Why didn’t I review your book?

Why didn’t I review your book?

In a comment to a recent facebook post I made to highlight one of my new reviews, I received the following comment from Bryan Thomas Schmidt, author and anthologist:

“ How come you never review my stuff… I don’t care if you hate it, but please review it.”

This blog post arose out of my thoughts in response to Bryan’s question. The tl;dr answer is: “It’s complicated.” but for those willing to read on, please do so.
Time

“Time is the fire in which we burn” -Soran (Malcolm McDowell) , Star Trek Generations

On a recent SF Signal podcast, I talked with Patrick Hester, Sarah Chorn, Fred Kiesche and Rachel Cordasco about audiobooks. In the course of that conversation, we got to comparing books read total for the year to date, physical and otherwise. Sarah, of course, being a demigoddess of reading, has read the most, somewhere in the 160’s. Fred is similarly high, thanks to listening to a lot of audio fiction. Rachel is looking to read 80 books this year or so. Me, I’m around a hundred at present. I figure to hit ~110 by the end of the year. That’s a lot compared to the average reader, but its really a drop in the bucket compared to the books that come out in a given year.

Even with 110 books in a year, I can’t read everything, and I can’t even read everything I *want* to read when I read it. When a dozen books of interest come out in a month, I’m already behind the eight ball, and falling further behind all the time. I value long driving trips (as I mentioned on the aforementioned podcast) because it lets me eat up audiobooks in a way my day to day situation (short commute, work that doesn’t encourage deep listening) does not. Plus, in addition to reviewing and reading in my free time, I have other interests–photography, roleplaying games, computer games, adventures of all sorts.

MONEY

“What is the answer to 99 out of 100 questions?… Money” – Vanilla Sky

I can’t buy every book I want to own. Its economically impossible in my situation to do so, and I have other interests to pay for, as well as the basics of life. I buy a fair amount of books, but I cannot buy everything I want.

I can hear you now, though. “Don’t you, Mr. Big Reviewer, receive a fuckton of review copies?”

Yes and no. I receive a modest number of review copies. I know reviewers who get 5-10 books in a typical week. Me, I don’t receive a review copy of something every week. A pretty scintillating week can have me receive 3. Some publishers are much tighter with me than others.

“Mr. Big Reviewer, you in particular work for SF Signal. I know they receive a ton of books. So why didn’t you get the book that way?”

SF Signal (hello John. Have a bagel!) is very good to me. John is not independently wealthy, though, so going begging for review copies he has to spend time and money sending to me is somnething I’ve become increasingly loath to do. I have plenty of books to read and it feels like special pleading to ask John for a copy of something unless I really, really, gotta have it. There are some authors I do that for because I will read anything they write. (Hello Kate Elliott! Hi there, Martha Wells! My good friend, (Elizabeth) Bear, you know you’re on *this* list too). But I don’t generally ask John for packages of books much anymore.

So it is entirely possible that I don’t even have a copy of your book, or won’t for quite some time. I am not going to Klausner you and review a book I haven’t read.

INTEREST

“and the kidnapping of a Duke’s son is of interest”–The Count of Monte Cristo

While wide, I have a defined interest in my reading in genre fiction and every other subgenre of fiction and nonfiction for that matter. I’m willing to try new things, but there are things in genre that frankly don’t interest me. Ghosts, for example, are something I have near to zero interest in. I didn’t and don’t even use them much in Dungeons and Dragons games. There are a number of fine writers who I am sympatico with who have written novels with ghosts in them (hi Jaime Lee Moyer!) Sorry, its not to my taste, and I have no interest in reading said books. There are historical eras that really don’t grab my interest, either, if you’re talking history or historical fantasy. Its entirely possible your book falls into the areas of genre fiction I really don’t have much interest in reading.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

“Good. Bad. I’m the one with the Gun” -Ash, Army of Darkness

In writing reviews, I am engaging in writing. It might not be the kind of writing that earns me a Hugo Award nomination (although I am certainly eligible). Its not the kind of writing that pays a single one of my bills, not even for the mocha frappucino at Starbucks yesterday. I do this for the love of doing it, because I like and love doing it.

I don’t review everything I read–because I don’t like everything I read. I have a pretty high hit rate, but I’ve had stretches of books that just did not work for me. You rarely see reviews of these books from me. Reading and reviewing a book I don’t want to read, or reviewing a book I had a tepid or negative reaction can have mixed results at best.

