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Posts from the ‘reviews’ Category

Dear readers, your reviews really do help

Reader reviews on Amazon not only help spread the word to prospective readers, but they attract those readers’ attention in the first place. These reviews also impact how Amazon displays a book in a reader’s search results. Needless to say, more people review the books of widely known writers than the books of so-called “midlist” and small-press authors. As many emerging writers have said, the authors who don’t need the reviews or the interviews are the ones who get them.

Some authors try to make placing a reader review sound easy, suggesting that all you have to say is “I liked it.” I don’t agree with that. “I liked it” isn’t a review. If a prospective reader reads such a review, they learn nothing about the book and might even think the reviewer knows the author and potentially didn’t even read the novel.

Suffice it to say, honest reviews with a few details explaining why a reader liked or didn’t like a book are better than reviews with nothing more than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” For readers who review multiple books, it’s disconcerting that they’ll take the time to review a well-known author’s book that has, say–3,000 reviews already–but don’t spend the time to review an emerging author’s books. I seldom review major books on Amazon because I don’t think there’s much I can possibly add to the conversation that already involves a thousand or more reviews. I’m more likely to review these books on my blog.

In social media, it’s quite common to hear that dozens of people liked an author’s latest book. These opinions are treasured and very nice to hear. A lot of those people wish the author well, and yet, most of them don’t go out to Amazon and leave a review. They probably have no idea how vital their reviews are to the book’s success. Amazon’s book-display algorithms count reviews; so do various blogs and newsletters where books can be advertised. (It’s hard to get your book into one of those book newsletters if it has few reviews.)

Basically, it comes down to this insofar as midlist and small-press authors are concerned: if readers don’t help support the book, it isn’t going to sell.  Yet, authors really can’t say this to readers on Facebook or Twitter because it’s unseemly and probably turns readers off who really don’t know anything about leaving an Amazon, Goodreads, or B&N review. Plus, it’s generally considered bad form to beg for reviews. Authors are rather stuck. When a reader tells them on Facebook that their latest novel was the best book they ever read, it’s a bit crass to say, “have you posted that viewpoint on Amazon yet?”

Readers certainly have no obligation to post reviews. Most readers don’t. They read a book and move on to the next book. So, I think it’s an imposition for an author to “lean on” readers in the social media by asking them directly for an online review even though many of the books will fail without those reviews. Authors often feel stuck. They need the reviews but it’s bad form to ask for them or to keep posting little generic notices on their Facebook authors’ pages to the effect that reviews help spread the word.

Frankly, I wish professional book reviewers, critics, and bloggers would do better keeping up with small-press books since those are the books that need the exposure. Nobody is really served well when a critic/reviewer posts review number 5,000 for a well-known author’s book. But, for an emerging or small-press author, even a three-star review helps bring a book some much-needed online attention.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,’ “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena,” all of which are available in e-book, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook editions.

 

 

 

 

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Review: ‘Redemption Road’ by John Hart

Redemption RoadRedemption Road by John Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s enough darkness in this book to cause an eclipse of the sun soon after you begin reading. Elizabeth, the protagonist is a good cop with a good heart that is filled with life-affirming love and infinite grit. Her past was cruel to her and it’s neither gone nor forgotten.

Her story in this thriller will carry you through the darkness stemming from multiple characters whose self-righteous evil is as unflinching as Elizabeth’s heart. Thirteen years prior to the beginning of the novel, a policeman was convicted of killing a young woman and leaving her body on the altar of the church where Elizabeth’s father preaches. Elizabeth, who was a rookie cop at the time thought he was wrongly convicted. As a cop, he has a hard time surviving prison. When he gets out, the killings start again with the same MO. This appears to prove that everyone else on the police force is right about him and that Elizabeth is naive.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is having her own troubles with the authorities over a case she’s involved in. The plot is complex and well constructed, the writing is superb, and the characters have more dimensions, secrets, and agonies than you can shake a stick at. At all times, the notion of a redemption road out of this chaos seems to many as an unlikely nirvana or simply a dead end.

