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.

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!”