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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

Currently reading

All the President's Men
Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward
Progress: 73/383 pages
Women's Gothic and Romantic Fiction: A Reference Guide (American Popular Culture)
Kay Mussell
Progress: 17/157 pages
The Looking-Glass Portrait
Linda Hilton
Really Neat Rocks: A casual introduction to the rocks & gems of Arizona and the lapidary arts
Linda Hilton
Progress: 61/61 pages
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer
The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers
Progress: 20 %

Halloween Bingo -- Werewolves -- Howl, Growl, and Groan

Sleeping With the Wolf - Maddy Barone







Disclosure:  Obtained the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter.  I am an author.


This is a Liquid Silver release, so the sexy stuff was expected.  The story was just the vehicle. 


Carla is an up and coming country singer on a flight from Minneapolis to Denver when her plane crashes.  She and some of the other passengers survive, only to find that it's no longer 2014 but 2064, and the whole world has changed due to some kind of apocalypse.  Technology is just about gone, and so are most women.  (I'm not sure how that happened.  Maybe it was in one of the sexy parts I skimmed.)


After leaving the crash site to go search for help, she reaches a town where women are prizes for which the men fight.  She ends up being won by Taye, who is sometimes Lakota and sometimes wolf. 


“Not a werewolf.” Carla remembered his explanation that first night. “Just a guy who can turn into a wolf when he wants. Talk about crazy, huh? It takes a little getting used to.”

Barone, Maddy. Sleeping With the Wolf (After The Crash Book 1) (Kindle Locations 1803-1804). Liquid Silver Books. Kindle Edition.


His lust is instantaneous -- she's his mate, he somehow figures out -- but hers is inevitable.


He has a pack of about 50 other wolves/werewolves living in a den that's mostly an abandoned motel. 


Word gets out somehow or other that Carla was a singer in the Times Before, so some human man from another town brings her his wife's guitar.  Carla gets to resume her singing career!


Her concert for the wolves that night was a hit. For feral murdering wolves they were amazingly tenderhearted.

Barone, Maddy. Sleeping With the Wolf (After The Crash Book 1) (Kindle Locations 1569-1570). Liquid Silver Books. Kindle Edition.


It was short, the writing was passable, there was something resembling a plot and conflict and resolution.  And it filled a Bingo square. 



I found a werewolf book

and it's not very good.  But it will do.

Halloween Bingo - Romantic Suspense - The way they were

Silverhill - Phyllis A. Whitney




Funsies from the archives.


This was one of those "just when you think you've got it all figured out."


Malinda Rice's mother has just died and Malinda has brought her back to the ancestral home in New Hampshire to be buried.  She has also come to confront her grandmother with a family secret.


The story is deftly crafted, with a cast of creepy characters who are never what they seem, and who keep changing -- but not really -- all the time.  There's the domineering matriarch Mrs. Julia, in her Boldoni-esque finery.  Aunt Fritzie with her caged birds and wild plants.  Elden the gardener.  Cousin Gerald with his cruel devotion and hidden talent.  Doc Wayne  and his own secrets.  Aunt Nina and Miss Kate and the boy Chris.  And of course it all works out in the end, but not the way any of them expects!


This was quick afternoon read, made easier by Whitney's smooth writing and (almost) flawless plotting.  Written in the late 1960s, it reads almost like a historical now with the absence of technology.  It's full of typical juicy threats and fears of scandal, impossible loves, and complicated jealousies.


I reserve my five-star reviews for the truly outstanding, and this one just missed four stars because of that (almost) plot hole.  It's not really a spoiler, since the information comes out fairly quickly in the book, but I found the original relationship between Malinda and Dr. Wayne Martin a bit too precious given their age difference.  I thought it could have been written a little more realistically for a four-year-old and a fourteen-year-old.


Other than that, fun and HEA and another Bingo square!

Reading progress update: I've read 73 out of 192 pages.

Silverhill - Phyllis A. Whitney

Aunt Arvilla says:


Though of course it was beginning to sound old-fashioned even in the Twenties.  Perhaps that was the last of the sentimental, romantic shows everyone used to love.  All those dreadful young novelists were beginning to appear and influence everything -- Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos and Dreiser.  I never liked them, really.  I liked George Barr McCutcheon much better.

The Thin Man . . . and the pink panther

The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett

I'm not sure I read this book the right way, meaning the way it was intended to be read.


