2013 In Review

Cedar Sanderson
They look like real books…

Cross-posted at Amazing Stories Magazine

While I have taken the time to look back at my reviews over the course of the year, this post is more about reviewing than it is the year. At some point in 2013 I decided that the only way to keep myself reading was to commit to reading books and reviewing them on my personal blog. This gave me the mental justification to take my precious spare time and do something I love, and had been losing due to the pressures of work, school, and family.

I wound up reviewing a little over thirty titles last year, and am on track to do close to fifty this year. My focus is primarily on Indie or hybrid authors, trying to encourage and promote others who have taken the same path I have. I’ve learned a lot, doing those reviews. What I read, yes, some great new authors (Mackey Chandler! Pam Uphoff! George Phillies!), and old familiar favorites revisited (H. Beam Piper, Sarah Hoyt, Larry Correia). But also, about writing reviews, as I got feedback from my blog readers. They wanted comparisons, something that initially felt unfair to do. If you say, “this is just like David Drake,” is it condemning the author as unoriginal? I was worried about that at first, and then I figured something out.

People reading reviews don’t necessarily want a blow-by-blow breakdown on the plot and characters. It spoils their own reading and discovery of the book. But they do want to know if the characters are well-developed, the world realistic, and the science not terribly hokey (at least in science fiction. Fantasy readers tend to prefer their magic not be hokey, you see what I mean). And by using a comparison, you can create a thumbnail sketch in very few lines that evokes a feeling to the potential readers.

I picked up a novella to read last week, and I will review it on my blog at a little greater length than this, but I had two people tell me they bought it based on my half-asleep recommendation on facebook. I had started it at bedtime, a mistake, as I wrote a bit later: If you like Dave Freer‘s Rats, Bats, and Vats, and enjoy Pratchett, you should check out Nine Goblins by T. Kingfisher! I didn’t intend to finish it all in one sitting but I couldn’t help myself.

Now, that’s not a long review, but I think you can see why it came across as a strong recommendation. Possibly the best review and recommendation I got all year was non-verbal. I was talking to my best friend, and I don’t remember how the subject came up, but it was revealed that I’m not familiar with Poul Anderson. His eyes got really wide. “So I should read Three Hearts, Three Lions?” I asked after a quick Amazon search. He nodded, enthusiastically, and I laughed as I clicked the buy button. The look on his face said it all, and since our tastes align so well, I knew I’d like it. Still waiting for it to arrive…

Reading is so very individual, that it can be hard to find reviewers you enjoy and agree with. I have at least on person who I know, reading what they have to say, that I will go do the opposite. It’s like an anti-review. I’ve cultivated a few over the years who I trust their taste to align with mine, and when I see a review on their blog, I go buy. This is part of my problem with Amazon reviews. For one thing, I don’t trust them (for a full discussion of this topic, look here) and for another, how do I know I’m going to like the same thing they will?

I’ve learned to look at keywords, not the gushy, vague, ‘this is the best book EVAR!” reviews that say little in many words. This one, snipped from a review of a book on my Amazon recommended list, which I have not read, but as it’s recommended other places as well, I likely will, catches me by comparing to something I recognize, and summarizing the attractiveness of the book. “It reminded me of the old Doc Savage books I read as a kid (and I loved them). A gung ho hero with his faithful crew looking for adventure and fighting the bad guys and evil.” On the other hand, this review, “This is not to say that the book is necessarily realistic; it is structurally a Bildungsroman, and it constantly evokes earlier books rather than real life.” taught me a new word, and warned me off the book. I have no objections to coming-of-age stories, but one that evokes that kind of language from reviewers is likely not going to be to my taste.

I try not to look at reviews of my own books, preferring instead to have a trusted friend keep an eye on them. And I certainly never respond to negative ones, unless it’s with a thank you when warranted (which means, not an amazon or goodreads random thing, but rather a blogger who had graciously offered a review. Those, so far, have been very positive). But authorial behaviours in response to reviews is a whole ‘nother discussion. I came close to giving up reviewing on my blog after a particularly bad read led to accusations from the author that I had not read the book. I had, she said things she hadn’t intended to, and I’d been honest, even tried to be kind, in the review. In the end, I kept on, but now only review books I enjoy. Because really, those are the ones you want to read.