The story is adeptly told and highly recommended.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Temptation Rag’ by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Temptation RagTemptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Temptation Rag immerses readers into a historical novel set during the heydey of ragtime (1895-1919) and vaudeville (1880 – 1920) with a cast of real and fictional characters grappling for love, freedom, and artistry in New York City. Ragtime gave way to jazz and vaudeville gave way to the cinema so, like almost every period in music and theater, the times were short, competitive, and bittersweet as talents and fortunes rose and fell depending on the inequalities imposed by the rich and famous, public taste, and racial/gender barriers.

Bernard’s story has a large cast of characters all of whom come across as multi-dimensional in her well-researched tableau. May Convery is a young woman from a rich family, who’s briefly smitten with vaudeville theater musical director Mike Gilbert at the beginning of his rise to fame as a ragtime composer and performer. Their lives criss-cross throughout the novel as they did in history in a soap opera basket of emotions that manages to haunt both of them forever.

As May finally comes into her own as an author and a volunteer in many causes, Mike’s life while seemingly larger and financially richer appears more brittle. Among all the vicissitudes of a musical career in the public eye, Mike is constantly compared with the popular performer Ben Harney who claims to have originated ragtime itself. Scott Joplin (“Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” both brought back to public attention in the 1973 movie “The Sting”) is in the stratosphere of rag, talked about in the novel but not a character.

May’s friendship with African-American singer Abbie Mitchell and African-American composer J. Rosamond Johnson gives strength to a primary theme of the novel: racial/gender inequalities. While the barriers were historically real and are well-shown in the novel, some of May’s feelings appear to have been slightly influenced by contemporary attitudes about race relations.

The characters are strong enough and complex enough to pull readers through this well-written story almost as though we’re watching their lives play out in modern times on the television news. When the novel’s last lines scroll past its readers’ eyes and Temptation Rag is stowed away on the bookshelf, May will remain in mind one way or another.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Line of Sight,’ a Jack Ryan Jr. Novel

Line of Sight (Jack Ryan Universe, #25)Line of Sight by Mike Maden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jack Ryan, now President of the United States, and his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., analyst and black ops specialist at “The Campus,” are enduring characters in the Tom Clancey series ever since “The Hunt for Red October” appeared in 1984. As fans know, the series has been written by other authors since Clancey’s death.

Mike Maden, the author of “Line of Sight,” has written a fair number of the books sharing the series with Mark Greaney and others in what has been an amazingly consistent run of political action thrillers that has maintained the Clancey Style, fast-paced plots, and love of military equipment. Fans of the series will appreciate the tangled plot in this yarn that focuses on Jack Ryan, Jr. as he goes to Bosnia look for a former patient of his mother (Cathy Ryan) who saved the girl’s sight and then lost track of her.

Other forces are, of course, at play, including terrorists who want to destabilize Bosnia’s fragile peace and an international crime organization that has placed “kill orders” on several people, including Jack. Unaware of either group, Jack focuses on tracking down Dr. Cathy Ryan’s former patient and friend Aida Curić. The disparate subplots of this story turn toward each other like an impending train wreck as other members of The Campus become involved in minor roles.

The weakness of the book comes from the fact that the subplots need time to develop and while they are brewing, the reader is treated to lengthy travelogue sections for entertaining Jack with others or alone. Every tourist destination but the kitchen sink in the surrounding area becomes a sightseeing stop, interspersed with a love interest that, while well handled, doesn’t reduce the author’s reliance on in-country experience and/or Internet research to pad out the story. Potentially, 25% of the text is the kind of travel and historical information we usually get in a Dan Brown novel.

The book reads well, especially if one skims the travel sections, and in spite of those sections, the conclusion doesn’t disappoint.

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Malcolm

Briefly Noted: ‘Le Mystère des Cathédrales’

With yesterday’s catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame of Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Victor Hugo’s comment in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) that “The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.”

Tourists, Catholics and other Christians, mystics of all faiths, architects, and especially the French nation have used many superlatives to describe the beauty and importance of this cathedral. And yet, the church is more than it seems. It is, as the pseudonymous author Fucanelli wrote in the original version of The Mystery of the Cathedrals, a veritable hermetic textbook in living stone to the alchemical process.

Most people probably view the hermetic symbols as the flourishes of Gothic architecture. However, for students of chemical or spiritual alchemy, the is much to learn from those symbols as well as from The Mystery of the Cathedrals (1926) and its sequel Dwellings of the Philosophers (1929). Modern-day students will find a great deal of help in the work of Carl Jung and others who view alchemy as more than trying to turn lead into gold but as a spiritual/psychological means of becoming wholly one’s divine self.

