Reviews: Giving Them

As an author, I spend a lot of time thinking about getting reviews. But today, I want to look at the other side of the coin.

I’ve been giving more book reviews lately. Why? Well, it’s a fun way to get out of my own head for a while, see what others are doing, and hopefully help other writers as well. We all want reviews.

Do I have guidelines for myself? You bet I do.

I  try to be both gentle and positive. Writing a book is hard work, and putting together an interesting and cohesive novel is a real accomplishment. I find it amazing how many people manage to do this every day. Who says our society is becoming illiterate? Some days I wonder if more people are writing books than are reading them.

So, kudos to all authors. This is not an easy thing you have done!

I don’t have much respect for reviewers who make rude remarks (or include insulting memes) to get a laugh from readers.  I have even less respect for them if they don’t write books themselves. I’m inclined to encourage all sincere attempts at creativity — be it musicians, fine artists, or writers.

Writers have a particular handicap, though. It takes far longer to read a book than to listen to a song or study a sketch. Our readers will be investing some serious time, even if they give up on the book. So, it is reasonable for a potential reader to want to know if this story is really worth the hours they will likely spend with it.

That means it is important for a review to be honest. I never like everything about a book and I’m sure you don’t either. Yet Amazon is full of reviews that make most books sold on the site sound perfect. Come on. We all know that isn’t true. Who writes these things?

The function of a review is to help another reader decide if they should read this particular novel. The most helpful thing a reviewer can do is point out what they enjoyed about the book and what gave them heartburn. There’s no reason not to do it with kindness, but it still needs to be done. A review entirely lacking in criticism isn’t a review, it’s an advertisement.

Disagree with any of the above? Feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to discuss it with you.

(A version of the above post was published on my general 46. Ascending blog as a preamble to re-posting all of my most recent reviews there. If you’d like to learn more about the seven books I’ve reviewed recently, all shown above, please check it out.)

Review: The Calculating Stars

Author Mary Robinette Kowal doesn’t know anything about me …. so it’s not possible she understood that when she wrote “The Calculating Stars,” she was writing the one book I could not possibly resist reading.

Perhaps she was aware of the many women of my generation and older who can still remember the landing on the moon, and the fervor afterwards with which so many people wanted to go do that, too.

Some of those who were watching knew they could maybe do this. And some of us knew we couldn’t. And some of us thought that fact was terribly unfair.

Star Trek was exploring strange new worlds back then, and they had room aboard ship for my idol Lieutenant Uhura, and for whatever female ensign Captain Kirk had his eye on that week. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella struck me as more silly than admirable, but at least she was in outer space, too.

So, after the first landing on the moon, I bravely declared to my mother that I wished to become an astronaut. She looked at me curiously, like perhaps I possessed some troublesome quality she hadn’t been aware of.

“Find a more realistic ambition,” was all she said. I never brought it up again.

When I was little, my father flew small planes. Yet, he seemed every bit as puzzled as my mother once was, when years later I told him I had started to take flying lessons. I was out of college by then, making okay money as a technical writer. This is what I wanted to do with those earnings. I thought he’d be proud.

“Okay ….. ” was all he said. Before long, he sent me all his study manuals on flying, with a simple note. “If you’re going to be a pilot, be a good one.”

It would be decades more before I learned that he once flipped a plane while trying to land it, and had never flown again. The story we’d been told as kids was that it “got too expensive” for him to fly.

And it is expensive. Much as I loved it, I clearly was never going to be a commercial pilot, much less an astronaut. Before too long I moved on to other, more realistic dreams.

Then along comes this book.

It’s not just about women in space, it’s about women my mother’s age getting to go. Give me a break. How does this happen?

Oh. The blurb says a meteorite hits the earth and threatens to destroy all life. That’s all it takes to get women in the 1950’s into the space program? Cool. Bring on the meteorite. (Just kidding. Of course.)

Forgive the long preamble, but I felt I ought to explain why, by the time I was on about page 20, this had become my favorite book of all time.  A little context can be helpful.

