Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Let’s bash the ‘airport’ novel

Sir Ken Robinson - Do schools kill creativity?

Do you like backhanded compliments?
Do you like to make basic mistakes and misrepresentations of the entertainment industry?
Well, you’ll love this article by Nick Cohen.

The genius of bad books
By Nick Cohen

From James Bond to Jack Reacher, we’re suckers for an uncomplicated hero. But there is an art to the action novel, writes Nick Cohen

Anyone who believes the human race is rational should try introducing themselves to strangers as an author. You do not need to do it too many times before someone says, “I need to make money. I’m thinking of writing a bestseller.”

I may be early into my author career with only a handful of published short stories under my belt, but that does allow me to brag complain mention that I’m an author. Clearly Nick finds himself in the company of very different people to myself. Sure, the average person has a lot of misconceptions about being an author, just as I’m sure I have misconceptions about what it means to be a politician – they kiss babies to find the tastiest ones for dinner, right?

They do not understand that they have more chance of winning the lottery. Countless millions have written novels no publisher will touch. Of the thousands of hopeful thrillers, rom-coms and sex-and-glamour blockbusters published each year, only a few will sell 50,000 or more. Fifty thousand is only the capacity of fair-sized football stadium, but it is a more than respectable sale for a book. At the top of the pyramid are the genuine blockbusters: the few books that fly off the stands. And if those odds aren’t daunting enough to the person in front of you, clutching a glass and expecting fame and money, you need to tell them best-selling authors must have talent too.

Replace author with literally any other career path. Of the millions of scientists hopeful of winning a Nobel Prize only a few will ever win one. Of the millions of junior footballers only a few will ever be paid to play before a packed crowd in a football stadium. And of course, no Nobel Prize winner, nor any footballer would ever be accused of having talent. I hope no-one paid money for this article to be written.

To the educated, the idea that the airport thrillers I find myself picking up despite my better instincts are written by talented authors is absurd. It is their clumsy writing and formulaic plots that make everyone believe they can knock one out. They are not GK Chesterton’s “good-bad books” – the Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are read and loved after works that are more serious are forgotten. No one reads Alistair MacLean, Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins today. The fate of the airport novel is to be everywhere and then nowhere. Their authors flare and then vanish. I know it, so why do I, like so many others, still put aside worthwhile books for trash? No book sells in millions by chance. Their authors have something that readers cannot find elsewhere, or at the very least struggle to find elsewhere.

I really do take issue with the term airport thrillers and its sister term airport novels. There is an inherent invective in these terms as they are almost always used as a pejorative. The implication is that no-one would read these novels if they weren’t going to be bored out of their minds, stuck at 9,150 metres in a metal tube for endless hours. Whilst the descriptor is widely used and conjures to mind the sort of titles you see in airport bookstores, it is another version of the worthiness argument. Another defence of Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

To start with the assertion that these are Lesser Works and then further asserting the evidence is in the “clumsy writing and formulaic plots” is fallacious. At a glance you could mistake this for an evidenced argument, but we’re just told this is the case. What Nick is actually complaining about here is the popularity of novels that are primarily written to be entertaining. It’s like saying that all TV dramas are rubbish because they aren’t super serious documentaries about WW2. But those two genres are trying to achieve two very different things, so of course they will have differing approaches.

“You can be 50 pages into a Jack Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it”

Sorry, is this pull-out quote meant to be an insult or compliment? Is this meant to suggest Lee Child’s writing is similar between books, or that you’re so wrapped up in the opening pages you don’t realise you’ve already read it?

Every time I finish a Jack Reacher novel, I wonder why I have wasted my time. The Reacher stories are like pornography. They grip you while you read them then leave you with a feeling of futility and shame at the end. Lee Child is so determined to churn out a book a year he recycles his plots: a particular favourite is the villain who organises an apparently crazed serial killing so the police never guess that he was only in cold-blooded pursuit of one of the dead. So similar are his stories that you can be 50 pages into a Reacher novel before you realise you have already read it.

I hate to break it to Nick (not that he is likely to read this) but there are only a handful of plots. Six story arcs. Even if you don’t look at the story arc and just at the plot premise you still don’t get many. Lee Child has written twenty-two Jack Reacher novels (to-date) so of course they are going to feel the same – I’ve even said as much in my review of Make Me. What Nick is actually complaining about here is that Lee Child unashamedly writes commercial fiction with the intention of entertaining rather than having more literary pretensions. I mean, how dare he!

Yet Child has sold more than 100 million copies because he has a talent beyond the ability to construct a convincing plot and describe action – skills which on their own are far harder to learn than those who breezily think they can write a blockbuster imagine. His hero can beat anyone in a fistfight. He loves guns and knows how to use them. He is strong, largely silent, entirely self-sufficient, clever, honourable and always on the side of justice. He never suffers a moment of doubt about the righteousness of killing wrong-doers, and he never needs counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder when he has dispatched them. Such men have been heroes from Homer through the knights of Arthurian legend to the cowboys of Hollywood’s golden age. They are almost entirely absent from today’s fiction, because our age regards men of violence with understandable wariness. Although the modern world is preferable in every respect to societies that mythologise warriors, there remains a yearning for the old heroes, and not just among male readers. Jack Reacher is a modern Hercules or knight errant. Child has found that readers respond to stories of violence without guilt in a world without complexity as enthusiastically as their ancestors did.

