August 9th, 2012

A Few More Remarks about Book Reviews

Back in January, GoodReads, the social networking site for book reviews, popped up in Publishers Weekly and The Guardian because of controversy between a few badly behaved authors and agents and bloggers who were prepared to post negative reviews when they didn’t like a book and on books written by people they believed were trying to game the reviews (through sock puppets who posted positive reviews on their own books and/or negative reviews on the competition’s books). The conflict has not fully been resolved and flared up again recently (here and here). Chris Meadows has a summary of VacuousMinx’s thoughtful posts on the topic, which include discussion of GR’s response to the controversy.

Controversy between authors and their critics (and the associates of each) is not new. Pseudonymity and anonymity in acrimonious literary debate is not new. It’s easy to forget that, since the most recent, pre-Internet incarnation of the author-critic duel happened on television, radio or in the letter columns of periodicals, all of which had intermediaries that really liked the eyeballs that came with controversy, but also had to answer to a large community that wanted to limit trouble. The Internet has brought us back to the era of broadsides, when all you had to do was pay a printer to get your screed out there, and if you were careful, the printer would never be able to figure out who you were and likely didn’t much care.

Online communities are heading in the direction of more rules and guidelines and more consistent moderation. Because the precipitating event is typically someone saying, hey, this book sucks (or, possibly, this author’s behavior sucks; they are writing positive reviews of their own book or otherwise monkeying with its numerical ranking and/or writing negative reviews of the competition and monkeying with their numerical ranking), it is tempting to try to limit negative reviews. The negative review, however, is not what leads to the kind of controversy GR has been experiencing. The controversy happens when authors and others with a financial interest respond.

That’s natural, but natural is not the same as good. Authors and others with an interest in moving product need to take a gigantic step back and recognize when what they are doing is counterproductive to their interests; if they put on their reader hat (and they’d better have a reader hat or what are they doing in this business?), it should be completely clear where they have erred. (1) Customers don’t like being screwed with. (2) Customers who buy books don’t necessarily intend to read those books (all the way through), much less “like” them. People do all kinds of things with books (collect, sample, snark, share them with other people, use as reference, etc.); they just need help finding the right books for their purpose.

I used to buy books to help me find particular kinds of books. While my favorite was probably Baird Searles’ _Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction_, _Genreflecting_ has since metastasized into a genre of its own. People were using all kinds of math in recommendations engines before existed; I’d tried out at least two by the mid 1990s. I used to be a regular participant on rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.written. I’ve always talked to friends about books, read book reviews, kept track of authors, publishers and imprints -- occasionally even editors. I book blog and have friends who book blog. I have a variety of interests and buy non-fiction in support of them. I’m a regular participant in a book group. I’m presumably at least as good as anyone else at finding and consuming books I like.

I suck at it. Graded on a straight percentage (90% = A, 80% = B, etc.), I’m probably running a low-end C, and I’m giving myself points for effort and for showing my work.

I love books. I sometimes read three a day. I don’t think I’ve read fewer than 50 books in a year since I learned to read. I have detailed techniques for assessing, in advance of linearly reading a book start to finish, what to expect from the book. I read spoiler reviews. I read the end of the book first. I sample extensively when trying a new author. I’m prepared to put a book down -- maybe forever -- if it just isn’t what I expected. I’ve negatively reviewed a book without finishing it, for unreadability, bias or inaccuracy, or failing to be as represented.

It may be that my bar to “like” a book is unusually high. It may be that I consume so many books that even really good search-and-assess criteria will let a lot of clunkers through. I read a lot of books expecting the literary equivalent of choosing a fast food burger over a much better meal that includes something that you know you hate. (This is usually where someone uses brussel sprouts in a metaphor, but I actually like brussel sprouts.) Sometimes I’ll read a book I know I will hate to get some information out of it, or to be able to talk to or better understand people who are excited about it.

I don’t expect other people to know what information I need to make my decisions, just as I don’t expect to know what information will help someone else decide whether or not to read a book. What I want from a review is enough about the reviewer’s perspective and expectations to calibrate their description of their experience. I don’t care about whether you liked it or hated it or went meh: if you do a good enough job of describing the burger that you hated, I can probably figure out if it’s a burger I’m interested in. You might have hated the sauce on that burger, but I’m more interested in whether the sauce had any milk products in it. The seller doesn’t need to know whether I’m asking about milk products because I’m keeping kosher, have a milk allergy or lactose intolerant; if they can’t answer my questions about what’s in that sauce, I may have to pass on the burger.