Now, for a more objective look.

Pilot and mathematician Elma York is well qualified for the space program and she wants to join it. Author Kowal recognizes the difficulties of creating a character with a brilliant mind who is also a highly skilled aviator, is beautiful, is well liked by her family and friends, and who has a loving husband as talented as she is.

Kowal gives her an Achilles heel to balance out her many gifts and to make her goal of getting into space more difficult. On occasion I thought she took this “little problem” a bit further than was believable for a woman who had accomplished so much, but it did work to make the plot more interesting, and to make Elma a more believable human.

She also chose to give her an ethnicity (Jewish, right after WWII), which I thought was interesting but less pertinent to the story. Perhaps it ties better into the previous short works, or it will tie more into the sequels?

Much of the beginning of the book has to do with the meteorite and it’s aftermath. This part is chilling, and incredibly well written. I could hardly put the book down.

The second part centers on the accelerated space program being developed to help save humanity. Here Elma York encounters the sexism of much of the military, but she also faces the ingrained, even almost silly sexism of the time period. (Astronettes? Really?) It rings true.

Luckily, she is surrounded and supported by a strong group of women, many of them fellow pilots and quite a few of them also women of color, who are facing a whole ‘nother set of unfortunate biases. These women have a handful of male allies (including Elma’s husband) and, to no ones surprise, eventually they all prevail.

Kowal accepting the Hugo award

Kowal does try to bring in details about how her society reacts to the climate change brought on by the meteorite, and in doing so she obliquely addresses our own society’s struggles with abating climate change. She doesn’t hit you over the head with the comparison, and it adds a nice bit of social consciousness to the story.

The book is suspenseful in that the reader wants to see Elma go into space and wants to learn how she does it. However, it lacks any large plot twists or deep philosophical ideas. (Both of those are things I love in books.) So I have to admit this is more of “just a fun story” about talented and good people getting to do what they ought to be doing. It’s a cheer along book, but instead of being about a little league team or some such thing that doesn’t interest me, it’s about women getting to what I always wanted to do. So. I really enjoyed cheering along.

 

 

 

 

The Maine Nemesis

Today it is my pleasure to welcome author R. Scott Wallis and his novel The Maine Nemesis.

Author’s description of the book:

Fiercely independent, insatiably curious, and always up for an adventure, public relations hotshot Skyler Moore is a hero for our time. She’s decidedly not a sleuth by trade, but mayhem often comes knocking as she and her friends visit the small towns and big cities of America.

In “The Maine Nemesis,” Skyler decides to spend the summer at her seaside cottage in Wabanaki, Maine, with her best friend—celebrity chef Brenda Braxton—and they have no idea that murder will be on the menu. But women are turning up dead in the once sleepy village where nothing ever happens. With the residents up in arms and the rinky-dink police force overwhelmed, Skyler and her friends feel compelled to lend a hand to save the town they love so much. The backdrop is classic New England Americana: lobster rolls, the whole town out for the Fourth of July, and summer evenings cooled by the ocean breeze. That…and an occasional murder, a kidnapping, and a few dangerous liaisons.

Skyler’s mile-a-minute adventure will keep you turning the pages to see what comes next for her and her Down East ‘friends.’

My Review:

The Maine Nemesis is a crime novel set in New England, seasoned with plenty of small town intrigue and a lot of great cooking. You’ll absolutely want to have lobster for dinner before you are done reading the book.

Things I especially liked:

  1. This is a well told story with a large cast of characters, all of whom have plausible and detailed pasts. The small town drama and the individual struggles ring true. Some of the back stories are pretty sad, actually, but they are realistic and they roll well into the greater plot.
  2. I always find it fun when two female friends team up to accomplish something. The friendship between Skylar and Brenda, her childhood-friend-turned-cooking-show-celebrity, is the centerpiece of this novel.
  3. The description of the food will put five pounds on you just reading it :). Seriously, it’s that good.

What did I struggled with?

One thing, basically, but it was a big thing. I tried, I really tried, to like the main character and her best friend, but while I appreciated their friendship, they seemed like two rich, spoiled, and shallow women inserting themselves into a local crime scene while complaining about how miserable it was to travel first class on a commercial airlines instead of by private jet.

I’m sure there are those who’d find Skylar and Brenda glamorous, and would enjoy their adventures all the more for their airs, but they didn’t work well for me.

None-the-less, I appreciate the author crafting a complex mystery and skillfully placing it in a setting that was fun to explore. I recommend the book to anyone who likes to read about amateur sleuths.

About the Author:

Scott Wallis is endlessly inspired by his surroundings and adventures. And he thrives on new chapters and creating unique projects to keep himself out of trouble. Scott started his working life as an advance person and assistant to a sitting United States Vice President. Later, he served as the creative director for a leading Washington think tank. That led to working directly for one of the richest men on Earth, conceiving and executing exclusive events for his billionaire friends. Tired of working for the man, Scott became a top-rated pop-culture podcaster and celebrity interviewer, while also dabbling in both the worlds of clothing manufacturing (creating his own baby clothes brand that was sold in over 300 stores nationwide) and retail sales, with his own well-received men’s clothing store.

Always willing to lend a hand or donate what he can, he’s an enthusiastic philanthropist, championing causes such as childhood bullying, animal adoption, and feeding the less fortunate. A wide-eyed world traveler, Scott has been to four continents, mostly by sea. While he loves exploring Europe and the Caribbean islands, it’s the vast United States that he likes best. He’s been to Alaska four times, Hawaii twice, and can’t wait to explore the eight states he hasn’t been to yet. Technically a Connecticut Yankee, Scott grew up in historic Williamsburg, Virginia, and lived for 25 years in the Washington, D.C. area, before recently discovering that the American West is where he is most at home. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Learn more about R. Scott Wallis at the following places: His website. On Facebook.

Buy this book on Amazon. It is on sale for only $0.99!

R. Scott Wallis will be awarding a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.

Enter here to win.

This post is part of a tour sponsored by Goddess Fish. Check out all the other tour stops and find many more ways to enter and to win!

Final Note:  I received a free pdf of this book, which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

 

Review: Off Season

This is a blog devoted to women’s issues, and I don’t usually review books here. However, I’m making an exception for Off Season, and will do so again for books related specifically to the challenges women face.  See the end of this post for details about reviews on this blog.

Review Summary: E.S. Ruete tells a difficult story with compassion and bursts of eloquence. I rate it 3.8/5.0. My full review is below.

About this book: Dottie woke up wondering where she was and why she was so cold. The first thing she noticed was that she must be outside – she was lying on cold ground and snow was hitting her in unusual places. That’s when she noticed the second thing. Her skirt was pulled up past her waist and her panties were gone. Damn those bastards. It started to come back to her. Dottie is now on an odyssey; a journey not of her choosing; a journey of healing, integration, and reconciliation that will involve her partner, her friends, her enemies, her church, her whole community. And her rapists. As she fights her way through social stereotypes about rape and rape victims, she also finds the strength to overcome society’s messages of who she should be and lays claim her true self. But the memories, the loss, the anger – and the fears – never go away. No woman chooses to be raped. I asked Dottie why she chose to tell me a story of rape. She said that millions of women, hundreds every day, have stories of rape that never get told. She told her story because she could. Because she had to. Because maybe people would hear in a work of fiction a Truth that they could not hear in any other way.

About the author: E.S “Ned” Ruete is an author, speaker, group facilitator, women’s rights activist, LGBTQIPA+ ally, lay preacher, guitar picker, and business analyst. He is the author of Seeking God: Finding God’s both/and in an either/or world and Lead Your Group to Success: A Meeting Leader’s Primer.