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Highlighted a WTF? moment. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen bestselling thriller authors with at least one vigilante hero series. To suggest the vigilante hero – which Nick rightly pointed out dates back to the Ancient Greek myths – is somehow absent from modern fiction suggests Nick is ignorant of the topic he is writing on.

This point is illustrative of a very basic flaw with this attack on “airport thrillers”. He hasn’t even stooped to familiarising himself with the topic. As such, his article is the opinion of the uninformed. Kinda like saying Terry Pratchett was a hack when you haven’t read any of his books – but nobody would ever do something that stupid in a major news publication…

A decade ago, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels sold almost as well as Child’s novels do now. They have equally far-fetched plots. The most telling and unconvincing is the willingness of beautiful women to sleep with the shabby middle-aged journalist hero, who, strangely enough, sounds rather like Larsson. Granted, they are more thoughtful than the Reacher novels, but I would be astonished if they survived.

It is greatly insulting to compare Larsson to Child. The latter is a writer with very few peers. The former proved that anyone could have a bestseller if Oprah recommended it. And this isn’t just an assertion on my part, Lee Child isn’t just one of the bigger bestselling authors. Child manages to retain more of his readers with each instalment of his Reacher series than his peers. Where a John Grisham or Stephen King are getting 40% of their audience to read their next instalment, Patricia Cornwall manages 50%, and Lee Child has the strongest brand with 70%. Or put another way, Lee Child’s readers really like his books, and Nick is bashing the wrong thriller author.

“Lisbeth Salander may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism”

This is a sentence only a white guy on the internet could write. I guess he’s never heard of the suffrage movement, or the electoral and social reform movements, and the reproductive rights movement. Referring to the fourth wave of feminism in this way is kinda cute. At this point I’m starting to wonder if Nick actually researches any topics he deems to write about.

Yet, once again, beneath all the murders and conspiracies, Larsson had a kind of truth to tell, and news to bring. He understood how computers could be hacked to devastating effect long before Edward Snowden. Moreover, his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who doesn’t “hate men, just men who hate women”, may be a cartoon character, but she foreshadowed today’s explosion of feminist activism.
The king of the airport bookstands at present is Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim. It is the best thriller I have read in years, in part because it deals with Islamist terrorism. Most film, television and literary thrillers avoid the subject for reasons that are honourable in their way. Writers do not want to stir anti-Muslim prejudice, or are appalled by the west’s wars after 9/11. They are also constrained, although they rarely admit it, by their ignorance of religious fanaticism. Hence, Jason Bourne fights his employers in the CIA and James Bond fights shadowy conspiracies of powerful westerners. The combined effect of these good motives is strange, however. Real spies worry about radical Islam more than any other threat. Fictional spies barely think about it. Hayes succeeds, not because he is a better writer than his contemporaries are, but because he addresses fears that his rivals, both highbrow and lowbrow, cannot bring themselves to face, and spends the time needed to research and create a plausible Islamist villain.

This is again a great example of Nick’s ignorance of the thriller genre. I’ve reviewed one thriller in the past year that used Islamic terrorists as the villains, and I haven’t even been focussed on thrillers. My reading has jumped over just about every genre. Nic can’t really be trying.

Also, not sure if he is aware, but the FBI is concerned about white supremacists (and other domestic terrorists) more than ISIS et al. The former chief of MI6 (actually called SIS, but let’s go with the name people know from the movies) called Trump the biggest threat, a view supported by the US intelligence community. I suppose you might say radical Islam ranks Top 5, if you just pretend religion drives terrorism like Nick does here, rather than it being more complicated than that… If it isn’t obvious, Islam is one of Nick’s trigger issues. He can’t help but throw a few stones at it every chance he gets. Pity he doesn’t seem to be informed on this topic either.

“The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself”

Yeah, it’s a zero sum game. And I’m sure this sentence seemed really profound before it become a pull-out quote.

He believes in his story, in other words, as all successful authors must. You can hide in an article or a web posting of 1,000-words or so. Those who think they can write a bestseller do not understand that there is no hiding place in a novel of 100,000 words or more. The first person an author must sell a book to is himself or herself. If they don’t believe in their story, no one else will. If they are following formula, their insincerity will out.

What Nick is trying to articulate here is that it is harder to write a novel than an article or other short piece. There is more to a novel, it has to be more substantial, and it has to engage the audience for much longer. He isn’t wrong here, just dancing around the point like Mick Jagger on LSD.

I accept that I risk sounding naively romantic about a publishing business without a shred of romance in it. So let me stress that I am not arguing that an author’s sincerity guarantees that a book will be good or even publishable.

