Disclaimer, just so anyone reading this review is aware of the context: I downloaded the free Kindle sample of this book from Amazon. I am an author of historical romances. I do not know the author of this book but I have had exchanges with her on Goodreads about this book and others, most of which are public and some of which have been quite acrimonious. She is not a Goodreads friend of mine. I have not blocked her, nor have I deleted any of her comments or requested that they be removed by Goodreads. I have reported many of her sock puppet accounts, which have been removed.
Someone flagged the initial review of this book and had it "hidden" because it dealt more with the author's behavior than with the book itself. Herewith follows a review of . . . . the book itself.
The reason for downloading a Kindle sample or any other digital sample is to find out if the material is appealing enough to spring for the price of the whole thing. It's pretty much impossible to assess the plot of a novel on the basis of a 10% sample, especially when part of that sample isn't even story: Very often the front matter (title page, copyright information, dedication, etc.) takes up a good portion of the sample. But for the reader whose interest has been piqued by the title, cover art, and description of the book, the digital sample affords the opportunity to evaluate the writing.
Sometimes a reader will reject a book quickly on the basis of something as innocuous as point of view. Some readers really dislike first person narratives and won't even download a sample. It's as much a matter of personal preference as is the preference for historical over contemporary romance, western over mystery, glitz and glam over chick lit. In other words, that kind of decision to read or not read has very little to do with how well or how poorly the writer has written the book but simply with what the reader likes or doesn't like. And it's nothing that the author can or should do anything about. Most assuredly the author should not argue with a reader over her personal taste and/or opinion.
Another reason some readers decide to read on and others give up after reading the sample is the quality of the writing. Although any individual reader may choose whether or not to continue reading a text littered with typographical and spelling errors, words incorrectly used, grammatical mistakes, and inaccurate "facts," that choice alone does not alter the fact that bad writing is still bad writing.
But what, exactly, is "bad writing"? Is there a truly objective, hard and fast standard?
No, of course there isn't. For one thing, the application of any definition of "bad writing" depends on the reader's knowledge and experience and ability to recognize the flaws. There are many readers who don't know the difference and happily enjoy works that give other readers migraines. Another reviewer should never challenge that enjoyment. It, too, is a personal choice.
However, the one standard that I do believe can be applied is the extent to which the author is able to transfer her creative vision from her imagination to the reader's experience.
It is the job of the writer to convey her story to the reader as she intends it to be understood by the reader. It is not the reader's job to figure out what the writer was trying to say. It is the writer's job to make sure the right words are used and that they are used correctly.
No matter how wonderful, how inventive, how entertaining or witty or dramatic or poignant or heart-breaking or heart-stopping the story itself is, if the writing isn't sufficiently skillful to get that drama or excitement or poignancy across to the reader, the writer has failed. The book fails. The reader has not failed, because it's not the reader's responsibility.
I cannot evaluate the story quality of Sharon Desruisseaux's A Tenacious Grasp on Reality on the basis of a sample, and I won't even attempt to. I have no idea how the plot will unfold or the characters develop or the conflicts complicate. But I can evaluate the writing. And the quick judgment is simple: I can't understand what the bloody hell she's trying to say. Oh, I can kind of figure out what I think she might mean, but I can only do so with a great deal of effort. I have to dissect her prose sentence by sentence and correct her grammar and backwards engineer her thesaurusizing, but after I've gone to all that trouble, I'm still not sure if that's what she really meant.
And what if I'm wrong? What if that isn't what she meant at all? Would I want to read half the book only to discover I'd misunderstood everything and it wasn't at all what I thought it was? Um, in a word, no. When I read for entertainment and enjoyment and relaxation, I don't want to have to work at it.
Desruisseaux's prose in A Tenacious Grasp on Reality is very close to being incomprehensible. I suspect, though of course I can't be positive since the only evidence on which I can base my judgment is the text itself, the author is trying too hard to be something she's not and may not even understand: An intellectual writer. The use of two-dollar words to express 25-cent ideas is one thing; when it's the wrong two-dollar word, the whole effort is wasted; when the wrong two-dollar word is used incorrectly, the effect becomes ludicrous. Being a good writer doesn't require turning every noun into a verb (or vice versa) or using every word in the thesaurus; it does require that the author have a solid grasp on how words are used to construct understandable sentences.
It doesn't make any difference if the author, any author, claims her book has been edited, or if she even lists the name of an editor, a proofreader, or anything else. The text speaks for itself, and it is either readable or it is not.
Desruisseaux's text is not readable.
