Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Honest Review

Who should you be reviewing for? Readers, authors, publishing houses? If you are going to start reviewing on a blog or website then you will need to decide who it is exactly that you are reviewing for. You can not review for them all and you will have to choose your angle carefully if you do.

I sometimes get told (by Indie authors only at this stage as they rely heavily on the promotional power of the positive review) that reviewers should only be writing positive reviews and that if a reviewer has not liked a book and has negative feedback to give, then they should not write a review at all.
But why would I do that? Why would any reader want to do that? I am reviewing books for my fellow readers and fellow readers do not want a one sided opinion on a book. They want your truth. A warts and all evaluation.
To a reader, negative feedback in a review is as important as positive feedback. To an author or a publisher, positive feedback is the most important, because positive reviews sell books and create buzz (small or big, buzz does sell books too).

A reviewer who is reviewing for other readers, should not be interested in selling books for people, even if they are friendly acquaintances or friends. If the book is any good, it will sell itself and it will build a steady supply of positive reviews on its own. Leaving biased over positive reviews of books because the author is a friend will only out you as a dishonest reviewer when people discover your opinion can not be relied upon.
A book review blogger needs to build an honest relationship with their followers and readers. If week in week out you are consistent and truthful, then over time people will begin to trust you. Or in the very least, understand you. They may not agree with you on a book, but they know your opinions cannot be bought. They come to understand your taste and can base their own decisions, on what to read, off of your opinions. 
It is a mutually beneficial relationship. 
You rely on others to read your blog to make the time you put into blogging worthwhile. The follower relies on you over time to help them find new books. In the process, the follower will also learn a lot about themselves as a reader. You will have helped them understand their own tastes, likes and dislikes.
You may not know you are building a rapport with your viewers because they sit out there in silence. The only hint that they are there is the growing number of 'site visits' on your visitation counter or the 'followers' number you can see in your site stats (although the majority of your followers are going to follow you by email and will never show up in that follower count).

You can only build this rapport with fellow readers if you stay true to yourself. This may mean irritating some authors or publicists who may have given you a book, or, offending the occasional author who you regard as a friendly acquaintance. In my opinion however, this should never factor into your decision on who to review for and how you review.
When you bruise an author's ego or offend a publisher and they cut you off or turn sour towards you, you are just going to have to roll with the punches. As long as you have been honest and fair in your evaluation of a book, then it is the author or publicist who is in the wrong. Not you.

A book is no different to a movie, or a restaurant. If you write a book, make a movie, open a restaurant, you are going to have to reconcile the fact that criticism goes hand in hand with your profession. As there are movie critics and food critics, so too should there be book critics.
Critics are the people (fair critics that is) who keep it real. Bring the honesty. They critique for fellow readers, movie watchers, foodies and cannot be bought or bargained with. People choose the critics they follow based on whether their level of honesty appeals. They know instantly - when they read a review by them - what their options are based on the connection they have formed with the reviewer's blog posts over time.

As for reviewing for authors...I like to call the reviewing for authors issue, The Amazon Reviewer Syndrome. Due to the exhaustive amount of Indie and Self Pub authors on Amazon (not a diss, just a fact), books are being given away for reviews by the thousands on a daily basis. This is not exclusive to Amazon anymore and happens via many other outlets, ie Goodreads, but it all began in the Amazon ebook jungle and so I stick with The Amazon Reviewer Syndrome for any official diagnosis.
In return for the free book many reviewers lose sight of who reviews are supposed to be for and they end up crossing over into a state of mind where they no longer review for fellow readers, but review for authors instead. Many will 'think' they are reviewing for themselves and for fellow readers, but if they look closely, they are not. They are dicing with words to ease the egos of authors and to inadvertently promote more sales for the author by withholding the negatives.

If this is what you want to do – write reviews in exchange for free books and leave out the honesty when it comes to the negative elements – then you are a reviewer for authors or publishers.
Once you paint yourself into that corner, fellow readers will gradually learn that your opinion is compromised. Influenced by a predilection for favouring the feelings of authors.
I would much rather put effort into wording some fair and respectful negative feedback, over gagging my honesty for the sake of somebody else's ego or sales figures.