Nor am I saying authors must sincerely believe their story is a realistic or even quarter-way realistic portrait of the world. The thrillers that sell in their millions are by any sensible standard ridiculous. The forces of law and order are either corrupt or asleep on the job. Western societies endure extraordinary levels of violence, and are threatened with worse, even though by historical standards they are more peaceful now than they have ever been.

So only very serious works are worthy? Because the attempted point appears to be that the premise of thrillers are unrealistic, which is somehow bad. I sure hope Nick doesn’t stray into the speculative fiction, romance, or political biography sections of the bookstore. Talk about unrealistic stuff!

You can claim that every device their authors use is false. Every device, that is, except one. They must believe in their books so that, if only for a moment, their readers can too. To put it another way, if you want to show a lone agent taking out a crime gang or saving America from a biological attack, you had better be able to convince yourself that he can.

Yeah, that’s not how it works, Nick. It’s called a plot contrivance and audience buy-in. You don’t have to convince people, they just have to accept it as plausible in the fictional work they are reading. This is Fiction 101 stuff. He must have slept through that class.

At some level, all popular writers share a similar delusion. Barbara Cartland believed that princes would come for virtuous girls who waited, and Ian Fleming thought that men could be James Bond. The best airport thriller writers are no less lost in make-believe.

Again, this isn’t about any delusion. This is about the craft of telling any fictional story, especially stories that are fantastical. Or put another way, the first authors to write about space travel were delusional by Nick’s estimation. But many of those authors were particularly prescient and even inspired rocket scientists to make space travel possible. Those authors never deluded themselves that space travel was possible at that time, but they were still able to convincingly tell a story that inspired it to become possible. And the moon still counts as space travel. Even though that isn’t anywhere near as cool as the ideas we have in fiction.

Rational people may want the advances, but cannot begin to imitate the immersion in fantasy. For that, perhaps, they should be grateful.

Nick Cohen
Nick Cohen is a journalist, author and political commentator. He is a columnist for the Observer, a blogger for the Spectator and TV critic for Standpoint magazine. His books include You Can’t Read This Book, What’s Left? and Pretty Straight Guys
@NickCohen4

Honestly, I could write a piece every week discussing one of these articles. They are written because people will read them. We love to pretend to be intellectual as we deride someone’s favourite movies, books, TV shows, art, etc. But where real critique and discourse would offer insight, and thus informed judgement, these articles never elevate themselves above unsupported assertions. They are merely attacks against the invading Lesser Works to keep Fort Literature safe.

The main problem with Nick’s brain droppings is that he is mistaking his subjective view for being objective. There is a level of snobbery to his derision of Lee Child (and other “airport novels”), something I’ve taken issue with previously. But it also displays the pseudo-intellectual nature of his arguments and his ignorance of the genre he is criticising.

We’re not just talking about Nick’s displays of ignorance about “airport thrillers” or the other highlighted inaccuracies. He is also blithely unaware of what makes art and how the aesthetics of art are appreciated. It could be argued, and has been, that art being enjoyed is subjective and multifaceted. But there is also an objective measure of art, part of the culturally shared aesthetic and the understanding of the art form. For example, we can recognise when a book has spelling and grammatical errors, we can spot confusing sentences and may have trouble interpreting what the author is trying to say. So there is an objective measure of art. But how do you compare a literary novel to a Jack Reacher thriller? You have to make subjective divisions and distinctions that is more about individual enjoyment or appreciation than it is about objective aesthetics.

In short: just because you like something doesn’t make it better than what someone else likes.

Further to that, Nick fails to set forth a proper argument with clear divisions and distinctions (probably due to ignorance on his part) with which to argue his central premise. “The genius of bad books…. there is an art to the action novel” remains largely unsupported because his points could apply to any novel in any genre. At no stage does he define what the art is to the action novel, and thus what sets it apart from whatever thing he thinks is superior art.

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How creativity works…

Sir Ken Robinson - Do schools kill creativity?

Who else has had this conversation? I know I have. A few years ago I blogged about Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk title Do Schools Kill Creativity, worth a read and watch.

A Place To Write

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Where I pretend I write. Nice, isn’t it. (Not pictured: mosquitoes, noisy kids, actual desk the computer usually resides on.)

Of late I have noticed a disturbing trend occurring on writing blogs and groups: Write Shaming.

Write Shaming is when writers post images of their favourite place to write. Usually they attach some little story – because they’re writers, they can’t resist – about how inspiring the location is. The story about how awesome the local cafe is compared to their purpose-built study. Or how the desk was secretly trying to kill the author. The goal is that people become envious and to have them start thinking “I could write well/heaps/both if only I had a setup like that.”

This all got me thinking about an article from Patricia Briggs’ site and a recent discussion we had at my local writers’ group: What are all the cool kids writing with? Whether it be the latest liquid-cooled PC with a display that makes the term UltraHD seem quaint, or your chisel set and pile of clay tablets, every writer has their own setup for crafting masterpieces. Well, everything from Twilight fan-fic through to masterpieces.

