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.)

Who or Whom? That Is The Question!

I bless the easy availability of internet grammar sites whenever I have to decide whether to use who or whom in writing.  That’s because, despite knowing that if the word to is included in my sentence, whom is the form that should follow, well, that’s the only situation in which I can be confident I’m using the correct form of the word.  It doesn’t matter if I rearrange the sentence and substitute the pronouns her or him, she or he, as an aid in figuring out the problem. I’m still unsure about the correct form of the word.

Certainly I can’t be the only person who, despite a passable ability with writing, is confused by the sheer insanity of word forms such as these in the English language. Sit, set and sat.  Lie and lay.  Those verbs confuse almost everyone.  Irregular verbs are even worse; is it dreamt, or dreamed?  Awakened, waked, awoke, woke, awoken?  Shined or shone? Weaved or wove?  Inevitably, reading these words in novels, I find myself arguing with the author’s selection and punching out from my e-book to a grammar site.  (Ah, yes, and for that I also bless e-books.)  Happily, I often find out that I am, yes, I AM CORRECT.  I break my own arm patting myself on the back.  Much less happily, I find that the grammar in most direct-to-e-book novels is execrable. Worse, even edited books contain an astonishing number of grammatical errors these days – subject/verb disagreements seeming to top the charts.  Are students no longer taught that “might” is the past tense of “may”?!

Even worse than books, though, I find, are the voice-overs of TV commercials. I was delighted when the commercial for a large medical center spoke of “a list of insurance programs with which we’ve worked”.  Dear heaven, it’s a miracle.  The prepositional phrase correctly spoken.

Unfortunately, in its next incarnation, the phrase returned to “insurance companies we’ve worked with.” Despite Winston Churchill’s famous (but probably misattributed) declaration that, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put”, most prepositions should not fall at the end of the sentence.  That’s the way it was drilled into my recalcitrant student head, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Period.  End of discussion.

Except that I both speak it and write it incorrectly most of the time.

Even more painful was a commercial for a cleaning product, in which the announcer declared that it “works so good”.  So good?  So good?!  Arrrggghhh. Well. The correct word is WELL.

And then there are songs. I can’t bear listening to Rod Stewart’s voice, which reminds me of a dying frog with laryngitis.  Even if another singer had performed “Tonight’s the Night”, though, I would never have liked the song.  But even had I enjoyed both Stewart’s voice and the song, I would still be driven to violence by the line, “….just let your inhibitions run wild”.  Uh, if one’s inhibitions are running wild, one is EXTREMELY INHIBITED.  Not doing anything.  Inclinations.  The correct word for that line should be inclinations.

I readily confess that I am incredibly picky about matters of grammar. For instance, I sat through the entire movie Inception arguing to myself that those little objects the characters used—the ones that were supposed to determine if they were in reality rather than a dream– should have been called talismans, not totems.  I knew that this was a matter of semantics only, but it irked me.

But, returning to the question of who and whom, I have developed a standard three-part rule for dealing with this situation.  First, if the word follows to, it is whom.  Second, I should try rearranging the sentence and substituting pronouns; if the pronoun is she or he, the word is who; if the pronoun is her or him, the word to be used is whom.  And, finally, if I still can’t figure out the darned mess, I will use whom.  For, you see, almost no one else will be certain of the correct word form, either.  But because whom is generally used only by those truly conversant with the complex rules of grammar, my readers will be certain that I’m not only correct, but am really smart!

To Review or Not Review

I do a great deal of light reading, preferring “cozy” mysteries – insubstantial stories, usually with a female sleuth or protagonist, often involving pets or animals, and in which the only people who die are generally characters I didn’t really like very well, anyway. It’s escapism, enjoyable escapism, and most of the time I find it much more entertaining than television.

For decades most of my novels were paperbacks bought at resale shops. When e-books were introduced I declared that I absolutely wouldn’t be taken in by the lure of them.  I liked the sensory experience of a book within my hands, the tactile sensations: the powdery touch of the paper, the colors in the cover art, even the papery smell of a “real” book.  But my daughter asked for a Kindle one Christmas, and it intrigued me.  Before long, I’d gotten one of my own.

And it absolutely drove me nuts. Not being to the tech generation born, it took me months to learn the right touch to swipe the pages across the screen without using a stylus. The first time I punched out to the dictionary I couldn’t figure out how the devil to get back to my page.  I lost my place so constantly that for awhile I bookmarked every single page (and quickly learned there was no easy way to remove all the bookmarks as a group, something which I’m still waiting for Amazon to fix.)

But slowly I became a devotee of the e-book format. Having figured out how to get back from the dictionary to my novel, I loved the ease of being able to look up an unknown word.  The ability to move straight from the pages of my novel out to the Net in order to look up a book’s unfamiliar reference (When was the Taj Mahal built?  Who was Hans Van Meergen?) was a gift.

But I began to think the best thing about buying e-books was the ability to either download sample pages and chapters or to read the reviews of those who’d already read a book. Buying paper books by authors with whom I was unfamiliar had always been a bit of gamble.  Glancing through some pages in the center of the book, choosing a book by the title…sometimes it worked well, other times, well, not so much. But samples and reviews  gave me a much clearer idea of how well I might enjoy a book.

E-book samples still sometimes misled me, though. I’d downloaded a number of first chapters, found them intriguing, ordered the book…only to find that, a chapter or two further in, my interest fizzled and died.  The story just hadn’t gone in the direction I’d expected or hoped, or the writer had been too inept to bring a promising idea to fruition.

But the reviews were a different story. I quickly learned to read both the best review, and the worst.  If the worst review mentioned the words “poorly written”, “badly edited”, or anything similar, then it was best to give even the most intriguing-sounding story a pass. Unfortunately, the ease of e-book publishing meant that there were a great many books with those damning review phrases.

In time, I began writing my own reviews. It was harder than I’d believed it would be, too.  I hadn’t anticipated feeling guilty when I wrote a less-than-stellar review.  How did I explain that there were no real faults with a book I just failed to enjoy?  How did I justify my criticism of an author who obviously had a great story idea, but a total inability to write?  What words could I use to express my disapproval of an author who wrote a witty story, but mocked a whole category of people while doing so?  And what on earth  to write when the author had added a begging note to the afterword of their novel, saying that they preferred that readers who had nothing good to say about their book just say nothing at all?!

Eventually I realized that an honest review might be just as important to a potential reader as were the reviews that had guided me. I praised books that I found well-written and plotted.  I was truthful when I reviewed a book that just had failed to catch my fancy, saying simply that, although it wasn’t my cup of Earl Grey, it might be perfect for another customer.  And I pilloried authors who either couldn’t spell or weren’t competent enough to challenge the spell checker, who couldn’t construct a complete sentence to save their own lives, who regarded punctuation as decoration for the page rather than a method of delineating stops and continuances, and whose understanding of grammar had failed sometime around the third grade.

I’m sure there are any numbers of authors out there who are consigning me to the lower levels of Dante’s hell for what I’ve said about the books that they had such fun writing. But there are almost certainly an equal number of writers who are thinking to themselves, “Hey, she liked my book!”