On Writing Bad Reviews

So, my feelings on the next couple of books in my queue are less than ecstatic, shall we say. Even my feelings on the previous couple were mixed at best. Between those two things and the conversations I’ve been having with a couple of people about how I find it easier to talk about what went wrong with a book than what went right, I’ve sort of been feeling like someone who just likes to complain about the things I’m reading.

And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I know that I never pick up a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it on some level; I know that I never go into something I’m reading looking to hate it. I am aware, though, that I’m also fairly picky about the books I read and that, as I’ve said before, small things can break an otherwise good story for me.

There’s a tension there, between wanting to enjoy what I’m doing and wanting to be honest about my feelings towards things. There’s a tension, too, between that desire to be honest and the awareness that someone else put time and effort and probably a lot of love into this thing that I dislike. I think anyone who has ever done anything creative is aware of how awful taking criticism can sometimes be and is probably a little hesitant to inflict that on someone else, even if that other person will likely never see it.

But still, sometimes the bad review needs to be written. Pulling punches is one thing, lying about what you’re thinking is something else entirely. So I’ve been thinking about bad reviews: how I approach them, why I should write them, where I could be more constructive with them. And I think I’ve identified some things I want to try to do to make me feel less like a chronic complainer.

1) Focus, at least a little, on the positive:

This one seems obvious, but it can be strangely hard to do. Still, every book I’ve ever read has had at least one thing I’ve liked about it, and it’s important to give credit where it’s due, for all parties involved. Obviously, on the off chance an author actually notices my review of their book, it would be good to have a section on the things I think it got right, but I also think that section is necessary for the other people who may be reading, too. That single part I liked may be enough to make the book for someone else, especially someone who knows they won’t be bothered by the things I didn’t. At the very least noting what I thought was well done makes me feel like I’m not just looking to hate something, that I’m capable of being balanced. Speaking of which.

2) Try to be as fair as I can:

Like I said, a lot of times the problems I have with things are just as much to do with me as they are to do with the books themselves. Something might hit on a pet peeve of mine, but be otherwise well written. Sometimes a book is just flat out not of a type that I enjoy. Not every book is for every person, nor should they be. If I don’t like a book because it has too much romance for me, there’s a good chance that a person who does like romance is going to love it, and I want to be able to say that. Part of this is just being specific on where and what my problems with the work are: a novel I was never going to like is a very different issue than one I should have and didn’t because of some other flaw. And the difference there definitely needs to be expressed so that anyone reading my review can begin to make their own judgement call on it.

3) Give myself some space:

Sometimes the problem is less me, though. Every now and then I get a book that I just outright loathe, that actually frustrates me. I think in those cases I need to try to approach them like I would anything else that makes me mad: step away, calm down, try to get my thoughts and issues in order so I don’t just end up ranting. Frothing at the mouth rarely convinces anyone of anything, or at least it convinces people far less than well reasoned explanations. It’s not that sarcasm and expressed annoyance aren’t good tools sometimes, but they need to not be the only thing I give in a review. If I’m going to use them they need to be pointed, as part of some actual logical reasoning, and that can only come once I’ve calmed down enough to make a structured argument. Something that can be constructive rather than destructive. And sometimes that can’t happen immediately after I’ve read the book. It makes me anxious to talk about something I honestly see few redeeming qualities in, though, so I think there’s one more thing.

4) Remember that bad reviews are just a part of the process:

This one is more to ease my own worries than anything else. Like I said, not every book is for every person, and I think most professional authors are aware of that. I know from friends’ experiences that querying is a rough process; these are people who have dealt with rejection and criticism before, many times, and still believe in their books. And for a published author there are plenty of other reviews out there, both good and bad. As long as I’m not being unnecessarily cruel about things, I’m probably not ruining someone’s day with my dislike of a book, if they even see anything I’ve written.

