in my hallway from a hole in the roof. On Wednesday my son and I got up on the roof with shovels, a hatchet, and a blow-torch to try to remove enough ice to allow for the melted snow to flow down the shingles rather than be trapped beneath them. We obviously didn't do enough.

This analogy might be a stretch, but snow is a bit like books. It's lovely when it arrives. But when it piles up so high you can't see past it, it's easy to get buried under it. I do love books. Don't get me wrong. But like ice cream, more than a gallon in one sitting will give you a belly ache.

I receive about thirty books a week. That's ten dozen each month. I have a process for dealing with them, and sometimes it works. The packages arrive at my doorstep, dropped off by an annoyed postman. I bring them in and set them on the kitchen counter. I let them thaw there for a few hours before opening.

Opening packages of books can be risky. The other day my son offered to help. He picked up a padded envelope and started to open it. "Careful," I said. "That one is filled with dryer lint." He sneered at me like I was making a dumb joke. "No, really," I said. He opening it anyway, and was surprised to learn how environmentally safe packaging can be harmful to the environment. You know the kind of package I'm talking about. There's a layer of soft paper material, really the consistency of dryer lint but a lot dustier. The envelopes have a pull tab on the side, but they never work, and there is virtually no way of opening the thing without getting clumps of thick, gray dust all over your clothes, your floor, and the book itself. (I often have to take the book outside and spray the pages with canned air to get the stuff off. Environmentally friendly?)

Yesterday another of those envelopes arrived. This time, the assistant in the publisher's publicity department was thoughtful enough to cover the envelope with packaging tape, covering everything including the red pull-tab. Now it was impossible to get the damn thing open without using a hatchet and blow torch, and then a shovel to deal with all the dryer lint that eventually came out. On top of that, I got two serious paper cuts getting it open, and am now typing with two bandaged fingers.

Once the books are out of the package, I carry them to my office where, in a perfect world, I would put them on a bookcase devoted to review books. At the moment, that bookcase is full, and three teetering towers of books are lined up beside it. Before it reaches this point, I'm supposed to go through the shelves and wean out the books that I'm never likely to get to, including the dozen or so that I really wanted to read but are now over a year old. Those books go in a box that eventually I will take to a hospital or library, or hand out as party favors. I have three full boxes of these right now, which is pretty good.

When I pick the books to review, they go on a separate shelf beside my desk. I cover twelve books in my Jury Box column for each issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

There are a variety of reasons why I select the books I do. When a new title by Christopher Fowler or Alan Bradley arrives, it goes instantly on that shelf. I might choose a book because something about the title or the cover grabs my attention. Sometimes when I look at all the review books on my bookcase, a cluster of titles with a certain theme will jump out - historical mysteries, international mysteries, paranormal mysteries, etc. - and this will be the basis of a monthly column. I recently did one on mysteries featuring magicians, and each year for our February "Sherlock Holmes" issue, I collect all the titles with Sherlockian themes. Sometimes a book will come to my attention because of a note from a publicist or the author, or because I just met the author at a conference. Often, the books just jump off the shelf on their own accord and demand to be read.

I love what I do, despite the pileups, paper-cuts, and dryer lint. Without sounding too kitschy, it is a charmed life. I've been lucky every step of my career as a reviewer. The opportunities have always presented themselves at just the right moment. Maybe in some future visit to SleuthSayers, I'll tell my story of how I got into reviewing and eventually found myself as the book critic for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

But for now, I have more snow to shovel.

04 June 2014

The Harshest Critics


by Robert Lopresti

Even writers with a home on the range occasionally hear a discouraging word.  Besides the rejection slips and the bad reviews (if you are lucky enough to get reviewed) there are the kind and smiling souls who ask "Do you write under your own name (because I have never heard of you)?"

There may be some comfort in knowing that even the giants occasionally drink from the sour end of the punch bowl.  Here are a few genuine comments about the works of major authors, remarks which somehow never wound up as blurbs on their books.  I will list the names of the critics in the comments.





"Fit only for incineration."



Star Trap



"As a plot, it's absolutely hopeless."



"A piece of tripe."
Double Indemnity
Lost Gallows

"Pretty poor stuff."




"No action, no likable characters, no anything."
high window
X esquire



"An appallingly bad book."




"That rotten book."
big four
spy who loved me


"The experiment has obviously gone very much awry."




"I don't like any part
of the Goddam thing."
Lame Canary
retreat from oblivion


"It was nothing, and the same applies to most of the sixteen others since then."








"Just a naked grab for money"

Grisham Firm
filmi filmi inspector ghote



"Too Crude."





"This one doesn't satisfy me by a long shot."
galton case
Jugger


"A terrible book."