As evidence, I present the first paragraph from the "Author's note" at the beginning of the book. Not really a prologue or a foreword or a preface, it's just. . . . a note. Like this:
The unknown lay buried and strewn about on a land presided in full complacency by the domicile standing proud with protective embrace of all occurrences within. Such clandestine designs allowed the time’s consent of which centuries turned to dust deep within nocturnal cradle. One small footstep does spare a reconciling within and knowledge wipes away deceptions fondest attempts. Ignorance only makes the hidden cry out to a full roar that can no longer be whispered of in secret from such ease. Dormant lays the spectral feast until one actually hears the voices that fervidly call out to ascertain the identity of deeds morbid past. Canopy of ancient trees lie overhead and comfort those in forever slumber for all eternity. One such person does stumble upon the comfort of those who remained in silent and unknown rest for too long. What would one expect when the truth is bare and exposed for such dire consequences that gained them admittance of this forever sleep so long adhered? Shock, fright, or curiosity? To ponder more on such matters, one must only turn the page...
The first sentence alone is a mess of word salad that makes no sense. Take it apart. Analyze it. See what's wrong with it and try to find a way to fix it so it says what the author wants it to say.
How can "the unknown" be both buried and strewn about at the same time?
What is meant by "a land"? A country? A plot of land? A piece of property? A feudal demesne?
What does she mean by "presided in full complacency"? To preside is to be in charge, to be in a position of authority, to direct and have control of a meeting or gathering. But complacency is a state of contentment and self-satisfaction coupled with unawareness. Is there a difference between just regular complacency and "full" complacency? How is that difference determined? The two terms are almost mutually exclusive, and it's difficult to reconcile them into the same concept, especially with that vague "full" qualifier.
How can this land be presided complacently by a proud domicile? A domicile is a house, a residence. And while it's certainly possible to give literary personification to a building, what is it that makes this domicile proud, yet complacent? And how does it protectively embrace all occurrences within? What do those internal occurrences have to do with all the unknown outside?
Do I begin to have some idea what she's trying to say? Oh, I think so. Maybe. I can't be positive, of course, but if I may be allowed to rewrite this first sentence:
Proud and serene, the old house dominated the landscape, sheltering those within from the secrets, both ancient and recent, that surrounded it.
Would you like me to tackle the next sentence? And the one after that?
Be patient. This is hard work. ;-)
After a good night's sleep, I guess I'm ready to examine the second sentence. I'd like to throw in a little background first, which may be of some assistance to other writers who are reading this review.
My junior high English classes included the art of diagramming sentences, and as boring as it was at the time, I now consider those lessons invaluable. I know what a sentence is, what its constituent parts are, how they function and how to make them work for me. This knowledge helps me not only recognize poorly constructed sentences but also aids in figuring out how to fix them so they say what the writer wants them to.
Reading much of the writing turned out by some self-publishing authors like Desruisseaux, I can see that they haven't mastered the intricacies of sentences structure, and this is absolutely essential. Desruisseaux doesn't have a solid grounding in the basics of subject and predicate, direct and indirect objects, active and passive voice, clauses and phrases, gerunds and participles and auxiliary verbs. It's not enough to have the power tools -- the computer and Kindle Direct Publishing -- if one hasn't learned to properly use the basic hand tools.
Such clandestine designs allowed the time’s consent of which centuries turned to dust deep within nocturnal cradle is the second sentence.
What "clandestine designs" is she referring to here? There are no designs or plans or intentions or plots or drawings or anything even remotely similar stated or implied in the previous sentence. Is the "such" unnecessary? Does it confuse?
What "time" is she referring to that had given its consent? What did it consent to? Did the centuries turn that consent to dust, or did the consent turn the centuries to dust? What does "nocturnal cradle" mean? The use of an indefinite article -- "a" -- might have made that cradle a bit more understandable, but as the sentence stands, it's just more gibberish.
Does all this gobbledygook simply mean there were powers or forces crafted into the design of the house that allowed time to pass by while the secrets of the unknown lay buried and almost forgotten?
I don't know. While I was able to come up with a reasonable interpretation of the first sentence, by the time I struggled through this one, I was pretty much lost. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what, as a reader, I'm supposed to be envisioning. Is it moody and mysterious and all that? Yeah, sort of. But a story needs more than mood.
One small footstep does spare a reconciling within and knowledge wipes away deceptions fondest attempts.
Now we're into serious word salad territory. I don't know what "a reconciling within" means at all. Knowledge may wipe away deception's fondest attempt, but attempt at what?
Three sentences into this "note," and I'm lost. Does this kind of prose invite me as a reader into a story? No, it doesn't. Would I have to expend enormous interpretative effort to try to figure out what the author is trying to say? Yes, I would.
Is it going to get better? I doubt it. Do I want to find out? Um, no, not if it's going to require this much effort on my part. Not when there are books written that are probably just as entertaining and are much better written.
Now, maybe I'm just too stupid to figure out the meaning of this stunning prose, and if that's the case, oh well, my loss. But I don't think that's the case at all. I think this book is just so overwhelmingly poorly written that no one but the author is ever going to have a clue what it's about.
Pointing that fact out is not a crime. It's not bullying and it's not meanness and it's not horrible. It's just one person's honest opinion, backed up with evidence and analysis.
Maybe there's a fantastic story hidden in this narrative, but I'm going to leave it for someone else to find. The truly incompetent writing turned me off.