Still, it’s sometimes hard to deal with a stretch where I’m feeling so consistently negative. When I hit those points, I do try to stack the deck with books by authors I know I love. But I still have to review all the novels I read before I decided to do that. How do you all deal with bad reviews? What do you want to get out of them for yourself, and what are you trying to give your audience with them? Most importantly, how do you make complaining into something worth reading?

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Don’t Judge Alone-Silver Phoenix/Kingdom of Xia

I think it’s time for some more cover analysis, don’t you?

This discussion may actually be a short one, because so far as I can tell there are a whole two US covers for this series, and even internationally I’m only finding one other variation. I still want to look at it, though. It’s one of the first works that pops to mind when I think “they shouldn’t have changed this cover, at least not in that way” and for good reason. There are multiple issues with the shift, from both the real world and industry politics that caused it.

Because most of the issue with the second cover set is political. The change was certainly controversial; the ire over it was how I found the series in the first place. Take a look at the two American variants available for the first book and you can probably see why.

Now, this is fantasy set in alt-world China. The shift from an explicitly Asian girl for the first variant to a girl who…probably isn’t but has enough of her face covered that there’s plausible deniability caused a stir, to say the least.

It didn’t help that this change was made around the time when The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time came out, two movies that had their respectively Asian and Middle Eastern protagonists played by white actors. Or that all of these issues cropped up a year, at most, after Racefail had already blown open the racial fault lines in the Sci Fi and Fantasy genres. The change in the cover felt like just another hit in an already tense environment, and the controversy was wrapped up in the general anger over whitewashing that was coming to a head at the time.

This problem, the real world issue of representation, is really the most important reason they shouldn’t have changed this cover. But many other people have talked about that in more detail and far more eloquently than I could.

You’ll notice that the first link up there talks about how the author and publisher eventually released statements saying the reason for the change was that booksellers refused to take the novel on with the first variation. And that they thought it was worth it to have the story out there, even with a less than ideal cover.

And, generally, I agree. A character named Ai Ling is very obviously not white, in spite of a misleading cover, and that character is good to have among the overwhelmingly pale shelves of YA romance. Having the story out there regardless is important, even if the cover has some rather awful implications. I can get behind the idea that it’s a bad solution, but they might not have had a better one.

But then there’s the other problem.

There’s a part of me that still has a major issue with the second variant, even if it’s comparatively inconsequential. That thinks, quite simply, that it doesn’t fit the series.

I mean, yes, the YA romance aspect is there, but take the kissing out and the novel is a high fantasy quest set in basically ancient China. The first cover reflects this beautifully. Bright colors! Sweeping landscapes! Dramatic poses! Ancient clothing and buildings! Actual Asian model! Even if the people approving these things weren’t worried about the social implications of their work, you’d think they’d be concerned with appropriate design.

The second cover has the glowing, magical item to its name, but that’s about it. I mean, what else do you get off of these two?

Two girls on flat color backgrounds in modern clubbing clothes. Everything about this screams urban fantasy set in a modern world with a secret magical underground, down to the blurbs from Alyson Noel. Just looking at the covers I would expect something along the lines of Mortal Instruments or The Dresden Files. Even beyond the racial aspect these two designs are obviously attempting to paint the series as something that it’s not, because the only thing they get right are the two very broad categories of “magic” and “romance.”

They could have done better, all around.

I can’t even fully blame the publisher here, though, because the reason behind the bad fit is most likely also political, at least on the industry level. Urban fantasy was what was selling in 2009. The booksellers wanted something they were more likely to make a buck on. The publisher believed in the story and wanted to keep it in the public eye, so they packaged it as what was getting picked up.

They did what they needed to in order to keep the series alive, and I guess I can’t complain that much about it. Even if those covers very much belong on another book. Even if I very much wish they had managed to work the story they were actually selling in, on both fronts.

I was going to end this making the rather depressing point that cover design is often more about what sells well than about representing the book, and pleading for publishers to try to find some compromise between the two. While trying to find pictures, though, I spotted this one.

indonesiacover

This is the Indonesian cover, and I kind of love it. It strikes exactly the balance I was going to beg the publishing companies to find: stylish enough to appeal to teenage readers but with enough fantasy to actually give the idea of the series. If the artist has to play off of the “creepy demon” aspect of the books instead of the “high adventure” one to do that, so be it. At most I would criticize the lack of action in the design, but considering the circumstances, I’ll take it. It’s a good cover for the book. It’s nicely designed and it fits.

And both the character and the design are obviously Asian.

We can have the best of both worlds here; we just need to dig a little deeper for it.

The Corgi Chronicles by Laura Madsen

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Standalone, Alternate Universe Books, 2013, 128 pgs.

Corgis like Pippin may look like ordinary dogs, but looks can be deceiving. Even though they may live with us humans, every corgi on this earth is actually a servant and steed of the fairies. When Pippin’s fairy, Aliiana gets an urgent message from her Prince saying that the Ruseol Gem, the source of all good magic in the world, has been stolen, they immediately rush to help. Aliiana and Pippin, along with the others in a specially chosen group, must find the Gem, save magic, and have the adventure of a lifetime in the process!

I really do hate trying to review books aimed at a very young audience: the sort of thing you couldn’t even call mid grade so much as early reader. To be frank, they always bore me badly. Always feel like something of a waste of time, with their simple characters, simple plots, and simple sentences.

And that’s perfectly fine; it’s what they’re built to do.

I’m an adult that’s loved books my entire life, and I like to think I generally have this whole “reading” thing down by this point. Whether it’s plot or prose style I want something that surprises me, at least a little. By contrast, a young reader that’s just starting to get beyond picture books on their own is going to have very different needs. The simplicity of such books is as much as necessity for them as it is a frustration for me.

I can’t pretend, though, that I ever really enjoy them without some sort of nostalgia backing that enjoyment. Anything aimed at eight-year-olds that I didn’t read when I was eight is probably going to fall flat for me, and by design. This was exactly the problem I had with Lost Time and The Liberation of Gabriel King.

And this time I don’t even have the excuse of being suckered by a YA-looking cover. The Corgi Chronicles are very clearly marked “Ages 6-12.” I’m reading this for one reason, and one reason alone: Boyfriend bought it for me. He has a corgi, loves her to a sort of ridiculous extent, and is weak to all corgi-based things as a result.

To be fair, she is adorable.

So, here we are, though. I came in knowing this wasn’t for me, and that its not being for me is a feature instead of a bug. I guess the only thing to do is note that the age label here is entirely justified and then try to be as fair as I can.

So, okay. I know some other people here have to remember those old Rankin Bass Lord of the Rings cartoons. The ones where everything is just slightly sillier, and easier, and less epic? But it’s okay because it works as a toned down introduction for kids? This book reminds me of nothing so much as those old cartoons. This is a fantasy quest and a fairyland story, stripped of a lot of its tension and cutesified for the youngin’s.

And I may prefer my fairyland with a little more inhuman creepiness and less light and goodness. I may like my villain to have more backstory than sheer, entitled brattiness. I may want to see challenges that the heroes can’t work their way out of easily. But I can’t pretend I don’t understand why this book is written that way.

Nor is the way its written actually all that bad, because as much as my overwhelming thought here is “well I guess that was cute,” this is doing some good things. I do like the idea of making a toned down Fellowship of the Ring, and this hits all of the classic fantasy standards. The magical mcguffin, the dark lord, and the motley band of allies that the party picks up as it moves along the quest are all there. This book does really do well to introduce the basics of the genre.

And it’s fairly decently built, too. If the prose is simplistic, at least it’s not insultingly so. We’re not at “See Spot Run” levels here; this does contain sentences willing to use clauses. The plot is likewise simple, but there’s very little fluff. For the most part, it keeps itself moving. Even my complaints about the challenges the heroes face being too easy can be handwaved as the author saving her big moments for the end, because things do pick up there.

And our talking corgi hero may not be exceptionally deep, but he is fun and brave. He’s probably more goofy than I would like, but even then that might be less “cutesified” and more “being a dog.” The goofiness sort of fits.

