The Savage Reviewer

§   I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews.  §

The ability to read online book reviews written by everyday readers instead of some pompous newspaper critic has been, I find, a marvelous advancement of the digital age. I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews of every book that I finish (as well as a few books so bad that I do not finish them!)

Recently, I scrolled through the site where I post my reviews, re-reading some I’d submitted when I first began writing them a few years ago. It occurred to me as I perused my earlier reviews that I was a lot more hesitant to criticize—much kinder, and certainly far more generous–when I was initially writing book reviews. Now, having gotten into the swing of the game, I’ve become far more critical…and a lot more honest.

All this was running through my thoughts a few months ago as I reviewed a book I’d selected due to an intriguing plot summary. The novel, the very first by brand-new author, had only 10 reviews, all of them 5-Star ratings. Not being a complete moron, I knew that meant that the book had been reviewed only by loving family and non-critical friends. Nevertheless, the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance. And at first it seemed my gamble was justified; I liked the opening paragraphs; the tale seemed to be well-written–a rarity in these days of self-publishing–and the main character was a likeable woman. (There are few things worse than slogging through an interesting novel in which the main character is an irritating, self-serving asshole.)

Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there. I finished reading the whole the novel, although I have to say in all honesty that I did so only because I need to remark upon ALL the book’s failings, not just those found at the halfway point where I really gave up. No, I tortured myself all the way through the book, feeling I should provide multiple facts to counteract all those glowing 5-star reviews. Yet even as I typed the 2-Star review that I eventually submitted, I felt a current of guilt. Although not so much savage as straightforward, my words were bound to make the inexperienced author cringe, perhaps even cry. I sighed and reminded myself that I was attempting to save other readers from wasting their hard-earned money on this schlock. And, I consoled myself, who knew? If the author took my criticisms to heart, perhaps my honest, unflattering remarks might help her get to her next, much better, book–or even a revised edition of this sad attempt. Or so I told myself.

I was far less plagued by guilt over another very unflattering review I wrote for a novel which, despite yet one more promising plot summary and multiple flattering reviews, turned out to be unreadable. Simply unreadable. And that was a tragedy, because, with appropriate assistance—and if some of those flattering reviewers could have been honest—the book might have been great.

But the novel, a mystery, had been written in English by someone for whom English was quite obviously a second language. And while, technically, the author’s grasp of the language was excellent, well, God is in the details. And the details sucked.

The story began in a snowstorm. I think I finally gave up on the book about the third time I read the repetitive sentence, “The snow was hailing…”. Hailing?  What? Was the snow calling for a taxi? As I pointed out in my review, snow can fall. Hail can fall. It can be snowing. It can be hailing. But the snow can’t hail.

Then there was the fact that the car, a Rolls Royce, was constantly referred to as a Royce. Uh, nope. The casual reference is a Rolls. This minor but irritating error continued for page after page, setting my teeth on edge.

But the crowning blow was the sentence remarking that the only thing the characters could see was a “giant pile of snow blocking the road thanks to the car’s headlights.”

Oh, dear. A host of teachers from my distant past, probably all now long dead, rose up in protest.

As written, the sentence indicated that the snow was blocking the road because of the car’s headlights. I genuinely laughed out loud (sadly) reading that fractured sentence, correcting it in my mind to, “The only thing they could see, thanks to the car’s headlights, was the giant pile of snow…” (I shall I forbear even to mention that a “giant pile of snow” would generally be referred to as a snowdrift.)

Just before writing this essay, I reread my review of that novel. It was, as the title to this post implies, savage. Then, with equal honesty, I examined my own writing in this essay.

Yep, far from perfect.

But I was saved from abject embarrassment by two facts: First, I am not writing for publication, but for my own pleasure; and, second, I am not asking anyone to PAY for what I’ve written.

So as long as authors continue with those two objectives, well, I’ll just continue to style myself  The Savage Reviewer.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “To Review or Not Review”,
which you may find in the archives on 12/13/2017.  You might also like the upcoming post, “Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them?”, to be published soon.)

Hook, Line and Sinker

Two years ago I discovered an app for my Kindle that allows me to scroll through a list of free books on the topics of my choice and decide which, if any, are those I’d like to read. Many of these novels are the initial efforts of a brand-new author; others are first books in what is to be a series.  A few are older books that the author chooses to promote in hopes of garnering new readership.

For someone who reads constantly, as I do, this should be (and often is) a great boon. It provides me the opportunity to discover authors whom I’ve never before encountered, and to enjoy reading without the worry and hassle of returning books on time to the library.  I am able to satisfy my voracious reading habits without incurring the national debt to satisfy my addiction.  In theory, then, this app provides me wonderful benefits.

In practice…not so much.

Make no mistake: I use care in selecting the books I download.  After finding a novel listed on the app, I thoroughly investigate it. I glance swiftly through the plot description, deciding if the story even sounds like something that interests me.  This can be tricky, as anyone who wants to select a good book knows.  In any case, I am persnickety. I enjoy light mysteries, but I don’t want too much blood and gore; “thriller” is not, to me, a leisure-time activity.  I’m a nervous person by nature, so I don’t need highly suspenseful novels to provoke an anxiety attack!  I also prefer that my books not be drenched in romance; heaving chests and tight buttocks and kissable lips are irritating, not titillating, and I find the romance-novel style names (Chance, Promise, Lark, Wolfe…) utterly laughable.  Nor do I want blow-by-blow descriptions of the sex act.  In my view, sex is something best done, not described.

Should a novel pass the sniff test in all these areas, I then read both the best review (the gushingly-favorable 5-Star review that was probably written by a family member or best friend) and at least two or more of the worst reviews. Those are usually the deciding factor.  If the poor reviews contain any complaints about the writing—grammar, spelling, punctuation or editing—the book is a no-go. (Disclaimer: Never doubt that I realize my own writing is hardly error-free; of that I’m  all too sadly aware.  But I am not asking a weary public to pay hard-earned money for what I’ve written.)

If a novel that I’m considering passes all my onerous qualifications, I finally take the plunge and download it.

Despite my care in selecting each book, though, I’m often disappointed. And so it is that, all too frequently, I’m reminded of the time my mother had chosen a novel at the library on one of her favorite subjects, the early American settlers.  Using just as careful a selection process as I, she nevertheless found one book to be so bad–so utterly, terribly, reprehensibly, abysmally awful–that the only thing she could possibly do was read some of the more unintentionally-hilarious passages aloud to us kids.  My mother read aloud very well: expressively, and with perfect diction.  Delivered in her faultless and precise voice, the dreadful passages of that appalling book were so unbearably funny that we literally collapsed on the floor, clutching our sides as we laughed until we hurt.

I still laugh just remembering it.  Such a comically cruel thing to do to the minds of young people!  Some of the more painfully bad sentences from that book are burned into my memory to this day.

Too late, Mom and I discovered the words “Vanity Publisher?!” penciled lightly on the flyleaf of that appalling novel. It is notable that the librarians had not erased the words.

In the world of e-books, half the novels today are essentially vanity publishing specimens. Many of these so-called authors should have their keyboards smashed and their fingers broken for the atrocities they commit in the name of literature.  More terrifying yet is the fact that a reading public swallows these works, hook, line, and sinker.

Writing a book is hard work, and those unequipped to undertake the job should not be doing it (and I include myself in that assessment). But if they insist on doing so, those authors should at the very least have the intelligence and grace to haunt the halls of their local college, find some starving graduate student aiming for a Masters in literature, and offer her or him a few paltry bucks to edit their “masterpieces”.

The rest of us might have fewer laughs that way, but we’d sure as hell burns be hitting the “Delete!” button less.