I’m most likely to buy again from a seller (author, publisher, series, etc.) if I got what I was expecting and had at least a mediocre version of the experience I wanted. If the experience is a surprise, whether it is good is almost irrelevant. It wasn’t what I wanted. If you have to misrepresent your book to convince someone to buy it -- leave out salient factors like whether your novel about women’s intimate relationships has an emotionally satisfying ending, say -- I’m going to conclude you are untrustworthy. If you try to interrupt or prevent customers from communicating to each other what they did with your product and what the resulting experience was, I’m going to become suspicious. If you try to pretend people love your book when they don’t, or otherwise try to game the reviews, I might avoid your work independent of whether I would otherwise buy it if accurately represented, because I’m going to be unable to trust anything associated with, well, you.

I don’t think most of the people who misrepresent their product are scam artists or bad actors, although some clearly are. A few traditionalists are idealistic and contemptuous of things which have commercial success while simultaneously wanting their favorites to enjoy commercial success. They might shade the truth in a product description and then be shocked by the result. Some of the new participants have gotten caught up in an emotional reaction to people not Loving Their Work and lost perspective on what they are actually trying to accomplish, which is to connect with a market that wants to buy their work. Both of these groups risk becoming entrenched in an unwinnable war. Some people trying to game the system may think that’s Just How It’s Done and, like the badminton competitors at the current Olympics, be in for a rude surprise.

Just tell me what you’ve got. I’ll decide whether to give it a go. Anyone who listens to me on the subject after the fact can decide whether to laugh at me or go buy one for themselves. Capitalism will continue to tick along, as will civilization, and small c book culture.

Three Fantasy Novels (kindle)

Normally, I would have entitled this "Three More Trashy Reads". For some reason, I'm feeling more sensitive to the author perspective at the moment, and describing these as fantasy won't kill me. Just to be clear: when I call something a trashy read, it's not intended to be insulting. It's intended to communicate that I'm not reading these because they are great literature, good books, or even because I love or like them. I'm reading them because I want a certain kind of experience. When I eat trashy food, I know what I'm doing. When I read trashy books, I know what I'm doing. I don't see any harm in either one, when used appropriately. Now onto the reviews.

Spoilers, ho! If you arrived via google, and you don't like spoilers, you should RUN RUN RUN RUN in fear. Bye!

_Gunmetal Magic: A Novel in the World of Kate Daniels_, Ilona Andrews

I think the main line of this series is five books in, and "Ilona Andrews", which is a writing team, has branched out into short stories and related tales, of which I am not sure I have read all. This novel is told from the perspective of beastkin Andrea Nash, formerly a member of The Order, when she was still a closeted shapeshifter, and provides the romantic arc which started and fizzled in "Magic Mourns". Andrea is now working with fellow ex-Order member Kate at The Cutting Edge, a private agency which takes on the scut work that the police and the Mercenary Guild won't touch. Included with at least the kindle edition of this book is a short story/novella, "Magic Gifts", which is told from Kate's point of view and describes what Kate is doing while _Gunmetal Magic_ is happening -- some scenes are in both works.

Authors of romance with fantasy elements and fantasy with romantic elements can come from either genre; sometimes the hybrid is really superficial. The Kate Daniels universe is extremely strong on world-building and magic systems and this is entry is no exception. Perhaps because it is a standalone novel (it's not clear whether there will be future Andrea Nash perspective novels, but I'd be happy to read them if there were) with the romantic arc almost completely contained within it, perhaps because Nash is more a guns-and-hand-to-hand person than Kate Daniels, who is much more a magic user/mythology nerd, this novel is stronger on relationship development than it is on world-building. The world building is still present, but centers more on a secondary character, Roman; perhaps he'll get a novel of his own some day. And the relationship building is _not_ exclusively the romantic relationship between Raphael and Andrea. Andrea's self-development and recovery is front-and-center, as is her growing acceptance of her true self, but that development necessarily involves becoming publicly identified as a shapeshifter, solidifying her position within the Pack, partnering with Raphael, seconding Aunt B, etc. Her acceptance of her new career, and her improved working relationship with Raphael are also touched upon.