Now retired, Ned lives in Niantic, Connecticut with his second wife. He continues to offer pro bono group facilitation and facilitation training to schools, churches, community groups and not-for-profit organizations. He has led strategic planning retreats for United Action Connecticut (UACT), Fiddleheads Food Co-op, and ReNew London. He is actively involved in LGBTQIPA+ advocacy and annually attends and presents sessions at the True Colors Conference. He is a member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) formerly served on the Association Coordinating Team (ACT, the IAF Board of Directors). He was associate editor of Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal and has contributed articles to Group Facilitation, The Facilitator, and other publications on group facilitation and management consulting.

Off Season is Mr. Ruete’s first fiction work. See his consulting products at MakingSpaceConsulting.com and his books at MakingSpaceConsulting.com/Publish.

Individual Author Links for Ned Ruete:
Twitter
FaceBook

Giveaway: The author will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN gift card at the end of the tour. Learn more and register to win.

My full review: This is only partly a heartfelt tale about the effects of rape. It is just as much the story of an older lesbian woman seeking acceptance from her church after having spent years living with her partner but hiding the true nature of their relationship.

What I liked best.

  1. At first, it is hard to fathom why a man would write such a book. Many women would be inclined to think this story should be told by those who can tell it authentically. Yet, when the author explains that Dottie appeared in his head to demand he tell her story, I understood. (I’ve had characters do that, too.) Indeed, he channels her emotions with all the understanding one could ask for. My favorite quote from the book:

We don’t have a word for what is taken from us in rape, but the only thing more intimate, more personal, more important, more irreplaceable is a life. We need a name for this thing, so we can talk about it, understand it, learn about the pain that comes when it is lost.

  1. The author picks an unlikely rape victim, I think at least partly to make the point that sexual attraction and interaction are not at the root of sexual assault. Dottie doesn’t fit society’s stereotype of beauty, she is older and a little overweight. Her complete lack of sexual interest in men makes it clear no misunderstood flirtation is involved, in spite of accusations to the contrary. Dottie’s assault is conveyed without an ounce of eroticism. In fact, the author has one of the perpetrators consider after-the-fact how different real sexual assault is from the fantasies he has had.
  2. This is not a story of despair, it is a story of courage. There is no sugar coating of the trauma or the recovery, yet there is recovery, not only by Dottie but by others as well. Assault survivor Alice, who is also the mother of a transgender child, was an excellent complex character. I loved her approach of “I’m still listening.”

What I liked least.

  1. This is as much about LGBTQ+ acceptance by fundamentalist Christians as it is about sexual assault. I wholeheartedly support this acceptance, but, like many readers, I am not part of this sort of Christian community. I had a great deal of trouble understanding why Dottie stayed with this church, or cared what its members thought of her. The author spends a lot of time presenting his arguments for this acceptance, including descriptions of biblical characters and actual quotes from the bible. If that is ones moral yardstick, I suppose these arguments are needed, but I thought they belonged in a different book, one written specifically for a Christian audience struggling with this issue. I found myself skipping over the lengthy sermons and religious debates, anxious to get on with Dottie’s story of recovery.
  2. On the other hand, the book is short; in my opinion shorter than it should be. I felt several secondary characters warranted having more of their stories told, and resolution reached. Many threads are dropped concerning Dottie’s struggles and concerning the criminal investigation and eventual fates of her attackers. I understand this is not meant to be a crime book, but those of us who came to the book based on its description understandably want to hear the full story we came for, and more about secondary characters we learn to appreciate.
  3. The book would benefit from a few minor corrections. At least twice the author drops into present tense mid-paragraph. While I am a fan of changing points of view, they approach a dizzying pace on some pages. Also, each chapter begins with lyrics from well known songs. I understand how tempting that is, because music is so powerful, but I doubt these lyrics were used with permission of the artists and believe a book about respect for others should do better in this regard.

In spite of these flaws, I commend the author for his deft handling of difficult topics and recommend this book to advocates of social justice everywhere.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The excerpt I liked best: (The font of the following excerpt is to indicate that the character is having a flashback.)

“This is bullshit.”

 “Now Sheri, we don’t use that language here.”