"Terribly bad."

detling murders

16 October 2013

Summer Book Review


Yes, I know summer has passed.  But I have been meaning to write about these three mystery novels I read over the summer and I have finally had a chance to do so.  You can give me a low grade if you want.  But all three books are worth reading, and each gives me something to complain about, which I find in late middle age is a very important opportunity.

A Corpse's Nightmare, by Phillip DePoy.  Worldwide Mystery, 2011

My first encounter with DePoy was earlier this year when he wrote a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, about Fever Develin, a professor of folklore, laid off from the university and now living in his old family home, deep in the hills of Appalachia.

The professor is the titular corpse in this novel.  (And isn't Fever Develin a lovely name, by the way?)   On the first page we are told that "On the 3rd of December, just before midnight, a total stranger came into my home and shot me as I slept in my bed.  I died before the emergency mdeical team could find their way to my house."

As you might suspect, he doesn't stay dead, thanks to a highly-motivated medical practitioner.  But throughout the book people keep referring to his killing and the murderer, which he finds extremely creepy.  And he has a lot of trouble telling his coma-induced dreams from his somewhat surreal surroundings.

Because there are a lot of eccentrics in the vicinity of Blue Mountain, and some of them are members of his family.  It becomes clear that the attack has something to do with the past and his peculiar collection of relatives.  I especially enjoyed the academic discussions between Fever and fellow professor Winston Andrews, which often seems to be no more than a way of coping with tension.  I know people like that.

My complaint about this one?  DePoy dances on a tightrope here -- is Fever really remembering things from his childhood or is there something supernatural going on?  -- and for the most time he does it well, but at the end he tips too far toward the woo woo side, in my opinion, providing one of those "ooh spooky" situations I strongly disapprove of. 

("Ooh spooky" defined: A story has a possible supernatural element which is cleared up with a materialistic explanation.  Then at the very end a superfluous bit of ghostiness is dragged in for effect.  To make up an example: "But wait, the killer said he only lit the lamp twice and we saw it three times.  There must have been a real ghost!  Ooh, spooky!"  For some reason, TV movies are particularly susceptible to this.)


Spy's Fate, by Arnaldo Correa.  Akashic Press, 2002  

The Soviet Union has just collapsed, taking away Cuba's biggest trade partner and source of foreign aid.  The Cuban economy has gone to hell, resulting in the nation's spy apparatus pulling back its revolutionaries from Africa and Latin America, and the government tacitly permitting many people to flee to the United States in any boat or raft they can find.

Carlos Manuel is one of those spies suddenly in from the cold,  and not getting a warm reception at home.  His wife committed suicide some time before and his grown children want nothing to do with him.  But when he hears that his kids are heading toward America -- and straight into a storm -- he risks everything to save them.

And finds himself in the U.S., very much on the run.  The CIA knows a major Cuban spy is in the US but has no idea what his mission is (in fact, he just wants to get home).   Making it worse, the head of the CIA's Cuban desk is a man Carlos brutally maimed a decade ago in Central America, and he will stop at nothing to get revenge. 

My complaints?  Threefold.  First, you have to accept a Cuban spy who has spent decades training guerillas as your hero.  Some of us may have a hard time with that.  Second, with one exception everyone in the Cuban spy agency is so nice to each other.  I find that hard to believe about any intelligence agency.  And finally, let's admit it, Carlos is a Mary Sue.  He can beat up an armed man much bigger than he is, speak unaccented English, paint sellable landscapes, and learn to scuba dive in a few days.  What's Spanish for sheesh?


The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters, Morrow, 2002. 

We lost Ms. Peters this year, and I am still working my way through her wonderful series about Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  They are not for everyone, I am sure.  I expect some people would find them fey and unbearably slow-moving.  (It can take a hundred pages for her to set up her plot and get the first corpse in place.)  But to me this comes off as the confidence of a master.

When this story starts it is 1917 and Peabody and her remarkable family have decided to stay in Egypt for the duration of the war, because U-boats have made travel too dangerous.  They would rather do nothing but dig at a promising ruin, but the British intelligence service is again trying to coax her son Ramses back into harness, and this time they have a remarkable bit of bait: Sethos, the family's foremost frenemy (say that three times fast) is either a prisoner behind enemy lines, or has turned traitor.  If Ramses can't get Sethos out, someone will be sent to kill him. 

And so we have two unrelated mysteries going on here: one archaeological, and one espionage-ical.  Okay, that isn't a word, but which word works? 

When Peters started to write this series I wonder if she noticed the trap she was setting for herself.  Namely: Amelia's husband Emerson is supposedly the greatest Egyptologist in history, but she doesn't want to credit him with true great finds, stealing them from genuine archaeologists (some of whom appear as characters in the novels).  She deals with this, in part, by making Emerson so egotistical, stubborn, and short-tempered that he offends everyone who could give him permission to get near the great tombs.  In this particular book, she finds a different way to frustrate him.