As a serious noir mystery, I don't think it worked.  At least it didn't for me.  Since I have the book for another two and a half weeks from the library, I may read The Maltese Falcon for comparison.  Though it's been years and years and years, I've seen the movie of the latter and have some sense of the mood and atmosphere.  I've never seen the William Powell/Myrna Loy film of The Thin Man, though I remember the tone of the TV series with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.


Therefore, I read The Thin Man with more than a little of my tongue in my cheek.  As a comedy, it worked a lot better than it would have as a straight mystery.


Part of that may have been the historical time frame, too.  The 1930s with Prohibition and its gangsters and speak-easies as well as the Depression didn't mesh with the flippancy Nick Charles brought to the story, not to mention his drinking.  The various criminals who populate that New York winter's tale are almost caricatures; few of them are fleshed out into serious characters.  Most of them aren't very bright, either, providing another nice contrast to the cool, suave, brilliant Mr. Charles.


The dashing to and fro between the hotels and the dives at all hours of the day and night brought to mind the Keystone Cops.


Nick didn't do anything that the police couldn't have done, and he didn't even want to do it.  The fact that he resolved the case, almost without trying, added to the comedic aspect.  The police couldn't be taken seriously any more than Mimi and Dorothy could.


Once I set aside the notion of taking the story seriously, it was a lot easier to read and enjoy.  If it was supposed to be taken seriously, on the other hand, it would have fallen totally flat.


Asta, on the other hand, is always cool.



Review updates

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

I'm going to add some updates to my review of this book.




Halloween Bingo - Murder Most Foul - and a most difficult review

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

UPDATES at the end.







Disclosure:  I discovered this paperback copy on the "free reading" book exchange shelf at a local coffee shop some months ago.  I helped myself to it.  More later.



Though Desert Shadows is apparently listed as a "cozy" mystery by Goodreads and Amazon, I personally wouldn't classify it as such.  There's significant violence in it, though not a lot of on-stage sex.  And there's no humor.  Given the 2006/2017 publication dates, it's certainly not classic noir, but the characterization and atmosphere are much darker than a cute story with little old ladies, knitting, and cats.  There's child abuse and animal abuse, so take those as trigger warnings.


Private Investigator Lena Jones is a bitter, angry, tormented ex-cop in her early 30s.  She has more baggage than a socialite in first class on the Titanic.  She's asked to investigate the murder of independent publisher Gloriana Alden-Taylor, who was poisoned at a Scottsdale, Arizona, resort in the middle of a publishing association's conference banquet.  The primary suspect, Owen Sisiwan, is cousin to Lena's partner, Jimmy Sisiwan.  The method of poisoning was the ingestion of a toxic plant that had been added to Gloriana's banquet salad.


Within a dozen pages, I knew I didn't like Lena.  And I'm sure she wouldn't give a damn if I told her so.  She hated everything and everyone.  She hated the development in Arizona that had destroyed the desert, but she also hated the barrenness of the desert.  Her anger issues are so severe that she's been ordered into anger management treatment because she beat up a woman who was abusing a child.  The book is told in first person POV, so there's not much disguising Lena's bitterness.


It's somewhat justified.  At the age of four, she was shot in the head, apparently by her mother, and left by the side of the road.  Rescued by an undocumented Hispanic woman, she was taken to a hospital, then after she recovered from her injuries, she was put into the foster care system.  Her anger and other disciplinary issues -- fighting, stealing, and other things a whole lot worse -- kept her from ever being adopted out of the system, yet she somehow managed to get into Arizona State University.  I didn't really catch whether she graduated or not, but eventually she landed a spot with the Scottsdale Police Department. She stayed there until she was shot in the hip, at which point she decided to go into the PI business.


Her issues are so enormous that I just couldn't make myself believe that she would have survived police training and even the slightest kind of psych evaluations to get on the force.  Yes, I know there are people who are good at faking it, but . . . I just didn't get it with Lena.


And maybe that's why I just didn't get the resolution, either. 

There were all these horrible people, people with motives up the ying-yang, and Gloriana Alden-Taylor being a person so nasty and spiteful and issue-ridden herself that the world was a better place without her, but the killer was one of the few really decent people in the whole book.

(show spoiler)


Maybe that, too, is a characteristic of noir mysteries.  I like mysteries, but no matter what I did, I couldn't like this book.


Now the rest of the disclosure.