It is just up to you, the professional critic, the professional reviewer, to decide how you want to be perceived as a critic. And I say keep it fair, keep it respectful and keep it clean, but find the words to say what you want in the process.
Try not to hit below the belt when leaving negative reviews. Although, as critics who lean towards colourful description we will always walk that knife edge. Authors are happy with emphasis on the positive, but not with emphasis on the negative, therefore each author will put differing values on what constitutes 'hitting below the belt'.

In all honesty (since honesty is what I am about here on the A&M Mayhem blog) if you want to be a book reviewer and start a blog or website, you will need to do some deep thinking on who it is that you want to review for. Especially if you are planning on accepting free books in exchange for a review.
If you review for authors, then life will be simple and carefree for you. But if you review for fellow readers, things can get a bit tricky. You need to understand that there could be repercussions in your relationships with authors and publishers, but as long as you stick with the adage 'say what you mean, don't say it mean', then you will always be able to hold the high ground and be proud of what you are doing.
In the process, you may also learn how to juggle things to keep everybody happy, even the authors and publishers.

- MM

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Jesus Pickle: ISCARIOT: A NOVEL OF JUDAS by Tosca Lee

Iscariot by Tosca Lee
I have gone and got myself into a rating pickle. I only read Iscariot: A Novel of Judas to approximately halfway and yet I feel it is okay to still give the book 3 stars out of 5. Usually I have a twinge of remorse when I rate a book I have not finished. In the case of Iscariot, however, I do not feel remorse at all. Because it was not the quality of the book itself that made me stop reading, it was the discovery that it was fantasy.

Calling it a fantasy may be a bit strong for those who believe in the miracles Jesus is said to have performed, but for those who are not religious and who do not believe in these kinds of miracles (I fall into both of these categories) this book cannot be anything but fantasy.
And that is the base from which my opinion stems.

I chose to read this book based on the marketing. Iscariot is marketed as the real story of Judas Iscariot. I took this, and the book's advertisements and promotional videos, to mean the book would be the story of Judas and Jesus, only without the supernatural elements. And yes, I honestly believe that if an author wants to write such a story, it is achievable.
I thought the author had written a book that would appeal to all. Irrespective of religion or religious stance. I thought she would keep the miracles and the supernatural elements within the realms of the plausible. So you can make of them what you will dependant upon where your beliefs lay.
If you wish them to be religious miracles they will be. If you wish them to be explainable they are. Clearly this was a mistake. To go into this book expecting an unbiased tale.
Tosca Lee blew a great opportunity to bring the story of Judas and Jesus to every kind of reader. She made this a book only for Christians and that is disappointing to me, because I have seen how interested people were in this book...until they tried it for themselves and discovered what I discovered. That Tosca Lee's religious miracles could not be rationalised.

On the other hand. It is a good book for Christians. I would recommend it to you if you are one. But if you are not, and you want to read a book that tells the story of Judas without the fantasy element. This is not the book you want.
And if you do want to read about religious miracles, the book you probably want is the bible.
If you want to read about miracles, you should probably just go to the source and read the real deal. Even being non religious as I am, I will admit, that apart from the writing being a lot better than this book, there is no better book to relate the story of Jesus and Judas than the bible itself. Not sure why anybody would want to rewrite a story from the bible and not re-purpose it to accommodate readers from all walks of life...but, there it is.

I gave it three stars. I had to be honest about what I was reading. The book is nicely written. Sure, it is not rocket science and there are no literary high wire acts here. It is not as well written as the quotes on the book say and that the Christian reviewers make it out to be. I do not mean it is poor writing, or naïve writing. No. It is good enough. It is just not clever or broadly skilful.
Up until a point I was enjoying the book. If the implausible had not shattered the serenity, this may have been a 4 star book for me.
Since I cannot blame the book for not being what I had expected of it, I had to rate it based on how the book was making me feel up until the point I threw it in.
And that feeling lands somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. Seeing as I did not finish it, I figure 3 is good enough.

- MM

Monday, 17 March 2014

Battle Royale: HANNIBAL: CLOUDS OF WAR by Ben Kane

Clouds of War by Ben Kane
Forget the book for a second, lets have a look at that cover! What a beauty. One of the most eye catching covers I have seen in the genre of historical fiction. Of course, covers are as much about personal taste as stories are, so I don't expect everyone to feel the same way.
I am so sick of seeing men or women in period dress on historical fiction covers. Some of them are very well designed, inspirational to the imagination and eyecatching, but it is the sheer volume of man or woman in period costume covers that has me bored with them.
While the cover of this Hannibal: Clouds of War edition does have a man in period costume on it, the combination of colours, the font choices and the pose make it something fresh and it is likely this will be my favourite cover of 2014.