So what better way to procrastinate during prime writing time than to discuss all the writing toys you could be buying.

Portable writing tools

This list includes:

  • Pen and notebook
  • Laptop
  • Phone
  • Tablet

In Australia Pilot Press created a Diary for Writers. It has writing prompts, weekly ideas pages, writing tips, contact details for writers’ centres, and dates for competitions, events and festivals. Of course, there are plenty of other notebooks made specifically for writers… they just kinda seem feeble in comparison now, don’t they.

The big advantage of a notebook and pen is that it gives you a consistent place to record ideas. Many famous novelists are known to have a notebook on their bedside table for that inevitable just-before-sleep brilliant idea that you’ll totally remember in the morning… More’s the pity that some of those ideas weren’t lost.

Phones and tablets are taking over the role of notebooks in this modern age. With synching programs like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Docs, etc, able to run on all your devices, your ideas are safe to embarrass you when you rediscover them ten months from now. Phones and tablets are more than powerful enough to be your primary writing tool as well. Phones have defied the pre-smart phone trend of getting smaller, and are now sporting screens big enough to be seen by some stranger two rows back on your commute. Let’s hope the police believe you’re a writer when that stranger reports you for that twisted thing you wrote. You know the one.

Tablets and small laptops are starting to become interchangeable now. No longer are these highly portable devices in possession of processors that run at the speed of two tortoises passing notes to each other across a football field. Writing isn’t exactly a hardware draining or intensive software activity, so the choice really comes down to how much you like typing on a tablet versus a laptop. And which one has the coolest games and other procrastination tools. Even Scrivener has launched an iOS friendly app for iPhone and iPad.

One caveat to tablets and laptops is the keyboard. Some keyboards are not full-sized and can be challenging or plain infuriating to use, especially if you touch type. Although they also act as a great excuse for your pathetic typing skills. Another issue is that some keyboards aren’t real keyboards, and much like typing on a tablet or phone screen, they don’t have any tactile feedback and can lead to some hilarious typos. Turn predictive text on for sentences that make even less sense than your drunken uncle discussing politics and the economy.

coffeeshoplaptop

The writing desk and computer

Yes, yes, I know, there are some people who prefer to write things out longhand. They spend countless hours with pen/pencil in hand writing on thinly sliced dead trees only to have to spend even more hours transcribing it into an electronic format that is of any use. So excuse me if I acknowledge that this is 2017 and talk about computers for writing.

While portability can be awesome, having a dedicated space with a full-sized – possibly “ergonomic” – keyboard, a screen that doesn’t induce eyestrain from having to read documents in 4 point text size, and an internet connection that doesn’t drop out every time a car drives past and blocks the Wi-Fi signal has advantages. As above, computers are more than capable of handling the pressures of word processing, which makes the choice more about budget and what graphics package you need to run Netflix* in UltraHD. Laptops can fill the role of desktop computer here with a base station connecting a decent sized monitor, etc.

These articles cover some of the options:

http://www.patriciabriggs.com/articles/writing/computers.shtml

http://mattgemmell.com/a-laptop-for-writers/

https://techspectacle.com/best-laptop-for-writers/

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Writing Software**

Writing software is still oddly dominated by the “my computer came with it” word processors. Needless to say, MS Word is highly popular because people don’t know any better. Word is a highly versatile program that can do just about anything, integrates with all the plugins and add-ons you can imagine, and does a perfunctory job of being useful. In its favour it is the most supported program, which means updates actually happen, integration with programs like referencing software is a thing (hey, us science nerds care about that stuff!), and editing with tracking and commenting is excellent. MS Word is the jack-of-all-trades, and thus master of none, and has so many features there are entire lists to point out the stuff you didn’t know it had.

Of course Mac OS have their own less popular versions of the MS Office programs. But Apple admitted people liked Microsoft and let MS Office come play on their OS.

Linux users and anyone liking freeware have long utilised the MS Office knockoffs of OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Since the demise of OpenOffice and the limping of ApacheOpenOffice toward the same fate, LibreOffice is as close to MS Office you’ll get without feeling too dirty.

There are plenty of online options that all have limitations and benefits. Google Keep, Evernote, Onenote, etc, fill differing roles. These aren’t just writing and note tools, but can also save documents and webpages. Since they are cloud based, anything you have saved there is accessible anywhere, anytime. Well, unless you have third world internet like us Aussies.

The online options also extend to apps that are made for writing and not just note taking. Google Docs is the most obvious, especially with its sharing capability. Novlr is an online/offline subscription based app made by writers for writers. ApolloPad is an online writing app with features like cork-boarding and timelines – pity it is still in beta. Novel Factory is another online subscription based writing app made by writers for writers. Apparently writers don’t get paid unless they can also code software.