I met author Betty Webb in 1985 or very early 1986, when I joined a Phoenix-based organization called The Writer's Refinery.  We later became members of a critique group that met every other week and that stayed together for several years.  When I sold my second historical romance, Firefly, the group hosted a little party for me.  Betty baked the cake.



After our critique group disbanded around 1989, I became more active in the Romance Writers of America chapters in the Phoenix area and less active in the Writer's Refinery, but I still kept some contact with Betty.  And when she went to work for the Scottsdale Tribune newspaper, she kept in touch with the RWA members, too.



Betty called a bunch of us together in 1994 for a group interview and photo, published on 14 February for Valentine's Day.  At that time, she was no longer interested in writing novels and was enjoying her work with the newspaper.


The last contact I had with her was a few years after that, when I had gone back to school at ASU, probably around 1998 or 1999.  I'm not even sure what we talked about.  And I haven't talked to her since.


Finding her book at the coffee shop was a surprise, to say the least.  And because it happened just as I was ramping up my own resuscitated writing career, I took it as another of those "not really an omen" coincidences.  More like, you know, encouragement.


But I didn't have time then to read her book.  Halloween Bingo has been a great motivator for a lot of things I haven't had -- or found -- time for.


Within the first few pages, I knew all of this story, or at least this character. was very familiar.  I immediately suspected there is a great deal of Betty Webb in Lena Jones, though I'm not going to guess just how much.  But I recognized that Lena Jones had her beginnings long before the first of her stories -- Desert Noir -- was originally published 2000/2001. 


Our critique group broke up suddenly -- I remember exactly how and why, but it's not worth going into right now -- and left each of us with the last set of manuscript chapters that had been handed out.  Passages in Desert Shadows rang so familiar that I spent half an hour early this morning digging through the archives to find the folder with those almost 30 year old remnants of a bunch of old writing endeavors.


It was kind of creepy to read about a character named Elena whose background and experiences foreshadowed Lena Jones, right down to therapy sessions and half-forgotten memories.  It was even more creepy to read my own comments on the manuscript, comments that Betty Webb never saw, and realized how relevant those comments were to the character's metamorphosis into Lena.


There were details in Desert Shadows that jumped out at me that might not have made a difference to a reader not familiar with Arizona.  The story is set in March, when some of the wildflowers in the desert are in bloom, but not necessarily -- because it depends on how much rain falls during the winter.  And March is still late winter in Oak Creek, not spring, where the toxic plant was gathered.  (And why did Gloriana send everyone up there in the middle of the conference?  I never understood that part either.)  Locusts don't hop in the grass in March; they're a late summer or early fall bug.  Cops do still cover each other's butts, and the issue isn't of distinguishing Sikhs from Arabs, but Sikhs from Muslims.


And of course, the Scarlet(sic) O'Hara bit.  Betty's older than I am; she should know better.


Was the book well written?  I guess so.  Once again, there were so many unlikable characters that I had to force myself to keep reading.  I just plain didn't care about any of them.  The victim was one of them, but even she wasn't the worst.  And if the writing style was appropriate for the hard-boiled PI subgenre, I wouldn't have any way of knowing.  Even Nick and Nora Charles weren't that . . . gritty.  Or nasty.  Or unlikable.


Lena Jones as a "wounded" or "flawed" or "damaged" character was just too over the top for me.  I couldn't imagine her functioning as a cop or as a PI with all that baggage.  Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could imagine her functioning as a human being.


I wanted to like it.  I wanted to see that 1980s Elena character developed into something positive.  For me, it didn't happen.


I'm sorry, Betty.



UPDATE, because I wanted to keep this all together rather than spread out.


What follows may be both spoiler and trigger, so be warned.


The more I thought about Lena Jones last night and this morning, the more disturbed I became about her.  I wanted to find a way to reconcile her personality and all its emotional baggage with her character and occupation.  Bottom line was that I should have just let it go and gone on to another book.  But . . .


Lena was horribly abused in the foster care system, as it (supposedly) existed in Arizona in the 1970s and 1980s.  Her treatment was so horrendous that by the age of nine, she committed some very serious crimes.  The violent nature of these crimes would have caught the attention of even a very lax juvenile justice system.  While a juvenile crime record might be sealed once she reached age 18, I couldn't make myself believe that she would never resort to that kind of violence again.