Actually, everything about this that’s a little goofy comes in a way that sort of fits. Cliché villain trying to corrupt all magic? Magical items with silly names? Ridiculously pure, beautiful elves? Like I said, there’s a definite Tolkien influence here. If it keeps the ridiculous bits and cuts the heartache, well, for kids.

Again, heed the age range, but I wasn’t slogging through this, which is more than I can say for most early reader books.

When I get right down to it, I only really have two criticisms that I think are fair.

The first has to do with the way the novel sometimes feels more like a guidebook than a story, which is the one exception to the plot’s generally keeping itself moving. Every now and then the author will go off on a little digression that’s clearly intended to teach the young audience something. When the characters are worrying for the fate of the Gem we’ll suddenly shift into a discussion of how to set up camp properly, or we’ll get a passage about the geological history of the area in the middle of a chase scene.

It’s not that the intent to teach is inappropriate in a children’s book, but when you’re writing action-adventure you need to be careful about integrating it so as not to interrupt to interrupt the flow of your narrative. This fails a little at that, and those were the only times I thought it dragged.

The second has to do with some of the characters. About half, mostly the talking animals and the villain, are memorable if kiddy. But then the humanoid magical characters all blend together in a sort of generic, heroic stoicism. I really don’t understand how or why this happened; all the rest of this is very children’s show anyway, so why not make them big and memorable too? Is it some misplaced attempt at seriousness?

If it is, it’s not borne out by anything else in the book, from the plotting, to the world building, to the other characters. I wish Madsen would have just bitten the bullet and given these people some personality, even if it was ridiculous and one-note.

That said, if you do find yourself looking for books for children, I would recommend this. I enjoyed it far better than most early reader, and can see kids really liking it. It’s adorable and fun, very geared toward that age range, and will probably make the people it’s intended for very happy.

Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin

ten mile river

Standalone, Dial Books, 2008, 188 pgs.

Ray and José are modern day Boxcar Children: on the run from the foster system, living on Cap’n Crunch and wild-caught fish in an abandoned stationhouse on the banks of the Ten Mile River. They steal what they need, pull shady jobs to get enough money to eat, and try to make a life for themselves out of the scraps that they have. Eventually, a girl comes into their lives who will change the way they look at things. Eventually, they get real jobs and try to work themselves into society. And, eventually, they begin to find out who’ll they’re going to be in the end.

And now, for something completely different: contemporary slice of life!

As much as I most often fall into the fantasy/science fiction niche, I do make some effort to branch out beyond my main interests. Especially when something catches my eye or I know there’s a good chance I’ll like it. I originally picked up Ten Mile River because last year I read and loved The Orange Houses by the same author, which made reading this novel an interesting exercise. Because, for all their similarities, these two books were very different experiences.

Like The Orange Houses, Ten Mile River focuses on the lives of troubled teenagers in lower-class New York. And like The Orange Houses, this novel takes its characters through brutally honest, awful situations towards some small hint of salvation.

I’d say the similarities end at the subject matter, though, because in everything from structure, to tone, to prose these are very different books. On one hand this is a shame, because it ends up nixing a lot of what I loved about the previous novel. On the other, the new things it’s doing work well for the story being told here.

The key changes here are structure and language. You see, I originally loved The Orange Houses because on some level it felt like slam poetry to me, and I liked the idea of working that into a prose piece. A lot of that was style, obviously, with its fast-paced, rolling, musical feel. But a lot of it was also just the structure of the novel, the chronological breaks and shifts between characters intended to hit certain points of emphasis. It was this style that I really loved, and I was hoping for more of that here.

Ten Mile River is a drastically different work, though, to the extent that is almost seems like someone decided to steal the author’s identity. It’s one story, told from one perspective in little episodic bursts set across a couple of years, instead of the beautiful build of the previous novel. It’s all chronological too, with no poetic insets or breaks in the narrative. Instead, it’s day after day in a way that almost seems pointless and listless. And most disappointing of all is the prose: stilted and awkward, with no flow to carry the reader along.

As bad as that sounds, I think all of it is actually intentional, though. The characters in The Orange Houses were artists and poets, and the style of the writing made that clear as much as the plot did. Our two leads here, José and Ray, are juvenile delinquents and high-school dropouts trying to survive on their own, and Ten Mile River’s style reflects that instead.

It’s less enjoyable for me but purposeful, and I’m not entirely sure how I can come down on it when it’s something that so clearly has meaning to the piece. It works for what it wants to do, and it’s not like it’s not readable or anything.

If I do have one legitimate qualm about the way the novel is written, it’s the way José mixes up his words. His saying one thing and meaning another is a running joke intended to show his lack of education and his apathy toward learning. And for the most part it works; he tries to pull out an SAT vocab word, mistakes it, Ray corrects him, and he ignores the correction.

About a quarter of the time, though, they feel like mistakes no one who’s spoken English their whole life would make. Like they’re played up for humor, more than true to the situation and character. This could work if José was a purely comic figure, like Dogberry, but for most of the novel you’re supposed to see him as sort of tragic. It throws the characterization off for a cheap joke, and could have been easily avoided if Griffin had just toned it down a little.

Which is sad, because the characters were the one thing I really did enjoy about the book. I think it’s becoming abundantly clear to anyone who’s read more than one of my reviews that characters I like can make up for a lot of other flaws in a work for me. If the prose and plot were underwhelming to me here, then the fact that our two leads were beautifully done was what kept me going.

They’re very different, with José as the cocky player who doesn’t seem to want anything more than to stay out of juvie and Ray as the shy, whip-smart, gentle giant who might actually make something of himself if only he could leave his friend behind. In spite of this, they’re never played against each other, with one being lauded as the role model; instead they’re brothers who support and care about each other.

José keeps telling Ray to go back to school, get his education and do something with his life. Ray keeps refusing and continues to help José with his criminal activities in order to watch his friend’s back.

They fight, yes, and have their issues, but the book never really takes one of them and makes them into the villain. While reading you have sympathy for both and really want them to get to a more stable situation together. And part of that sympathy is in the fact that they’re both written as real, awkward teenagers, albeit in very different ways.

If the prose is a little stifled and the plot is a little actionless, then I’m willing to forgive it for fun characters who are written with an eye toward understanding, rather than judgement. As much as this didn’t live up to The Orange Houses for me, I don’t think it’s a bad book. It may not be a surprise favorite like the other, but it knows what it wants to do and pulls it off well enough.

Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

forest of memory.png

Standalone, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016, 85 pgs.

Katya makes her living off of Authenticities, interesting historical artifacts that were actually used by the people of the past, and Captures, recorded moments from her own life that can be remixed into videos or songs. So, it’s perfectly natural that, coming home from a pickup, she stopped to record the herd of deer clomping across the pavement in the sunlight. What wasn’t natural was being cut off from the cloud. Or being kidnapped by the man who appeared to be blocking her signal. Or being stuck for a week in the woods with him, with nothing but her own fallible memories to relate the experience. She has no proof of her story. But that’s what makes it so interesting, isn’t it?

As much as I like my slow builds, complex plots, and layered characterizations, every now and then you come across a story that doesn’t need much to be worth the while. Forest of Memory is definitely that book; honestly in most ways there’s not a lot to it.

The plot’s pretty simple, with no grand stakes, complex setup, or shocking twists. The characterization, prose, and world building are all likewise plain. We have one or two major traits for our whole two characters, one major change from our present reality, and little to no fancy language. At most we get a central mystery and a single narrative trick to distinguish the book.

It works here, though. At less than a hundred pages, that’s partially because this novella doesn’t have room to pull off anything fancy. Everything mentioned above takes the sort of time and space that 96 pages, including both covers, thanks and publishing information, and all of the flyleaves, just don’t have. But it’s also because the book asks an intriguing enough question to carry it through its short length.