The Willful Child, by Steven Erikson, is a book that I was eager to read, since I love his epic fantasy. My experience,however, was epically negative. It wasn’t just a meh response, it was a near-throw-against-the-wall book. I managed a review of it by treating it humorously (sort of in the vein of Justin Landon, who has (used to) review books negatively with giant dollops of humor.

Less successful is the case of Patricia Burroughs’ This Crumbling Pageant. My reading and review of TCP is a case of what happens when I read a book on request, don’t care for it tremendously, and write a review against my better judgement. In normal circumstances, I would have not reviewed it at all. Pooks begged me to, and I struggled to write a review of a book that fell on the lower end of the “meh” scale for me. It was no fun, I derived no pleasure from it, and I still feel bad about the entire affair. Pooks’ book is not the only one where I’ve felt bad about not liking the book of someone I feel I get along with, either.

It’s the mushy middle, though, that really is the mud of the Agincourt field that traps me, however. Its easy to write a review of something I love. I can manage to do a review of a really negative reading experience if I look at it the right way. But a meh book? Reviewing those are really hard. I have no enthusiasm to just grind out words and not a tremendous incentive to do so. I do want to support authors like Deliah S Dawson, who ask for reviews of everything they write, but if a book doesn’t resonate with me, its a slog and a word mine to come up with an acceptable review.

And that’s why I didn’t review your book.

Update: Rob Bedford talks to Justin Landon about these issues on the newest Rocket Talk Podcast

Book Review: The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson [2005]

Book Review: The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson [2005]

The titular characters in Dumas’ Three Musketeers (and its various sequels and add-ons) were not made up out of whole cloth by the master of swashbuckling adventure, but rather based on real 17th century personages that inhabited the tumultuous word of a France struggling through wars political and religious, dynastic maneuverings, changes in government and outright rebellions and insurrections. So who were they based on? And who was Dumas anyway?

The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos seeks to answer all of these questions and more. Written by Phil Nanson and Kari Maund, the latter under the psuedonym Kari Sperring has written fantasy fiction that has more than a touch of Dumas’ spirit (Living with Ghosts and The Grass King’s Concubine). Maund, as well as Nanson are also professional historians, with a solid background in medieval and renaissance history.

The book looks first at the historical D’Artangan, giving him a whole chapter for the authors to flesh out the real person, and what elements Dumas borrowed to make his fictional creation. The book follows with a chapter looking at the titular three Musketeers (surprisingly, one of them has an extremely thin biography, the invented Dumas character very much invented), a look at the role of Musketeers in 17th century France and a look at the 17th century quasi biography Memoirs de M’ d’Artagnan, the major source of Dumas information and inspiration on Charles d’Artagnan, the basis for Dumas’ hero.

Finally, the book looks at Alexandre Dumas as a writer himself. Did you know, for instance, that a fair portion of his work was written with uncredited collaborators? The book ends with (a slight out of date) look at the afterlife of TheThree Musketeers in various forms of media. The fact that although the book was written in 2005 and already is out of date is a testament to the abiding power of Dumas’ characters and stories.

The major detraction from the book might be a matter of expectations for casual readers. As the authors ARE professional historians with a style and format to match. Readers expecting something like Mark Kurlansky’s popular and populist histories are going to be put off by the painstaking, footnote infused style of the authors. As a protip, those footnotes in The Four Musketeers come fast and furious, and this is a book where the footnotes are as important as the main text in gaining understanding.

The other detraction from the book isn’t a problem within the book itself, but again a reader issue. The book presumes a fair bit of knowledge about 17th century Europe and what was going on in France and its environs (especially the Thirty Years War, and there is an excellent book recommended in the footnotes on the subject). The relative shortness of the book and its laser like focus mean that the authors cannot digress heavily to explain the socio-political situation surrounding the lives of the men who inspired Dumas’ characters.

Even with these caveats, The Four Musketeers shows solid scholarship, research and depth of knowledge of the subject. Anyone at all who wants to know more about the real people who inspired the immortal characters of Dumas would be well served by picking up this book.

“Big Wheels”

Today, for me, these lyrics.

“Big Wheels”–Electric Light Orchestra

I’ve been thinking it over
So many times they say
You got it made
They never understand
The answer lies within your soul
‘Cos no one know which side
The coin will fall.

Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning, turning…

Save it for a rainy day
For when the cold wind blows
Just to see how they run
I thought they’d know
I tried my best, all I could do
But somehow it was not enough for you.

Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning, turning,
Turning, turning…

[CHORUS:]
I remember the dead of night
A lonely light that shines upon the window
I see it all so clear
The tenderness, the silent tears
Out here in the pouring rain
Through cold dark waiting days
I see you standing there
I see the big wheels turning
Never ending, on and on they go.

I think I’m going home
I think I’m gonna have to start again
It’s rather sad
Because I’ve looked around, can’t seem to find
Whatever’s always rolling through my mind

Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning
Baby I know
Big wheels turning, turning
Turning, turning…

The Passion I have for Genre Literature

The Passion I have for Genre Literature is a two edged sword, especially today.

Today, revelations, information and documentation came out regarding a particularly ugly episode in the small, intense hothouse of online genre literature. See Laura Mixon (MJ Locke), here, for starters. There has also been stuff from Athena Andreadis, and Jim C Hines, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear. And more.

Back in the day, back when Requires Hate was at full bore, I was harassed not by her directly, but by people in her coterie. After (what I thought) was an innocuous comment in another venue, they decided to come to my blog (this one in fact) and started commenting randomly on posts, haranguing me. Cyber-bullying, essentially. I know from real bullying to see and know it in an online form.

They eventually gave up doing so and left me in peace.

Compared to some of the stuff in Dixon’s report, however, it was *nothing*.

Some days, like today, I wonder if I shouldn’t give up being a genre voice. Just watch, listen, buy books. Forget podcasting, blogging, reviewing, commenting, tweeting. Go dark. And then I realize that would eviscerate the passion I have for Genre literature in the process. It would make me less of who and what I am (“A Change of Mind”, the Prisoner episode, comes to mind).

But still…being a connected fan in genre is tough. Its a good life if you don’t weaken, as Elizabeth Bear says, but today I feel weak.

Election Day

The first Tuesday in November is Election Day in the United States.

I urge all of my readers who can to exercise the franchise.

Also, for the umpteeth time–I want Election Day as a National Holiday. What good reason is there for Election Day not to be a National Holiday? What possible case is there against it?

Scientific Accuracy in SF Novels–when is it too much or too little?

From a comment on a Jonathan McCalmont blog:

On the subject of science fiction it seems that most reviewers do not consider the science worth paying attention to. Either they cannot recognize when it is bad or do not care. But readers have this problem also.
I have seen two commentators getting the artificial gravity wrong in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky even though they claim to like the story. There was zero G at the center of the ship and pseudo-gravity at the outer edge. 7th and 8th graders should know that.
In Leviathan Wakes the asteroid dodges the starship to avoid impact but there is no explanation of how the zombie mud knew it was coming. Ian Banks never explicitly says the Air Spheres have very low gravity but describes a scene that can only happen in low-G. Some things deserve bad reviews.

The commenter’s position seems to be that the science needs to be paid attention to in genre novels. Fair enough! How far down do you go with that. I am reminded of the Heinlein “butcher paper” story, where he figured out a number for one of his stories after 3 days of equations and calculations. Was that too much? Is there too much?

A writer can spend years down a rabbit hole of fractal detail, though–so when does the writer stop?

To give a basic example: There are four bases of DNA: Cytosine, Thiamine, Guanine and Adenine. Uracil for Thiamine only in RNA, right?

Well, there are viruses where there IS Uracil instead of Thiamine in DNA. Does it bear mentioning in a story with a basic touch on DNA? Do you break a reader if you don’t mention Uracil in connection with certain DNA if its tangentially relevant? If its deeply relevant?

This also applies to any discipline, really, but science fiction, in the name, suggests the science has to be dead on perfect. But given how fractally complex science is, where do you stop in that recursive knowledge or looking for it?

…like a vampire sorceress scorned

It had been 14 days since a caravan had come up the Silk and Steel road. We were running out of salt and powdered griffin bone for the wards, and the Sultana knew it. If nothing changed, her undead forces would soon come over the walls of Jheren. The inhabitants would be slaughtered.

And I? If she was merciful, she would kill me, her former lover. If she wasn’t, she’d subject me to the painful process she had undergone, putting me into a monstrance, and transforming me into something like her, and bound to her.

I hoped for death. But I would not receive it.

Hell hath no fury like a vampire sorceress scorned.

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