And in fact, she did.  That's why she had the court order to get anger management counseling.  Her outburst had been triggered by an instance of child abuse -- and I couldn't believe that it was the first such instance she had witnessed since age nine.  Could I, as a reader, have been led to believe that Lena buried her rage for 20 years?  That in all those years, through nine more years in the foster system, through college and through eight years on the Scottsdale police force, she had never once been triggered to violence?  Yes, I could have been.  But I wasn't.  That's the author's job, and she didn't succeed, at least not with this reader.


That was my major stumbling block with this book.  Not only did I not particularly like Lena, but I didn't accept her as a viable character, in the sense that "she doesn't know she's only a character in a book."  She didn't seem real.


I tried to set that aside, at least for the moment while I looked closer at some other elements of the book.  I've already listed a few details that kind of bumped me out of the story, like the weather for the March setting and so on.  And I have to qualify the following observations by stating that I don't read police procedural mysteries, so I'm not particularly familiar with . . . police procedures.  However. . .


Spoilers ahead.


The victim, Gloriana Alden-Taylor, owned a small publishing company that was reportedly making money hand over fist because of the popularity of the type of books and other materials they were publishing.  Yet the company's office was small and under-staffed, the equipment didn't work, the employees were underpaid and abused.  Supposedly Gloriana was sinking all her money into restoration of a family home, but the home was still in wretchedly dilapidated condition, with few if any repairs evident.  There was also sufficient cash somewhere that her will gave one of her heirs enough income not only to buy a home but to quit working at least for a while.  Why hadn't Gloriana put that cash into the repairs on the home?


The murderer had sufficient and believable motive.  The murderer also had means, though that was a little less believable -- obtaining the poisonous plant under rather extraordinary conditions and time constraints.  But the issue of opportunity didn't make sense.  Although yes, people see what they expect to see and don't see what they don't expect to see, the idea of this particular person just waltzing into the banquet room and sprinkling some poisonous plant into the victim's salad, then waltzing out of the banquet room unnoticed by anyone seemed far-fetched.  After all, the entire staff would have been questioned by the police -- wouldn't they? -- and what are the chances that no one saw anyone unfamiliar, especially someone as noticeable as the killer, hanging around the dining room?  Would the killer have been able to blend in by wearing staff uniform?  If not, wouldn't their street clothes have been noticeable?


Murder, even with the motive, didn't seem like a route the killer would have taken to achieve the desired result.  It wasn't in keeping with that character's personality.  As a reader, I wanted to be able to sit back and say, "Yes, I can see how that person could have committed the crime."  I wasn't able to do that with this killer.  The motive wasn't sufficient to push that individual to the point of murder, the means were iffy, and the opportunity issue was kind of eye-rolling.


There was another issue, though, that exacerbated all of the above.  The killer commits another crime, after the murder.  Motive?  Yes, more or less there was a motive, though I still didn't quite buy it.  Means?  Well, that gets into the iffy category again.




The killer rigs up an explosion to destroy the publishing company's offices.  The information on how to do that comes from one of the books they've published, so the killer had access to that.  But one would think that the police, the ATF, and the insurance company investigators would be looking into the type of explosive used, where the materials might have been purchased, and who purchased them.  Although ATF is mentioned in the book, the bombing investigation is just kind of dropped. It's not even mentioned after the killer is identified, tried, and sent to prison (with an outrageously lenient sentence, I might add.)

(show spoiler)


Opportunity?  Well, that moved into eye-rolling territory again.  


How was the killer able to obtain the materials for the bomb, construct it, and place it on the property without being seen and recognized?

(show spoiler)

Maybe I missed things that another reader would see, things that would make all of these issues make sense and the problems disappear.  I did go back and look for some details, but nothing jumped out at me to clarify these issues.  It's also possible that I just don't understand the genre well enough, and I'm putting the book up against standards it was never intended to be measured by.


I don't know.  All I know is that I really tried to make it make sense, and I just couldn't.


Reading progress update: I've read 138 out of 280 pages.

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

Seriously, I do not believe in omens.


Reading progress update: I've read 106 out of 280 pages.

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

I'll finish this, but under duress, and only with the assumption that thoroughly disliking the protagonist is what the reader is supposed to do.


And I'm moving this to Murder Most Foul, because there's no way I would consider this a "cozy" mystery.

Reading progress update: I've read 85 out of 280 pages.

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

Does a police investigation of a murder stop when a suspect is arrested?

Reading progress update: I've read 38 out of 280 pages.

Desert Shadows - Betty Webb

Style is more noir than cozy, with a mouthy, hard-boiled PI.