But that is not my complaint.  Here it is.  Like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain my problem with her is that, as much as I enjoy her books, a month later I can't remember what happened in any of them.  Or more precisely, what happened in which.  Does anyone else feel that way?

Okay, that completes my book report.  Don't grade too harshly.

10 December 2012

Worse than Rejection


Sleuth Sayers have addressed the subject of rejection several times in the past.  It’s painful, and even the most successful authors have been (and are) rejected (and dejected) at times during their writing careers. 

Personally, I’ve been blessed with a fairly easy road to publication.  I began submitting magazine features while still in my teens, and most of them were accepted.  The ones that weren’t brought encouraging letters rather than form dismissals.  When I completed the first Callie Parrish mystery, I found an excellent New York agent who was able to place that book with the Berkley division of Penguin in a great deal with an advance and contract for two additional books, but I’ve recently begun writing and submitting an occasional short story.  Rejection HURTS!

             Rejection has been dealt with very well in SS, however, so today I’ll focus on an issue that’s just as excruciating at times—reviews.  My present publisher for the Callie books is wonderful, and the publisher of my pen-name efforts is almost as accommodating, but neither can protect me from that curse of the Internet—the occasional bad review.

Most of Callie’s reviews are and have been positive. She’s a little extreme, her vocation is unusual, and her friend Jane is atypical.  What this means is that most readers either like her or hate her and thankfully, those who hate her don’t usually bother to post reviews, but some do.  When I read the reviews from those who love Callie, I want to seek them out and give them all great big hugs.  When I’m interviewed on radio or television and the interrogators obviously like Callie, I want to take them home and cook them a fine southern dinner (and then hug them).

Recently, I Googled myself and read reviews going back to the first Callie in 2007.  Most of them made me think warm, fuzzy thoughts.  Those who bad-mouthed me, my writing, or my characters, did, however, create in me a strong urge for reaction. If the criticism was constructive, it made me consider changes. If not, it made me want to respond.  I don’t want to harm them, but I feel compelled to ANSWER them!

Prior to suggesting how to handle that feeling, I want to share two negative reviews with you as well as what I would say if I were foolish enough to try to answer them,

My favorite (or should I say least favorite?) bad review of all time:

I don’t read books about or by stupid, uneducated people. 

My response to that is, “Are you insulting the University of South Carolina where Callie received her BA in Education or me personally or the universities where I earned two Master’s degrees?”  Then I read the next part. 

I hated the first book, and I didn’t like the second one either (Hey Diddle, Diddle, the
Corpse & the Fiddle.) 

My reaction:  “If you hated the first one, why did you buy and/or read the second in the
 series?  If ‘stupid’ were a word I used, I’d say it describes those actions.”
The Reviewer


            My next least favorite review is over a page long and compares the Callie being reviewed to the second and third books in this series.  Actually, at that time, the new one was the third. (Gross error tends to discredit opinions.) It continues by saying that Jane feels entitled because she’s short, blonde and blind.  Jane is taller than Callie (5’4”) and a natural red head.  The only thing right in that sentence is that Jane is blind.  Callie talks too much. Callie books are first-person narrative.  If she doesn’t talk, there’s no book.  Same review says there are too many men in the series—Daddy, MANY brothers, TWO male bosses, and a former BF who is a Dr. @ the ER.  My response to that is to remind the reviewer that he/she (can’t tell from the initials) left out the sheriff, who is also male. Of course, the review mentions Callie’s use of “puh-leeze” and “ex-cuuze.”  I admit that was overdone in the first books, but I’ve toned it down recently. What I object to is that the reviewer accuses Callie of saying “looooooooooooooove” and a few other words that aren't stretched out in any Callie stories.

This same reviewer dislikes Callie barfing when she's frightened, then calls Callie a nauseating Southern belle.  The review closes with Get rid of Jane and the other problems in these books, and I might/could read another Callie Parrish mystery. 

How do I deal with a review like that?  Do I even want this person to read another Callie Parrish mystery?  I remember that I'm a professional and a lady.  I imagine myself purchasing  expensive linen stationery and responding through the mail in my finest cursive handwriting.  I've gone to great effort to locate the perfect clipart of that reply and you are welcomed to mentally mail this to anyone who deserves it.  Do remember that the message on this clip is directed ONLY to the above reviewer and not to other reviewers nor to SleuthSayer writers or readers.  Please scroll down to see that perfect clip.

Keep scrolling.

Keep scrolling.

Just a little more.

'Don't give up.

Keep scrolling.

Here it is: