Bad Reviews

First bad words, now bad reviews. I’m not going to use any bad words about my bad reviews. A writer can learn from a well-thought-out bad review. The two bad reviews I got for the books I published on Amazon weren’t thought-out at all.

Whether a writer is traditionally published or self-published they’re bound to get bad reviews. A writer knows that any review is better than no review. Anything that will bring attention to your books.

“Bad” is in the mind of the reader.

Even better is for the book to be banned. Banning a book can be good for sales. There was a recent article in The Washington Post by an author who was highly indignant that his children’s book had not been banned. More than thirty years after it was first published Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, hit the bestseller lists after it was banned in Tennessee. Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko humorously demanded that his book, Boss, about controversial mayor Richard J. Daley, be vilified and banned. These two writers understood the lure of forbidden fruit.

Books can be dangerous. They can open minds.

Dictators and wanna-be dictators understand the power of books. Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because his writing displeased the Politburo. He was allowed to return home only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s experience is almost the ultimate bad review. The ultimate bad review is getting executed for your writing as happened to Russian writer Isaac Babel.

This post wasn’t going to be about these writers, it was supposed to be about my experience with my own reviews. I’m nowhere near their class and the one-star reviews of two of the books I published on Amazon have done nothing to improve my sales. People have to know about a book before they buy it or demand that it be banned. I’ve done very little to publicize my books so poor sales are mostly my own fault.

The person who gave my books bad ratings is someone named Jennifer. She used the exact same words for both books: “I find it hard to understand why the author sympathizes with fascist leaders who spread baseless propaganda.” I copied her exact words from her one-star rating.

One of the books Jennifer rated is “The Dissident’s Wife” which is set in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the mid-1980s. My story is about a dissident Russian poet who has been accused of sedition and anti-Soviet slander. Valery Mironov goes from being a respected and beloved people’s artist to a pariah who’s been diagnosed with “creeping schizophrenia” ( a mental illness recognized nowhere in the free world) and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t mention any leaders in my book, let alone defend them.

The Dissident’s Wife is no longer available on Amazon. I unpublished it because it is now under consideration by a traditional publisher.

It’s obvious that Jennifer never read the book. She saw the hammer and sickle and had a knee-jerk reaction. It’s also obvious that she is ignorant of the difference between communism and fascism.

For Pete’s sake! They’re Christmas stories for children.

Beats me who Jennifer thinks is the “fascist leader” in this book. Santa? The grandmother whom her family brings from Latvia to the United States? Or perhaps the mother who thinks a piano would be a fine Christmas gift for her family, a gift they could all use. I suspect that the word “Latvia” is what triggered Jennifer’s one-star rating. Darn it, she didn’t even demand that the book be banned. Rats!

Fortunately, not all my reviews are one-star.

Author Review: Ken Follett

Ken Follett has a new book out, The Evening and the Morning. This post is not about that book. I have not read it and I probably won’t. This is about Follett as a writer.

Even though I find Follett’s writing to be annoying to one degree or another, depending on the book. I have read six of them in the last few months, one after the other, like eating potato chips. Over the years, I’ve probably read a dozen of his works. These tomes are as nourishing to my mind as potato chips are to my body.

Considering how I feel about Follett’s writing, why do I continue to read his works? They’re immersive. With current events as they are, immersion in a different era is just what’s called for. Also because I have his books at home. Libraries are open only for curbside pickup. It’s a hassle for me to get to the library. If it’s onerous to get to the library, I want to browse, not just pick up books I ordered online.

Critics call Follett’s books “page-turners.” Sometimes I do keep turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next. Other times, I turn pages to see how close I am to the end of the chapter or scene. I don’t always read as far as the scene or chapter break. I read until I get bored, even if it’s in the middle of a scene. I put the book down because I’m tired of excess details and paragraphs that resemble brick walls. Even in scenes that are supposed to make readers hold their breath in anticipation of the next development, he sticks in tedious detail that slows the action. Does anyone really need to know about latrine pits? I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth just as a fire broke out. Eventually I resumed.

The older and more famous Follett gets the more self-indulgent he gets, the more bloated his books get. Too many characters. Too many subplots. Just when I think the book is finally finished, there’s another gratuitous plot twist. Too much repetition. He doesn’t trust readers to remember something that happened on the previous page. Other times characters pop up seemingly out of nowhere and he doesn’t bother to identify them, leaving me wondering “who was that?” His more recent books would benefit from being cut by at least thirty percent, or more. Preferably more.

By reading so many of his books so close together, his flaws become glaringly obvious. Pillars of the Earth and World without End, the most recent two books I’ve read are part of the Kingsbridge series, which is set in a small English town during the Middle Ages. Both books demonstrate that the author is running out of ideas. No wonder. His career spans more than forty years. In both books, part of a cathedral collapses and is re-built. In World Without End, the second book in the series, a bridge also collapses. Babies are born out of wedlock in both books. Women accused of witchcraft show up in both books. Small, slight geniuses are the heroes of both books, It’s hard to tell them apart.

A lot of thinking and brainstorming goes into writing.

I frequently want to slap some sense into the main female characters. Not many of the too many main characters are likable. The secondary characters often have them beat in likability. Although set in Medieval times both books have implausible road trips. In World Without End, two nuns chase after the king of England who is with his embattled army in France. In Pillars of the Earth a lone woman, with her infant in her arms, chases after her lover, the child’s father, to France and Spain. Apparently, no one told her that Spain is a big place. She tracks the lover from San Diego Compostela to Salamanca to Toledo, then back to Paris. Despite the heroine’s travails, I wanted the young Saracen girl he met in Toledo to get him. I like her better.

Follett’s good at creating vile villains, so vile that I want to tell him, “I know you need to keep the villain alive until the end in order to maintain suspense, but couldn’t you just maim him somewhere along the way? He badly needs maiming.” Yet I felt sorry for one loathsome character Follett killed off. Go figure. Maybe it was the way the bad guy died.

One of Follett’s thrillers that’s set in Afghanistan has a scene where a woman gives birth. It goes on for pages and pages. There’s enough detail that it might as well be a midwife’s handbook. I really didn’t need to read about every single contraction. Yet in Pillars a woman has her baby under the rubble of a collapsed cathedral roof. No details whatsoever–the kid’s just there. Who cut the umbilical cord? Who knows. It’s not mentioned.

No doubt it’s too much to expect that a thriller writer be a prose stylist, but Follett could be way more careful. I don’t expect him to be Chaucer but he could forgo his constant use of anachronisms. They drive me nuts. The words, suburb, boyfriend, girlfriend, employee, technology, among many others he uses, had not been coined in the Twelfth Century. His writing is so clumsy that I won’t bore you by citing any more examples. Except that I have to mention that there are many hearts in many mouths. Why bother to come up with new images when you’re a best-selling writer?

Usually, I don’t skip pages when I read for fear of missing something interesting or consequential. But I skip over the gruesome, intricate details of flaying, bear-baiting, torturing cats and other atrocities. The people-meat-pies in Titus Andronicus are nothing in comparison.

Follett’s books remind me of Rube Goldberg machines. Goldberg was an American cartoonist who drew intricate machines, with too many moving parts, which perform simple tasks. The drawings are funny and fun to look at. Books with too many moving parts make for turgid reading. True galloping through a book at breakneck pace gets tiresome, readers need slower-paced sections to catch their breath. However, the slower parts should not be hundreds of pages long. Good writing includes good editing.

Vector industrial illustration background of the operating mechanism. Complicated mechanism at work. Line Art
This isn’t a Rube Goldberg machine, but you get the idea.

Abandoning an Author

When, if ever, do you abandon a favorite author? If you do, why do you abandon them?

I’ve done it many times. I’ve stopped reading the works of authors whose work I never expected to stop loving.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books, writers, and reading. Over the years, I’ve had many favorite writers

My Favorite Reading Glasses


When I was a horse-crazy girl, I adored Walter Farley’s Black Stallion and Island Stallion books. I wanted to be a female Walter Farley when I grew up. I thought I would always love his work. Eventually, I outgrew his books and went on to other writers. A few years ago, I discovered that Farley hadn’t stopped writing when I’d stopped reading. I thought I’d enjoy catching up and reading the stories I’d missed. How disappointing to discover that Farley’s writing no longer held my interest.

As a teenager, I loved Emilie Loring’s books and read one after another. It soon became apparent that she’d been writing the same story over and over. Only the characters’ names and the settings were different. There was no reason to keep on reading.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed Patricia Cornwell’s books. I probably read at least fifteen of them. Even before I stopped reading her works, my pleasure in them was starting to pall. Her books became increasingly gory. Cornwell’s protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, is a medical examiner, who investigates crime scenes and performs autopsies, so of course, gore is to be expected. It seemed to me that in later stories the descriptions of crime scenes, the crimes themselves, and the autopsies became gratuitously gruesome as if the grisly details, and not the solving of the crime, were the point. What finally put an end to my reading of Cornwell’s mysteries was when she made a secondary character, Al Marino, behave in an ugly, criminal, totally out of character way. From the very first book, I never liked the way Cornwell treated Marino. He’s a seasoned police detective who regularly worked with Kay. He was supposed to be a good cop and a good guy, but the author treated him with contempt. She made him a fat, crude, semi-literate slob. His saving graces were his skill as a detective and his devotion to Scarpetta, who always outshone him. I’d already been thinking about giving up on these novels, but when there were no new books by my favorite authors available, I went back to Cornwell’s mysteries. The last straw for me was when she turned Marino into a rapist. No more Scarpetta. No more Cornwell.

There are still plenty of authors whose work I enjoy more. However, several of these writers now hang in the balance. Will I, or won’t I, read their most recent book? Writers get old and so does their writing.

There’s Nothing Like a Book and Coffee.

J.A. Jance is one writer whose books I will most likely no longer automatically read just because she wrote them. I’ve faithfully read her J.P. “Beau” Beaumont, Ali Reynolds, Joanna Brady, and Walker Family series. Seattle police detective Beaumont was always my favorite. Was. After the last Beaumont mystery I read, I have major doubts. Jance rehashes the plot of an earlier book and does not improve on it. She also turns Beau into a doggie-daddy. There are too many dog-walks interrupting the flow of the plot. Too much dog poop. Not enough material to interest me. I even have doubts about her other series.

John Grisham is another long-time favorite. My cousin and I both loved his books and have fun discussing them. Grisham has had interesting well-developed characters, pertinent details, and complex, intriguing plots, with surprising twists. Until recently, he kept his details under control. In his most recent books, the details have become bloated, the plots have grown flimsy and the endings have become lame. My cousin read one of Grisham’s latest tomes and said it was, “nothing.” I trust that my cousin is right.

I’m sad that these reliable writers are no longer so reliable. If I read their novels again, it will be their older ones. Thank goodness new writers are always coming along. Thank goodness for libraries which allow me to sample these new discoveries without buying before I’m sure their works are worth the money. Thank goodness for older writers whose books remain to be discovered.

John Work Garrett Library. Baltimore, Maryland. Wouldn’t This be a Fabulous Library to Explore?

A quote from Carl Sagan

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time–proof that humans can work magic.” – Carl Sagan, author, scientist.

Via books humans can travel through time and step into another person’s shoes, learn who they are, learn how much others are like you. Learn how they succeed and fail. Learn how they handle life challenges.
He left us too soon.

A Delightful Book

Buffalo Gal by Lisa Wanttaja

Pretty cover photo

What would you do if three people showed up on your doorstep bearing flowers, balloons and wielding a video cam to make the announcement that you’ve won a buffalo ranch? If it were me, I’d probably scream and run in the other direction. However, veterinarian Dr. Andrea Moore has just realized that she is about to make the biggest mistake of her life by marrying the wrong man. She leaves her groom at the altar, dons bilious green cowgirl boots and runs off to North Dakota to claim her prize and her freedom.

In North Dakota Andrea finds herself in the middle of what could be an even bigger mistake. The ranch she’s won is not only home to a herd of bison, but also run by a man who can’t hide his hostility. Foreman Mike Winterhawk worked long and hard to buy the ranch himself, only to have it handed over to some contest winner. His focus needs to be on why the bison can’t bear calves instead of teaching this city slicker in ugly green cowboy boots how to run a ranch. He can only hope she’ll quickly realize she’s out of her league and hightail it back to Seattle. So, why is he so attracted to this intruder, and why does he feel she might be the one who can help him turn White Thunder Ranch around?

Ms Wanttaja’s book starts off at a gallop and the fun never stops. A funky band and an eccentric (to say the least) UFO-oligst add to the merriment. If you love romantic suspense, a touch of the paranormal, and comedy, you will love this book. If not, give this book a try anyway. It may just convert you. I stayed up half the night reading. Buffalo Gal is a book I will keep on myself to re-read when I need a bright, cheerful, suspenseful escape. Ms Wanttaja is a good writer with great wit and intelligence.

Buffalo Gal is available on Amazon:

Friends of the Library

Treasures from a “Friends” Sale

National Library Week, April 7 – 13

There was a time when I scorned used books. The only books I wanted should be untouched by human hands,–except the ones which put them on shelves. Ideally, they should wear cotton gloves while doing so. No fingerprints. I’d go to book stores and check to make sure the books I wanted to buy have clean pages and that the book jackets have no creases or even the tiniest tear. I still do that. When I lay out money for something, I want it to be in the best possible condition.

I never scorned libraries, even when I brought home a book which reeked of someone else’s cigarette smoke. Libraries have always been my friends.

Wanting more books than I have money to spend helped end my snobbery. Who doesn’t love a bargain? By buying used books I can replace books which have been lost during moves or have come apart from poor biding and too much reading. Discovering treasures I never knew existed or out-of-print books that I couldn’t find elsewhere also put paid to my scorn of used books. That’s why I love Friends of the Library.

It seems as if every town in my state has a library with a permanent “Friends” corner, as well as regular used book sales. I’ve come to love the “corners” and the sales. I go at least once a year and take friends. One library in my area has patrons who take excellent care of their books and hand them on to other by donating to Friends of the Library. I have done so myself. I like that the money I spend helps support the library.

For the five books in the above photo, I probably spent no more than three bucks, if that. Jane Eyre–more than five hundred pages–cost thirty-five cents. Taming of the Shrew was fifty cents. The other three books have lost their tags. Sometimes at the sale you can buy as many books as you can fit into a bag–their bags or ones you bring–for a set price, maybe five dollars, maybe three dollars. Prices that are a steal to begin with go down during the last hours of the sale.

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving is a good example of the kind of treasure I’ve found at Friends of the Library sales. It looks like it’s never been read or read very carefully. The spine is uncreased. The pages are clean and they’re not bent at the corners. It’s beautifully illustrated. It was published in Granada, Spain. I love the texture of the cover and the creamy color or the paper.

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

Court of Lions

Court of Lions

I hope whatever town or state you live in has a Friends of the Library corner and regular used book sales. If they don’t, perhaps you could start one. Book lovers will adore you.