Lenticular clouds

As I was driving home from errands this morning, there were half a dozen lenticular clouds -- the ones that look like flying saucers -- hovering over Four Peaks and Superstition Mountain.  By the time I reached home and could get the camera out, Four Peaks was out of sight and the best of the clouds over Superstition had already started to alter its shape.


Lenticular clouds usually form only over mountains, or in conjunction with strong fronts.  We have a dramatic weather change moving into our area over the next several hours, plus, of course, we have mountains.


Halloween Bingo - Classic Noir - The Thin Man -- THE LIBRARY DID IT!

The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett





I had ordered this from the local library, and it came through the county system.  The only other time I've done this, there was no renewal.  The book was due tomorrow, so I set aside some other reading and plunged into this on Tuesday.


Yesterday I got a renewal notice on it, but too late to call and find out what was going on:  Can I renew or not?


Rather than risk not being able to participate at all in the buddy read discussion, I stayed up late to finish it. 


Then I went to the library this morning -- and did NOT buy any books -- and took the book to the desk to find out what the deal was on renewals.


The answer -- some you can renew, some you can't.  This one, you can.


So, I renewed it and will have it at hand for discussion, but at least it's done!



If you can't say something bad, don't say anything at all.

Maybe BookLikes isn't the right spot for this, but I'm going to put it here anyway and on my sadly neglected blogger blog as well.  What the heck.


I was digging through some old files recently and came across a folder I had almost forgotten about.  It was one of those serendipitous events that got me to thinking about this whole business of reviewing, who we do it for, and what we put in our reviews.


There are people who review semi-professionally, by which I mean they are given books to read for the purpose of reviewing, but they don't actually get paid.  Maybe the books come from NetGalley or another online source.  Or from publishers.  Or from authors.  Whether they act upon it or not, these reviewers have a motive to give good reviews and to inflate ratings.  If good reviews and high ratings keep the free books coming, that's a motive.  If the reviewers can't afford to buy all the books they'd like to read or they like the attention good reviews bring them, those also are incentives to do what's necessary to maintain the supply.  They have a motive.


That doesn't mean their reviews shouldn't be taken into consideration or be automatically deemed unreliable.  Having a motive doesn't mean they acted on it.


Furthermore, even if they acted on that motive, even if like the late and unlamented Harriet Klausner they give every book five stars, they're free to do so.  There's no law that says they can't.  There's not even a TOS that says they can't.


And anyone who reads their reviews is free to discount or completely ignore them.  Or to trust them.


I'm pretty sure there are some of those semi-pro reviewers here on BookLikes.  There are probably some in my followers and followings.  I have no problem with this.


We are each entitled to review what and how we please.  Period.


If you don't like the way someone reviews, don't follow them or don't give their reviews any credence.  But please, don't tell them they're reviewing the wrong way or that they shouldn't review the way they do.  (Personal attacks on authors are not reviews, by the way.)


If you believe reviews should take the author's feelings into consideration, that's your opinion.  If you believe no review should be written unless the whole book has been read, that's your opinion.  If you believe reviews are supposed to help sell books and should therefore always be positive even if it means lying about the quality of the book, that's your opinion.


It's not mine.  If you are entitled to your opinion, am I not entitled to mine?


I don't think most reviewers lie about the books they read.  I don't even think many of them do.  And those who do, frankly, are entitled to do so!  Their reviews are for readers, and readers will learn either to trust those reviewers or not trust them.  Readers are entitled to their opinions of reviewers, too.


A review, however, is not a critique, and to me this distinction is very important, which is why I titled this blog post with the twist on the old admonition about being nice.


The folder I came across contained the score sheets and evaluation reports from a romance novel writing contest I coordinated more than 20 years ago. 


1.  The entries were the opening chapters of unpublished books (first 25-50 pages).

2.  Through their entry fee, the writers had paid for and were guaranteed at least two critiques/evaluations in addition to a 20-element score sheet. (Possible score 0-100, with 100 being perfect 5 points on each element.)

3.  The judges were experienced readers and many were also writers, with varying degrees of experience.  Each entry would have three judges; each writer could compare the scores and comments from three different readers.