Dedicated writing apps aren’t always best served in the cloud or online. Feature rich programs tend to play better when they can hog your RAM directly rather than through your browser. Novel Factory has a Windows version that isn’t subscription based. Bibisco is an open source (yay, free!) dedicated writing app with some cool but standard features. WriteItNow has a lot of features, including an events chart to help with planning. And what blog on writing tools would be complete without flagellation over how awesome Scrivener is? Personally I’ve used Scrivener for years and love it. I didn’t even get paid to say that – hint to any of the app developers out there, I will cash for comment.

Like any good procrastination effort, there is a lot to compare, contrast, analyse, and digest here. I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is an entire list of add-ons and plug-ins that are great tools for writers (e.g. Hemmingway) that I may cover in another blog if people are interested. I may cover it even if people aren’t interested. That’s just how I roll.

*Netflix being the PG friendly term for any of those streaming sites you’ll be accessing.
** Thanks to Gary from my Spec-Fic writing group for his list of writing apps.

Book review: Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke




Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground
Richard Stark’s Parker Series by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Please…they’ll kill me.”
“I’ll kill you…worry about me.”

A long time ago Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark) imagined an imposing figure with large hands storming over the bridge into New York. Who was he? Why was he so pissed off? Who was intending to kill? And so was born Parker.

Fast forward past 24 novels, 8 film adaptations, and countless impersonators and homages, and we come to this graphic novel series by Darwyn Cooke. I’m not a fan of most of the film adaptations of the Parker novels as they don’t seem to understand the material – although Payback – Straight up: The Director’s Cut was pretty close to getting it right. But Cooke did understand the material.

This series didn’t just adapt the novels to the graphic novel format, it improved upon them. The artwork especially captured the grit of the original stories. This was done without compromising on the story, remaining very faithful to the originals.

I have previously read The Hunter, The Outfit, and Slayground, and managed to get my hands on an Omnibus edition to read The Score and re-read the others. It was a treat. At the end of Slayground is a short adaptation of The Seventh, a novella I have previously read. Cooke managed to capture much of the story with just a few panels on a handful of pages. I think this short work is emblematic of the skilful artwork and storytelling Cooke has brought to these adaptations.

Unfortunately both Cooke and Westlake are not longer with us. Just as there will be no more Parker novels, there will be no more graphic novel adaptations by Cooke. It is a pity.

View all my reviews

Hope NaNoWriMo is going well

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I haven’t done NaNoWriMo since 2011. It can be a great experience and can teach you how to set and achieve writing goals. But mainly it is worth doing so you can fully appreciate Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s cartoons.

Conflict in fiction

 

Book vs Movie: The Amityville Horror – What’s the Difference?

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Because some people are obsessed about the official candy holiday based upon on former harvest festival, Halloween brings about the discussion of the horror genre. This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix covers the movie based upon a hoax, The Amityville Horror.

One great thing about horror novels is the ability to go wild with creepy ideas that will scare people. Blood suckers, flesh eaters, scary clowns in the closet, demonic possession, crazy inbreds, mild mannered fathers who go crazy and murder their family: all great ways to scare people and haunt their dreams.

But it is always hilarious to see the line “Based on a True Story” or similar at the start of a book or movie. Any time that has to be stated up front you can guarantee that the tale is pure fiction. It’s like how smart people don’t go around having to tell people they have a high IQ, or people who are successful don’t have to go around telling people how rich they are.

Needless to say, The Amityville Horror has long been known to be a hoax cooked up by the Lutzs and their lawyer, and then sensationalised in the “totally non-dramatised” book by Jay Anson.

To this day, the fact that The Amityville Horror story was an admitted hoax is still not widely known — as we often say, the truth never stands in the way of a good story. Though the story was made up by the Lutzes and further sensationalized by Anson, there were real victims of The Amityville Horror (the film, not the demons). In addition to the murdered DeFeo family, the subsequent occupants of the Amityville home have suffered a continual stream of harassment by curiosity seekers, horror fans, and gawkers who want to photograph and tour their infamous house. Then there are the people who, fooled by the films’ and book’s tagline, think they are partaking of works based on true events. (Source)

Book Reviews aren’t about Book Promotion

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It is no secret that I like to write book reviews. Except when I’m sleepy. Or if I’m busy. Or if I get distracted by… Where am I?

Anyway, I wrote this blog a year or so ago addressing an example of people conflating book reviews with book promotion. I’m reposting it because of a recent discussion I had where several people were angry that a Mythcreants article failed to mention the authors of books being used as examples.

The issue that people seemed to have with the names being omitted was that it “wasn’t how reviews are meant to be written”….* Apparently the important details of a book review are listing the Title, Author, Publisher, Publication Date, etc, so that people can find the books easily. Yeah, an article on the internet referencing well-known books isn’t making it easy enough to find the books. Their irony meter must have been lost with the demise of Altavista.

Let me state up front: to my mind, book reviews are about helping people find good stuff to read and promoting authors whose work you’ve enjoyed. Of course some reviewers use it as a an opportunity to break away from the internet commenter stereotype and be jerks to others. This can be frustrating for authors and readers, but about par for the course as far as internet comments goes.