Several scenes (notably the purple carpet) made me laugh out loud. It's unusual for a novel not part of the main line in a universe to be this strong. I really enjoyed it.

_Life Cycle_, (Preternaturals Book 4), Zoe Winters

I may need a new rule about not reading Zoe Winters' novels back-to-back. There are some editing issues ("within certain perimeters" where "parameters is meant", "free reign", etc.) There are some telling vs. showing issues. There's a certain repetitiveness to some of the physical descriptions. As long as I read them far enough apart, I notice these things, but shrug and move on. Two back-to-back makes me want to drop the author a line and make some suggestions, which is signing up for way more work than I'm likely to follow through on.

In this entry, Cain, lead sex demon (really? I'm reading books by multiple authors featuring sex demons? I'm afraid to even ask myself why. Please don't try to explain it to me) volunteers to house Tamara, super-ancient witch, to protect her from Jack-the-Ripper (similarly ancient witch and Tamara's former lover). If you've read any Zoe Winters' novels, you know what this means: Cain and Tamara will spar throughout the novel, solve some supernatural problem, have hot sex, and make a commitment to each other/mate by the end of the book. At least that part makes sense to me: I like a romance novel with some predictability, and with enough plot distraction so it's not just navel gazing about one's feelings or descriptions of clothing or whatever.

Paranormal/supernatural fantasy often has a quasi-spiritual or religious aspect to it: characters worry about their soul or continue to worship a Christian god or whatever. But at the same time, these fantasies frequently involve worldbuilding that radically reinvents Christian mythology. It is not often the case, however, that this genre has characters who _go to heaven_. I was wondering how the author was going to handle a male romantic lead that was frequently killing women by feeding on them until they died, or just breaking their necks. I should have expected her to use the reincarnation/heaven is incredibly boring themes that had already been broached. In a way, it's like Heinlein's _Job_ or Branch Cabell's _Jurgen_, only with the main story arc being less about exploration and philosophy and more about getting laid and finding love.

I'll keep reading Zoe Winters, and I hope that if she ever finds someone to help fix some of the problems with her novels, she has the sense to make sure they don't smother her weirdly wonderful ideas and perspective.

_Just Winging It_, Kate Willoughby (Be-Wished, Book Four)

In the first three books, three human women who got drunk on vacation got True Love as their wish. The wish granting fairy was, IIRC, Davina (or at least she was one of the wish granting fairies -- I know other fairies make appearances in those books). This book is the story of Davina finding True Love. Politics in fantasy novels tend to run along species lines; in Willoughby novels, the politics tend to be office-type politics. In this outing, the political themes involve family (Davina's grandmother wants great-grandbabies and Davina is It), disease (Davina's parents were killed by a magic destroying blight and Davina has some fears associated with that) and disability: Laszlo turns out to have such a low level of magic that he was sort of dumped at a special school by his step mother -- which was an improvement over the homeschool isolation that had been his father's previous solution. Laszlo may be "almost human" rather than a fairy, but he saves Davina more than once (in the previous books and in this one). No surprise that when Davina runs away, she'd run to him.

Willoughby has a ton of fun running all the themes that contemporary romance plays with when a rich playboy/playgirl goes slumming with a Normal Person and has to experience the joys of Wal-Mart and fast food, then flipping the experience when the rich person returns to their usual world with the Normal Person in tow, who now has to cope with fabulous wealth and a strong sense of personal irrelevance. As is often the case, the Normal Person (Laszlo) turns out to have a lot to teach the richie rich in practical terms, thus addressing the personal irrelevance issue at least in part, and the rich person discovers it's fun to eat breakfast at McDonald's.

It's hard to describe a Willoughby novel. Whenever I think about their pieces, I'm surprised I don't find them irritating. Davina is flighty, disorganized and obsessed with physical appearance. Laszlo is reluctant to even try to connect with anyone and inclined to act unilaterally. But the characters in Willoughby novels are extremely loving and compassionate (well, the viewpoint characters, anyway), even when they are confused or ignorant or otherwise screwing up. It's a pleasure to be around them.

Also, Willoughby does a great job describing people and places in a detailed way that doesn't bore but does make you feel like you are there.