As the coordinator of the contest, I gave the judges a set of guidelines to help them provide the entrants, whether they won or lost, with some kind of useful feedback.  The last item was:


Don't be afraid to tell the writer that something doesn't work for you.  Even if you can't explain WHY it doesn't work or tell her HOW to fix it, let her know this might be an area she needs to work on or get help on.  Is her description flat?  Is her dialogue stilted?  Does she make too many grammar or spelling mistakes?  Are her characters wooden?  These are unpublished manuscripts, so they aren't expected to be perfect!


There were over 100 entries, over 300 score sheets.  Only three of those score sheets came back with perfect scores, all from the same judge.  They were the only entries she read.  She gave them 100 points and her comments were identical on all three:  "I loved your book.  It was wonderful.  Keep up the great work!"


To put it mildly, none of the other judges who had scored these three manuscripts agreed with her.  I felt I had no choice but to find out why she had given perfect scores to three books, two of which the other judges found seriously flawed.


Through a series of emails (which are in the folder) and phone calls (referenced in the emails), I asked her if she truly felt these three manuscripts had absolutely no problems or weaknesses and were so perfect that they could not be improved upon in any way.  She admitted she did not.


"Then why did you give them perfect scores?" I wrote in one of the emails.  "If you didn't think they were perfect, why tell the authors that they were?"


She wrote back:  "I didn't want to hurt their feelings.  I knew the other judges were probably going to give low scores so I wanted to be nice."


"Wouldn't that give them false hope and maybe prevent them from getting some help?" I asked in a follow-up.  According to the other evaluations, one of the manuscripts was riddled with spelling errors and misused words, such as "lightening" that should have been "lightning" and "custom" that should have been "costume."  One judge had scored it only 27/100, with several zeroes.  "Did you basically lie to them?"


She admitted, "I suppose so.  I just couldn't make myself be mean to them.  I wouldn't ever want anyone to tell me there's anything wrong with my book.  I want to believe it's wonderful because to me it is.  I'm sure that's what she wants to believe, too."


After several more exchanges along this line, I wrote:  "So it wasn't about what she wanted or expected to get out of the contest because you had no way of knowing that, other than she paid with the expectation of honest feedback.  For you, it was all about your feelings.  Even though you agreed to be an honest judge and knew you might have to tell someone their book had problems, you knew ahead of time you couldn't and wouldn't do it."


Her reply to that was:  "Yes.  I would rather lie out of kindness than hurt someone's feelings."


I did ask her if she even read the entries or if she had just given them perfect scores "out of kindness."  She claimed she had read them.  I'll leave it at that.


The rules of the contest allowed for re-judging if any scores were way out of line; I gave all three entries to another judge who was able to give honest scores and critiques.  They were much more in line with the other two judges.


There was another manuscript that got rejudged in that contest, this one for a different reason.  Two judges rated it very high, well into the 90s.  The third gave it less than 20.  Again, as coordinator I had no choice but to ask her why she was so harsh on this entry, when the others she had judged fared quite well.  As it turned out, she didn't like the story or the characters because she didn't recognize the particular conventions of this type of romance novel.  They didn't fit the kind of books she was accustomed to reading, and so she didn't like it and thought everything was wrong.


"You scored it 0 on spelling and grammar," I wrote to her in an email, also in the folder.  "Did it have any errors?"


Her reply:  "I don't know.  I didn't pay attention."


She was very angry with me when I told her it would have to be rejudged because her score was so far out of line with the other two.


"My opinion this is a poor written book irregardless of the category.  Doesn't my opinion count?"


I had to tell her that in this case, no, her opinion didn't count, because she was giving inappropriate feedback to the writer.


"This isn't a review like in Romantic Times," I wrote to her.  "This book isn't done and edited and published.  You're not sharing your opinion of a published book that can't be changed with other readers as to whether you liked it or not.  This is between you and the writer who's looking for advice.  If you don't know anything about science fiction, would you try to help someone who's writing it?  Or a murder mystery?  Or would you just tell them their books are badly written because you don't like them?  You read [a particular category of romance novel] and this is [a different category] that has very different requirements.  Reviewing and critiquing are two different animals."


Also in the folder was a letter I had received from one of the entrants after the contest was over.  Though she had not won, she placed well (15th out of 103) with decent scores.  She thanked our group for sponsoring the contest and especially for guaranteeing that the writers would receive feedback.


"My family members and my critique partners are all too nice.  They won't tell me what's wrong with my book.  If publishers reject it without any feedback, where else is a writer suppose [sic] to get any?  Your judges all made comments that gave me points to look at for improvement that I wouldn't have thought of."