Fortunately an author has written a blog post advising people how to properly review books. Because you’re doing it wrong…

As a reader, reviewer, and occasionally sober writer, I don’t think authors should be telling readers what to do or how to do it, so the post doesn’t sit right with me. Actually, a lot of things don’t sit right with me, especially if they aren’t single malt and well aged.

Who are book reviews for?

You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book.

Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did. 

The first major point is one I agree with: book reviews are for readers. But maybe not the readers the author thinks. Reviews are primarily about that reader and their thoughts. Sure, they may be trying to communicate with other readers and make recommendations, but let’s face facts, it is mostly just about sharing an opinion. Or is that shouting into the void? I can never remember the difference.

My philosophy on book reviewing – helping and promoting good stuff – is probably shared by many, or not, I haven’t checked. But I see it as an important aspect of being a reader and writer. Thanks to the wonders of technology we have access to more books than we’ll ever be able to read, and some of them are worth reading. Sharing your opinion of a book can help others find stories that will entertain them. Personally I’m not a fan of sharing reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed, just the ones I think others will enjoy reading, but negative and positive reviews are both helpful.

But, that’s just me. Readers aren’t obligated to say nice things about a book, nor promote it, nor make sure there are links to anything (except references, those are damned important I tells ya!).

The next points:

What to include:

The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!

You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points:

Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page?

Did the structure of the plot work for you?

If it’s a mystery, was there one?

The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?

The author’s writing style. How was it for you?

The first point on this list is, frankly, rubbish. A book does not exist in a vacuum. Well, unless it was taken into space, but why would anyone do that? Unless they are an astronaut, but they’d want the book in the ship with them.

Anyway, all art/media is a product of the space it was created in, it has cultural and philosophical underpinnings that are part and parcel. And following on from that, the cultural landscape changes over time and individuals consuming the art/media are going to evolve as a result. So you can’t just write only about the book in a review, you will always bring baggage with you. Want an example? Try watching the original Ghostbusters movie without thinking Bill Murray’s character isn’t just a tad rape-y by today’s standards.

The next points about the story and how it is written are fair enough advice on things you could include. But you could include all or none of those things and still write a good review. The review has a subject and you only really need to include the stuff relevant to that subject – which means you might never mention the author, publisher, publication date, major or minor characters, etc.

The next part is where this blog post gets juicy:

What not to include:

Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.

If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.

Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars!  I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?

I don’t know about the last point, I’ve read Dan Brown’s Inferno; I’m not sure he knows how to cringe.

There are two points to unpack here: the first is the idea that your relationship with the author doesn’t have any bearing on a review; the second is the idea that you’re trying to help the author sell books. To suggest that there is a way to refer to an author or that you shouldn’t mention conflicts of interest is wrong. If I like someone I will naturally be inclined to think their book is better than someone whom I don’t know or like. Similarly, if I already like someone’s writing, their lesser works are likely to be viewed more favourably than a new author’s work.

It also irks me that the blog is implying that the author is off-limits for criticism. That is rubbish. If I know that the book or author is controversial, then that will also colour my review and is worth raising. An example was James Frey’s Lorian Legacies series published under a pseudonym. During my reading of I Am Number Four I noticed several very lazy factual inaccuracies and wanted to know who the author actually was. It was then that I found out that Frey had scammed a bunch of writing students to produce the series. Not only did that colour my (lack of) appreciation of the novel, but it was information I felt other readers should know. Because screw that guy.

This links nicely into the next point about reviews helping to sell books. It is true that book reviews help sell books: who’d have thunk? It is also true that if you want to see more great material from an author one of the things you can do is make sure people know you enjoyed the book. But since when is it the reader/reviewer’s obligation to help sell books for an author? Shouldn’t an author be happy that you bought and enjoyed their book? Well, unless you borrowed the book from a library, friend, or got a freebie. I understand the desire of authors to encourage people to review their book/s, and what it can help do in terms of recognition and thus sales, but a review isn’t about selling a book. The review is about the reader sharing their thoughts on a book they have read. Book store clerks get paid, readers don’t. Worth remembering.

The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly, there’s no need to mention the weather…

How long the book took to arrive in the post, or that it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book.

Likewise, problems with your Amazon account: It won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.

These next few comments are mainly about Amazon reviews and how people talk about the buying of the book in their review. While it is completely understandable for an author to be frustrated with comments in a review that are unrelated to the story they wrote, this recommendation is not only self-serving drivel, it forgets who the review is for.

If someone orders a book from Amazon and the shipment is not filled quickly, or won’t download, or the pricing is ridiculous, or the bonus “massager” didn’t arrive with the romance novel order, then that is a legitimate gripe. Other readers on the Amazon store will want to know this stuff. But even if this wasn’t on the Amazon store, there is legitimate griping to be done. For example, in Australia several major publishers price their ebooks based upon the currently available paper version’s price.** So if the hardcover is out, you pay hardcover prices for an ebook. Where else but a book review are you going to express your consumer discontent on this? Well, aside from in a blog post like this one. Or if you are talking to one of the publishers at a writers’ festival. Or if you know someone, who knows someone, who is related to a publisher.