Set in a world where every moment of most people’s life is recorded and uploaded to a central cloud to be rewatched, analyzed, and remixed, this book looks at how the fundamental experience of humanity changes when the foibles of human memory are no longer a problem.

Which could have been very bad. This is clearly something written in response to the smartphone and 3D printer era, and that sometimes can bring out the scaremongering. As someone who grew up as the internet grew into its own, I always balk a little at the Luddite notion that technology is making us loose human connection. From what I see, it’s only the particulars that are different, and people remain people.

There’s not much judgment call here, though. This is more of an exploration of how things might develop and how those particulars might continue to evolve. How does a constant record of everyone’s life change our culture? It’s a good question to ask, as well as a relevant one.

The answer Kowal seems to come up with is “we grow an unrestrained demand for the small, unique details of those lives and a need to constantly go back and analyze our past behavior,” which is something that I really feel does suit our current internet ethos. For example, our narrator, Katya, makes her living basically selling unique experiences. Whether it’s in the form of a used, scribbled in dictionary or an interesting moment from her personal life’s feed, the value of the things she collects is in the fact that they could have only come from a specific time, place, and person.

Which is something I think we already do. You can see that idea of people looking for something personal and unique in everything from Etsy shops to daily life blogs to Youtube videos. Mining your own experiences for widespread consumption is basically what we’re doing when we toss our thoughts out into the void of the internet. It’s basically what I’m doing now.

The more important track the novella takes, though, is the question of how a person deals with not having access to the public record of the events of their life that they’re used to. Cut off from the usual recording of her life, Katya mentions time and time again how much she wishes she could look back and analyze her facial expressions, actions, and surroundings. How much she wants a confirmation of what she remembers, because for most of the time span of the story adrenaline was taking over and she’s not entirely sure what she was thinking. She wants both clues as to why she did what she did and proof that all of it actually happened.

That divide between reality and memory, between experience and record is something everyone has to deal with. But I think the inability to just shrug off that uncertainty is pretty particular to a generation that is used to having some sort of recorded proof at their fingertips. I know when I’m wondering when something happened or who I was with at the time the first thing I do is try to look up the pictures on Facebook. And I do get disappointed when I don’t find the confirmation I’m seeking.

This is all extremely interesting discussion to me, and like I said, I think it’s enough to carry the story by itself. It does help that what structure the book has is well done, though. The plot may not be anything complex, but Kowal still knows how to load it with big moments and drama. And if the prose is fairly plain, then it still knows exactly what feel it wants to create and how to make that happen.

This comes mostly from the single narrative convention mentioned at the beginning of this review. The conceit here is that the story is being written down for an unknown customer by Katya, who is wracking her brain trying to figure out both what actually happened to her and what this person wants out of hearing it. So everything from Katya’s frustrated and brusque tone, to her constant digressions as new details are recalled, to the typos and reworded strikethroughs sprinkled through the text work in service of that.

Those little details really help to convey what the story is trying to do, and I love how they aid the theme of uncertainty. Faced with it, Katya still needs to have some record of her experience, even if it’s one created after the fact.

The best part is the characterization, though. We may only have two characters here and they may not have much room to develop, but again, what is here is well done. I’ve mentioned before how important it is for character reactions to feel real, and this book is wonderful on that point.

Katya’s imprisonment by “Johnny” is never treated as anything less than an actual hostage situation, and the two people involved react accordingly, even in spite of the grudging liking they take to each other. She never stops being afraid of him, even when he’s doing nothing threatening, and he never trusts her enough to even tell her his real name or show her his face. They may have some strange camaraderie between them, but they’re never made out to be friends.

So yes, this may be a simple story, but all of its simple elements are done exceptionally well. To the extent that there’s a small part of me that thinks it’s not simple at all, just clean enough to be deceptive.

Between that and the discussion fodder I’d say this is more than well worth your time. At three bucks for the Kindle edition and a length that can be read in a couple of hours, I don’t see why you wouldn’t at least give it a try.