But we are not here to read what I think about the book cover are we? We are here to talk about the words beneath it. As we get beyond the book cover to imbibe of a battle royale between two mighty military forces of ancient history. The Romans and the Carthaginians.

This is the third instalment in Ben Kane's Hannibal series. I skipped over the first one, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, because it was taken up by the childhoods of our main characters. Since I prefer adult characters, I came in on book two, Hannibal: Fields of Blood.
I liked the book and reviewed it last year. I believe the reader doesn't need to read book one to understand the one following it, but it may serve a reader best if they do start with book one and not jump in elsewhere like I did.

I liked Hannibal: Clouds of War more than I liked the book that came before it. I have spent many moments trying to work out why I prefer it, but I come up empty handed. I simply did and that is that.

Ben Kane is a consummate professional when it comes to his researching. He goes to great lengths to research for each book. Going to historic sites in Italy, Sicily and beyond. Visiting ancient battlegrounds to get a feel for how his story and his characters might fit into the landscape.
I have watched the author's videos on events such as the Battle of Cannae, and seen him talk/write passionately about his historical context. I think if an author has the opportunity to travel for research, then do it, because it shows, I can tell you.
As an avid reader of historical fiction, I notice the structure this kind of hands on researching can inject into a story. It had an unmistakable footprint in Clouds of War and if you like that sort of thing like I do, then you will notice it too.

While I do struggle with how I feel about the dialogue in this series, it is the fantastic sense of place that keeps me reading. I love to feel immersed in an era when I read. In fact, as with many of us, it is why I read historical fiction in the first place. To time travel.

Everything you would expect from Ben Kane is in this novel. History and dense, lengthy battle scenes. Your major characters - who you will have come to like or love or hate via the two books that precede it - will be there to meet you also. They are all in there and if you read this author for any of those - the battles, the history, the colourful characters - then you will be well pleased with what you find.

On a final note. Great glossary. (If only all authors would include such a detailed glossary in their historical fiction books). Brilliant historical note. (When will this author realise that he has the knack with the simple matter of talking history? Which graduates well to writing non fiction. I'll buy that non fiction if it comes, for sure.)

- MM

Friday, 14 March 2014

Peace, Love and Good Books: HAWK QUEST by Robert Lyndon

Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon
As someone who likes to, and wants to, review every historical fiction book I read, it is no great pleasure of mine to review books that I have less than positive opinions on. In a perfect world I would love or like every book I read. Every review would be glowing. Faults would be minor and opinions on them would not be offensive to the author or his or her fans. Smiles all round. Peace, love and good books forever more.
It would make reviewing so much easier and I could move on guilt free to the next book. The next happy, positive review.
Only this isn't a perfect world. Books are not all equals. Authors are not all equals. And as much as I want to love or like every book I read, it simply is not going to happen.

Which brings me to my review of Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon. A book I had such high hopes for. Set in a favourite era and based on a journey. (Journey being one of my favourite devices in historical fiction).
It should have been a perfect match and by jove, for approximately 80 pages it nearly was. It had one of the greatest introductions that I have read for years. It was intoxicating.
The author's grasp of descriptive device was exemplary. Appealing to my every nuanced taste.
A few small examples;

He'd covered less than half the distance when the clouds snuffed out the sun. The temperature plummeted. A wind that started as a faraway sigh struck him with a blast of hail.


The squadron descended on them like a machine welded by flames, the torches roaring in the wind of their passing .

I admire great writing, great description and great imagination. If an author can combine this triumverate of greatness in the ways quoted above through an entire book, then I am putty in their hands.

But then what happened?? The book I was reading in those early pages transformed into something that was very nearly the antithesis of everything I loved about the first approx 80 pages.
Magical passages of description and beautifully devised scenes, were replaced by rushing, clunky sentences. Simplistic in nature and lacking in skill. The writing became a shadow of its former self. Dialogue became naive and unchallenging. 
It was choking on too many pointless plotlines. Bad passes of dialogue. Historical inaccuracies. Needlessness. Something went awry with this novel and it was a bloody crime to me.
The writer became his own obstruction and as a result, inconsistencies in writing qualities reigned supreme and I had to force myself not to abandon it.