Another letter from another entrant was less complimentary:


"I can't imagine how bitter and cruel a person has to be to score a contest entry 0 points. I entered your contest to hoping to win not to get told how awful my book is. Your judges were not very helpful at all!  I thought [this contest] was about helping writers get published!"

Her manuscript placed 59th out of 103; each of her three judges scored at least one element with 0 points, though not on the same elements.


The manuscripts entered and the critiques offered through this contest essentially comprised private conversations between the writers and the judges, with the ultimate objective being to make the manuscripts publishable.  In the early 1990s when this contest was run, getting published by a traditional publisher was pretty much the only viable game in town.  If your work wasn't good enough, it didn't get published.  Period.


That aspect of the business has changed dramatically with the advent of digital self-publishing; nowadays, just about any piece of writing, no matter how crappy, can be "published." 


The digital revolution has also changed the "business" of reviewing.  At the time of that writing contest, there were very few outlets for popular fiction to be reviewed.  Each of the genre magazines had reviewers, but a monthly issue could only cover the most important, popular, or noteworthy books, and then with only one review!  When Rave Reviews spun off from Romantic Times in the late 1980s as an effort to bring non-romance reviews to the reading public, each of the hundred or so books reviewed still only received one review.


I reviewed for RR for about two years, mostly science fiction and non-fiction; then in the mid 1990s I reviewed mysteries for an online start-up that didn't get very far.  But that doomed start-up gave me a glimpse of what lay ahead for the digital era -- anyone can be a reviewer.


And everyone's opinion matters . . . to other readers.


The books I reviewed for Rave Reviews and the mysteries I reviewed online were published booksThey had gone through the acquisitions process and the editing process and now they were ready for the public to read.  The authors were finished with them and were probably hip deep in the writing of their next novel.  We reviewers didn't even think about the authors' feelings when we wrote our reviews; we were passing along our impressions to other readers, to the people who might be thinking about shelling out their hard earned cash for a copy of the book we had received for free in exchange for an honest review.


Many of us were also writers, whether published or not.  The distinction, therefore, between a critique of a work-in-progress and a review of a finished, published book was obvious to us.  We didn't even have to define it.  A critique was a dialogue between the critic and the writer; a review was the more or less unchallenged opinion of the reviewer expressed to potential readers.


Thirty years ago, a major, best-selling author's latest release might get a few dozen reviews from the major print publications such as The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal.  Most of the reviewers were professionals, either paid reviewers on the staff of those publications or working professionals in related fields whose opinions were solicited. 


Today, an unknown writer's first self-published work might get 200 reviews on Amazon, 500 ratings on Goodreads, another couple hundred blog reviews, but it may never have had a single pre-publication evaluation and critique.  It may never have been proof-read or edited.  The writer may have been told by his or her friends how cool the book was even though none of them had read more than the required reading in school and 50 Shades of Grey.


So where's the distinction between a critique and a review now?   How do you -- whether you're a reader or a writer -- know who to trust when it comes to reviews?  Where's the distinction between a knowledgeable reviewer and "An Amazon Customer"?


Let's start with the first question.  There's probably very little distinction between a critique and a review these days simply because the relationships have all blurred as well.  A writer who brought her manuscript to a critique group of four or five other writers or who entered it in a contest was likely sharing her work with no more than a dozen other individuals.  All of them knew at the outset that her work was unpublished and that she was asking them explicitly for and expecting their feedback on it.  Today the writer who digitally self-publishes has no control over who reads their book, how many people read it, or what they have to say about it.  The uninformed writer may not even understand how the digital review system works -- that anyone can say anything -- and be completely unprepared for negative feedback. 


Is that writer the intended audience for the review that's posted on Amazon or BookLikes or a reviewer's blog?  How is the writer to know if the review was intended for her?  How is a reader in search of new books to read to know if the review was intended as a critique for the writer or a review for the general public?


(The issue of purchased reviews is a whole separate kettle of fish.  Don't get me started on that one.)


There's no one-size-fits-all answer.  Not any more.  If you're a writer looking for honest feedback in online reviews, all I can say is "Good luck, honey!"  You're going to see five-star reviews that will warm your heart but that mean absolutely nothing in terms of improving your writing and furthering your career.  You're going to see one-star reviews that mean even less.  Your only real option -- if you absolutely must read your reviews -- is to read the negative reviews and see if there's anything you can learn from them.