I’d agree that there needs to be a distinction made been the store’s service, the publisher’s pricing, and the novel itself, in site reviews. Having those categories un-lumped would be something I’d support. Along with free hats. Everyone loves a free hat. But that I can’t go along with blaming the reviewers for not making that distinction.

Spoilers: giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers, e.g. I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.

Copying and pasting the entire book description – please dont.

And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?

Some people really hate spoilers, others love them, others still are ambivalent, others still still will hunt you down and kill you with your own keyboard for posting them. As such there is an etiquette to posting spoilers in a review. If you are an undefeated Muay Thai fighter with a decent ground game, then you can post whatever spoiler you like. If you are anyone else, you can post spoilers as long as you warn people you are going to do it. Then people can read or skip the spoilers to their heart’s content, assuming the Muay Thai fighter hasn’t ripped their heart out of their chest for posting a spoiler.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone post a book review that includes a copy and paste of the book description. If this actually happens then it is either a compliment to the blurb author for capturing the book perfectly so as to act as an appropriate review, or someone needs to learn how to type their own thoughts.

The final point is about the dismissive one star review. Now some people, such as the blog post author, complain that these sorts of reviews are not legitimate. Nonsense. Books have a cover, a blurb, the reader might have read other books by the author, etc, all of which can be more than enough information for the reviewer. For example, let’s say that someone has written a book – fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t really matter – that claims climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, NWO, Zionist Bankers to something something profit-gravy-train. Do I really need to leave a long and extensive review once I’ve read the book? Or can I just point out that it is nonsense? Is that not legitimate comment?

Now these have all been relatively minor gripes to quibble with. Fun fact: Quibbles are the Earth equivalent of Tribbles. Bonus fact: the most famous Quibble currently sits on the President of the USA’s head.

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Tribbles: your reward for reading this far.

Quibbles and Tribbles aside, let’s talk about complaining about book reviews not being done the way you want, when you yourself don’t review books. There is that inspiring – or is that insipid? – quote about being the change you want to see which applies here. The author of the blog post has exactly zero book reviews on their site, not counting the promotion of reviews of their own novels. The author’s Goodreads page has no books listed as having been rated or reviewed. Do as I say, not as I do. I mean, sure, that isn’t demanding at all.

In summary, it’s best to be thankful for readers writing reviews, even the bad reviews.

See also: https://bookstooge.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/i-will-make-them-cry-indie-rant/

*Let’s just ignore that the article in question wasn’t a book review but an article that was using famous books as examples to make a larger point. The poor dears are having enough problems with conflating reviews with promotion.
**Not sure this is still the case in 2017. It was the case for many years though.

Pet peeve: Reading interruptions

reading-interruptions

You’d think people would take a hint. If they were as interesting as the book we’d be talking to them. Kids are the worst for this. Second worst are the people who have left their book at home.

Book review: The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

The Seventh Plague (Sigma Force, #12)The Seventh Plague by James Rollins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the first nine plagues, is the tenth plague free?

A missing archeologist reappears out of the desert in a semi-mummified state. With him he brings a biblical disease that threatens to yadda yadda the world. A brilliant businessman has designs on using the disease for his own ends. Only Sigma can uncover the ancient McGuffin to you get the idea before ticking clock.

I’m going to preface this review by saying that I’m a long time fan of James Rollins’ blend of pseudo-science, mythicism, and tehcno-thriller. His Artefact McGuffin Adventures are usually very entertaining reads.

Here’s the but. I don’t know if I just had a lower tolerance for the narrative this time, or if Rollins has introduced a bash the reader over the head style to his writing now. Regardless, it is annoying and hackneyed, and something I’d expect from Dan Brown, not James Rollins. It makes you notice the other problems, like the factual errors in the story. The suspension of disbelief is always high with these sorts of novels, so to have Dan Brown-ified the writing lowers my enjoyment and rating.

An example of what I’m talking about was an exchange early on between the Sigma members about disease categories. We’ve just been told that this is a super deadly disease with X% death rate, and we’re then told the disease death categories, which again states this is super deadly. Okay, so us dumb readers need to be informed that this disease is really bad. But to imply that the Sigma team of science experts who deal with this sort of problem semi-regularly would have to be bashed over the head with the explanation the way they were is silly. I immediately had in mind four or five ways to write that section that weren’t out of character, repetitive, and mind-numbing to the reader.

That all said, this was still a reasonably well paced thriller, with decent tension, especially into the final act. If you like Artefact McGuffin Adventures, then this is an okay instalment.

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Book review: Afterlife by Marcus Sakey

AfterlifeAfterlife by Marcus Sakey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you kill enough people you become a god. Still makes you a jerk though.