This author has the ability to be quite brilliant. The talent is there. I have no doubt of that. Had the book been shorter, more refined, it would have given it a better chance and if only some of the scenes and storylines had been ruthlessly removed, this could have made it a magnificent specimen of the genre. 
It could have been the epic (a shorter one) that the author had wanted it to be. If only..if only...

I will not give up on him yet though. I have bought the next book Imperial Fire. Those glimpses of brilliance are enough of an incentive for me to believe this author will come into his own one day.
With experience and bucketloads of feedback from readers, this author will be a shining star in the genre of historical fiction. And I want to be there when that happens. To applaud it.

- MM

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Final Countdown: ODIN'S WOLVES by Giles Kristian

Odin's Wolves by Giles Kristian

I have said it before, and I will say it again. I truly do love these kinds of Viking historical fiction. They are books that mingle the sagas with excellent penmanship and colourful adventure. I could read them every week for the rest of the year and be every bit the contented reader.
My journey with this series has not been without its own twists and turns and literary adventures. From the hiccup that was my first attempt with the series a couple years back, to the rediscovering of the series in 2013.
To think that I nearly missed out on all this Raven fun by not giving the first book the time it needed to grow on me.
Luckily, I gave it that time at a later date. With a reread. And it was that reread of book one, Blood Eye, that brought me the long way around to this book, book three in the Raven series, Odin's Wolves. (of course, I must not forget that I got there via the 5 star stepping stone between them: Sons of Thunder).

For most of this book I was infatuated. The writing, the adventure, the characters. The delightful balance of all three had my heart racing and my mind flying.
Giles Kristian's vivid scenery and zesty stories have stirred my imagination over and over. At times, his studious pictorialisation has even surprised me. Me, a deliberately and willingly jaded reader of Viking fiction and Viking non fiction. Yes, I still can be surprised. I love it when authors keep it fresh. Adding their own ingredients to the well traversed literary landscape of Viking historical fiction. 
Nothing worse than feeling an author got his or her knowledge from Wikipedia. And I can promise, you will never get that feeling from these Giles Kristian Viking books. This author's inspiration comes direct from his own imagination, and not indirectly through the imagination and research of others.
One of those surprises came in his description of Yggdrasil. He gave me a whole new way to imagine the tree of life and - in the same breath - gives explanation of how it may have been imagined by these early travellers and raiders. I even marked the passage to quote here in this review and then I went and put the book aside for a couple months (I was that far behind in my reviews). In the process I lost my marks and so too did I then lose the page where Yggdrasil - and the birds flying amoung its branches in the sky - had been described.
You will just have to take my word for it. It was beautifully described and wondrously fetching to the mind's eye.

As you may have guessed by my words in the last paragraph, for 'most' of the book I was infatuated. Disappointingly, it was not all a source of infatuation for me. This, I am happy to say, has nothing to do with the author's story nor his writing. The fault lays with me and my deeply ingrained disinterest in Romans.
I cannot say too much on that without giving away plot lines. Fear of spoiling the book for others leaves me with little room to manoeuvre when giving my personal opinion of the second half of the book.
Let me just say that, through no fault of the author's, I found myself at an impasse. My favourite culture of history mingling with my least favourite. Viking meets Roman. To others that would sound wildly exciting, but for me, when that happened, to the lengths that it did, the book and I suddenly became incompatible. But it is still a terrific book and I still give it 4 stars out of 5. Majority of people will not have any problem continuing to enjoy the book passed the point where I stopped enjoying it.

I would recommend nobody be put off reading the book by me confessing that I did not enjoy the last half as much as the first. As you all know, sometimes, no matter how good the book is or how well it is written, if the subject matter it not compatible with a reader's personal tastes, there is nothing one can do. Try as you might.

Now that I have finished this trilogy, I am even more excited to read the latest instalment which is due out this year. God of Vengeance is a prequel to this Raven series. I have read the blurb and I am thrilled to my boots by the premise. Bring it on!!

- MM