That means that if you're a reviewer, the best way to help a writer is to be honest.  Point out the flaws, offer suggestions for improvement, warn them not to quit the day job.  But no one is going to make you do that.  If you don't mind promoting books you know aren't well written, that's okay.  If you don't want to review those books at all, that's okay, too.  If it's more important to you to be nice than to be honest, you're perfectly free to make that choice.  You will, of course, have to live with any consequences of that choice.


If you're a reader looking for recommendations you can depend on, the job is even harder.  You're going to have to find those reviewers whose opinions you trust.  They aren't going to find you!


Each of us, whether we are a reader, a writer, a reviewer, or any combination thereof, has our own style and our own requirements.  We will each have our own followers; we will each choose who to follow.  It is up to us to determine how we're going to review, what our criteria will be, what our tone and our objectives will be.  It's not up to anyone else to tell us how to do it, any more than it is up to any individual reviewer to tell us what we can and cannot, should or should not, read.  Or write.


However, neither will any of us be automatically protected from the consequences of our choices.  If you choose to be like Harriet Klausner and only give five-star reviews to everything that comes in your mailbox, do not be surprised if writers love you but readers don't take you seriously.  If you choose to flay bad writing and contrived plots and plywood characters, be prepared for the slings and arrows of outraged writers and their fans.


A review that's posted publicly is for the public as much as a published book is for the public's consumption.  There are still channels for private communication, but the public review is not one of them.  And if your public review isn't really for the public, then maybe you should reconsider putting it out there.  If you don't want feedback -- and especially negative feedback -- then maybe publication, even of a review, isn't your best course of action.


Regardless what you choose to do, remember that everyone else has the same freedom to choose and deserves to have that right respected even if you don't agree with them.











Halloween Bingo - Witches - One of my bargain books

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West - Gregory Maguire


This was one of those bargain books I picked up at the library.  Though not as big a bargain as those 10-cent beauties, I couldn't complain about plunking out 75 cents for this one.


I set it aside just waiting for Halloween Bingo.  But it's going to be a longer read than some of the others, so I'm hoping for break by having one of my opted-out squares called soon.

Halloween Bingo - Locked Room Mystery - I liked Mycroft better

The Sign of Four -  Arthur Conan Doyle



I hadn't made up my mind about the Locked Room Mystery square until the last minute.  For some of the other squares my choices were fairly long and I was looking forward to them, so I was glad to spot The Sign of the Four on the suggested list. 


The novel is included in The Works of A. Conan Doyle published by Black's Readers Service, one of those inexpensive sets that used to be advertised -- maybe they still are? -- on the back cover of the Sunday newspaper magazine supplement.  My dad had a set bound in red cloth; I bought them in the tan paper-embossed-to-look-like-leather-and-stamped-in-gold back in the early 70s.




And it's been about that long, or maybe even longer, since I read The Sign of the Four, when I was on a Holmes binge.  Having just read Kareen Abdul-Jabbar's Mycroft Holmes, I thought the comparison would be interesting.


Yeah, I liked Mycroft better than his younger brother.


The opening scene with Sherlock shooting up cocaine because he's bored didn't shock me, because I had remembered it quite well.  Unfortunately, I didn't like it 45 or more years ago, and I didn't like it now.  "Well, if you're so freaking bored, why don't you go out and find a puzzle that's worthy of your supreme powers of deduction, you arrogant asshole?" was my thought yesterday.


See, Mycroft was arrogant, but he never reached the stage of full-fledged assholery his younger brother had.


As I continued reading, bits and pieces of the story came back to me, but not all in one flash, so as far as the story itself went, it was pretty much like a fresh read.  But Sherlock's personality didn't improve.  The general Victorian racism was no surprise either, but it sat no easier on my mind than Sherlock's addiction.


The locked room mystery part was quickly solved, and the rest was the search for the actual perpetrator once he'd been identified.   And the last quarter of so of the novella was in turn his tale of the events that had led up to the murder.


Many elements of Jonathan Small's history brought to mind The Moonstone (1868), but the Wilkie Collins novel was in my estimation not only much better done with a more interesting set of characters, but also dealt with the social issues more aligned with current attitudes than with the traditional Victorian views expressed by Conan Doyle.  Small's disposal of the treasure he considered he had a right to contrasted sharply with the ending of The Moonstone.  The mystery of the treasure really overshadowed the locked room mystery in The Sign of the Four, and Holmes had no part in solving it other than finally capturing Jonathan Small.