Agents Will Brody and Claire McCoy are hunting a serial killer. But he is unlike any serial killer who has ever come before. He is always a step ahead. He has power. And he has help. I could give more away, but the title gives you the idea.

Afterlife is an intriguing book. The ideas underpinning this supernatural speculative fiction story are as original as you will see. And mixed with this are two interesting characters and their relationship. It hangs together nicely whilst not becoming bogged down with the sort of world-building that spec-fic can bore readers with.

That said, I almost gave up on this book. The first chapter didn’t grab me at all. It isn’t until later in the novel that you understand why that chapter is there at all. Similarly the semi-ambiguous ending may also throw some people given the setup prior to the penultimate chapter. These points, particularly the first one, could discourage people. Normally I don’t say this – since I’m big on giving up on books ASAP to make room for good books – but stick with this for a few chapters. Don’t be put off by the opener, it will make sense soon.

NB: I was provided a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

10 Worst Types of Writers

Combating Writer's Block: Advice by Genre

From Jenna Moreci

Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population, and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010…. Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data, since respondents were filling in a daily dairy and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

Lower your standards

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Certainly explains the popularity of several TV shows…

From SMBC Comics. Great stuff there.

Book vs Movie: Blade Runner – What’s the Difference?

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Since Blade Runner 2049 is coming out soon, CineFix have dedicated this month’s What’s the Difference? to breaking down Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I can’t remember the first time I watched Blade Runner. I do know that it sucked. So that early experience was of a version of the movie that was about shooting androids rather than about empathising with them. I later watched the director’s cut and the Ridley Scott preferred version and concluded that this was a classic movie. I know, how prescient of me.

The novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was something I read a long time ago. I have a very poor recollections of it, in fact the only bit I can remember was the section where Deckard hooks himself up to the Voight-Kampff machine. The idea of humans not really being able to empathise with others, that we are just playing a meaningless game of life, whilst other beings would love to be human, is an interesting idea I should probably revisit. I’m sure I’ll get a chance before 2049.

I also read the sequel, Blade Runner: Edge of Human, which was more a sequel to the movie than the book. Again it has been a long time since I read this. I have more memories of borrowing this from the library than I do of reading it. This sequel was a gritty crime noir that was all about hunting down androids, double crosses, and absolutely nothing deep and meaningful.

Blade Runner is a good example of the “inspired by” version of movie adaptation. Very little of the book remains in the film and you could be forgiven for thinking they were unrelated. Yet neither the movie nor the book suffer as a result. Kinda like the Bourne films. And like Bourne, you honestly wonder why they bothered licensing the property when the screenwriters took so little material from the book.

The two motives for reading a book

quote-there-are-two-motives-for-reading-a-book-one-that-you-enjoy-it-the-other-that-you-can-boast-bertrand-russell-263575

Book review: A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of PhilosophyA Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If by doubting your existence you prove that your doubting thoughts exist, what happens if you then doubt your doubts?

A Little History of Philosophy is pretty much summed up by its title. It spends a chapter on each famous Western philosopher or movement (e.g. Aristotle gets a chapter; Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir share one) and takes a shallow dive into each. Nothing more, nothing less.

After recently reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy I thought I’d read a book that covered the same topic with less of the surrounding history and more of the philosophy overview. Nigel Warburton does this well in a brief, clear, and accessible manner. A strength of the overview is how he ties theories and influences together (e.g. Brentham to Mill, Mill to Russell) so that you can see how thinking has evolved. A negative is the sometimes tenuous segues Warburton uses to end a chapter. Seriously, you really start to notice it and laugh.

This was a great way to dip my toes into philosophy. Between Russell and Warburton I feel I’ve been given enough to start the journey down the rabbit hole. Made me think.

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Reading to stop ignorance

reading cures ignorance

Of course, this presumes you read stuff written by people who aren’t just sharing their ignorance or deliberately lying to you…

Dreams take flight

Valdimir Kush - Diary of Discoveries

Vladimir Kush – Diary of Discoveries

Surrealism is often a really interesting art form. This example from Vladimir Kush is a great example of the form… Says the guy with a reading bias…

Anyway, marrying the imagery of a bird taking flight with something that inspires imagination is pretty cool.

What art do you find cool?

Book vs Movie: Stephen King’s It – What’s the Difference?

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With the release of the new movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, unsurprisingly this month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix is covering the book vs the 1990 mini-series.

The It mini-series come out on video – yes VHS, yes I am old – when I was just at the start of my teenage years. The adolescent characters facing the genuinely scary Pennywise was too much for me. Tim Curry’s portrayal of the demonic clown left me sleepless for a week. It is the only movie to have ever had this much of an impact on me.

I mean Pennywise is already a scary clown. But he turns into a giant nope. In Australia we’re wary of tiny nopes. A giant nope is a ticket to nightmares.

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So guess what book I refuse to read and which recent adaptation I won’t be watching.*

Although, apparently the new movie is genuinely good:

*Yeah, I know, I probably wouldn’t find it scary now. I probably will eventually read the novel and watch the new movie. Maybe.

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