 “The hell we don’t. ‘Bullshit’ is a lot less dangerous than the language you’re using. Telling me that it was my fault, that I wanted it, that I probably enjoyed it. You weren’t there. You didn’t have some … jock sitting on your belly holding your nose while he poured liquor down your throat. … You didn’t get raped. And raped and raped and raped. “

 “Now Sheri, talk like that doesn’t help anyone.”

 “It helps me.”

 “No, it doesn’t. You’re fixating again. To recover …”

 “Recovery, hell…The girl was raped. Rape is not an issue. It’s not an obsession or compulsion or neurosis you recover from. It’s not an addiction that you are in recovery from. It’s not something you own, it’s something that owns you. It’s a violation. It’s a big gaping wound. If you’re lucky you survive it and it heals over, but it leaves a scar that is always there. You don’t recover from it. You don’t even get to the place where you say you’re in recovery. You just is. ‘Raped’ is a part of you the rest of your life. But you wouldn’t know about that, you tight-assed little white male f…”

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions.
Read more reviews at:
May 8: Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin’
May 17: Emily Carrington

If you are interested in a review from me: I hope to review more books relating specifically to women’s issues. I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review romance novels here, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review contact me at Teddie (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Final Note:  I received a free pdf of this book, which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

 

 

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

My Secret Life

I know that when I arrive at the office in the morning, I look more or less normal. I’m a few minutes late, car keys still in my hand as I give the receptionist a half-apologetic wave and head back to the small cubicle that is my home for about nine hours a day, four days a week. I fire up my computer, get some coffee, and start to do the things I am paid to do. It’s not so bad. The work is mildly entertaining, the pay is good, the coffee acceptable. I do hate the windowless cube, but I’m luckier that most. I have a secret life.

I’m late because when I woke up this morning, a young man from Romania took time out of his own busy life to post a review of my novel z2. It was a very short review, with five stars at the top and the remark that my book was now “officially among” his favorite SF books. His favorites? Do you how many are out there? How many great ones? My whole life I’ve wanted to write science fiction and now somebody says this? I think they could put me in a cement box for the next nine hours and I’d survive on the joy alone, and I am really claustrophobic.

Green 1Yes, I know that reviews are meant for fellow readers, not for the authors. I do get it, and so I will keep the joy deep inside myself. Seriously, though, how can I not care at all?

I’m also late because a young woman in Indonesia won my novel c3 in a giveaway and took the time to write an almost 1000 word review and posted it this morning. She gave me five stars as well, and used my novel about young women who triumph over human traffickers as a spring board to look into the problem in her own country. Her research fills most of the review and it is impressive.I hear a possible advocate for better education and enforcement in her voice, and I am proud to have written something that has moved her to feel so passionately. I have tears in my eyes and I want to thank her for listening, for caring, for getting it, but of course I cannot do that.

Writers are not supposed to respond to reviews. It makes perfect sense. Reviews are to alert other readers about what is good and bad about a novel. Who in the world is going to write one if they risk getting in an online argument with the author for doing so? I certainly wouldn’t. So, no response.

Instead, I sit in my cube and sip my coffee. I check my office email then I move on to the project at hand. Few people here even know that I write books. Today, I’m smiling inside, thinking of two random people across the globe who I have managed to touch against all odds. It’s a secret life, but it keeps me very happy.

 

On tour

c3 is enjoying its very first virtual book tour thanks to the fine folks at Promotional Book Tours. I’ve found them to be professional and helpful and their approach has resulted in a lot of following and liking for me and c3 all over the social media world.

Please visit all of these fine blogs which participated.

March 11th – Andis Young Adult Books (Excerpt)
March 11th – Manic Mama of 2 (Review)
March 12th – Mamas Got Flair (Guest Post)
March 12th – Mommy Reads Too Much (Review)
March 13th – Cuzinlogic (Interview)
March 14th – Identity Discovery (Excerpt)
March 14th – Second Book to the Right (Review)
March 17th – Mythical Books (Guest Post)
March 17th – My Life, Loves and Passion (Review)
March 17th – Divine Books (Review)