I have been studying this book since the 1971 English (U.K – Neville Spearman edition) came out and grasp only a fraction of it. As Wikipedia says of the two books, “The books are written in a cryptic and erudite manner, replete with Latin and Greek puns, alchemical symbolism, double entendres, and lectures on and in Argot and Cant, all of which serve to keep casual readers ignorant.”

From the Publisher (The cover shown here comes from a reprint edition.)

In 1926 the fabled alchemist Fulcanelli left his remarkable manuscript concerning the Hermetic Study of Gothic Cathedral Construction with a student. He then disappeared. The book decodes the symbology found upon and within the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe which have openly displayed the secrets of alchemy for 700 years.

From the Book

“The gothic cathedral, that sanctuary of Tradition, Science and Art, should not be regarded as a work dedicated solely to the glory of Christianity, but rather as a vast concretion of ideas, of tendencies, of popular beliefs; a perfect whole, to which we can refer without fear, whenever we would penetrate the religious, secular, philosophic or social thoughts of our ancestors.”

Amazon Reader Review

Wikipedia Photo of 2019 fire

Seminal work by the mysterious master French alchemist Fulcanelli. Companion to his other book “The Dwellings of the Philosophers.” The author explores in depth secrets contained within the Gothic cathedrals of France. He reveals a number of secrets, providing crucial clues into the occult work of the alchemists, contained in these massive repositories of knowledge preserved in stone. Warning: this is not a work for the uninitiated or those unfamiliar with alchemy. In order to understand this book, one must have at the very least knowledge of Gothic art and architecture as well as an understanding of the rudiments of alchemy. This is necessary in order for Fulcanelli’s work to make any sense to the reader. I would recommend Loius Charpentier’s “Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral” and Tobias Churton’s “The Golden Builders” to familiarize oneself with the subject matter before diving headlong into Fulcanelli’s masterpiece.

I agree with the reviewer’s suggestions about reading several other books first before attempting this one. Also, you’ll find an interesting commentary of Mysteries of the Cathedrals included in Jay Widner and Vincent Bridges book The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye” Alchemy and the End of Time.

In spite of the difficulties, Mysteries of the Cathedrals is time well spent.

Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘Juror #3’ by James Patterson and Nancy Allen

Juror #3Juror #3 by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When a reader buys a book that appears to be a novel, s/he has every right to expect a novel. That’s not what we get with “Juror #3.” Many novels include the words “a novel” on the cover and title page. This one doesn’t. Yet, the presentation implies a book-length story instead of a work that is essentially two short stories with many of the same characters. Without providing a spoiler here, suffice it to say that when the first court case suddenly ends midway through the book, many readers will be disappointed.

The premise is interesting. Fresh out of law school, Ruby Bozart returns to Rosedale, Mississippi where she spent part of her childhood living on the other side of the tracks. She hangs up a shingle, expecting to get her start by practising family law. To her surprise, a judge assigns her to handle a high-profile murder case that appears to be a slam dunk for the district attorney. A black football star has been accused of murdering a white lady at a local country club where he was working as a waiter. He was found with the victim, his hands and clothes covered with her blood.

Bozart is a compelling character. She’s smart and determined to fully represent her well-known client rather than walk through the case, and though she’s made her first friend in town–a fry cook at the local diner–she’s going to need substantial legal advice to go up against an experienced district attorney. As usual, there’s more here than meets the eye, including help from unexpected quarters: a savvy and out-of-the-blue law partner.

As a true novel, the book’s first story would have had more depth and the support characters would have been more fully developed. However, all of the characters are real within the book’s theme and setting, so Patterson fans won’t have any trouble staying up past their bedtimes to find out just what the deal is with the man sitting in the third chair in the jury box.

Once all is said and done and the case ends, Bozart’s former fiancé, the rich Lee Green, Jr., who comes from old money, asks Ruby to defend him against charges he murdered a prostitute in Vicksburg. He claims he’s innocent even though he was found passed out in a hotel room in bed with the dead call girl. Once again, Ruby is facing what appears to be a slam dunk for the prosecution. To make matters worse, the case has gotten so much press coverage in Vicksburg, Ruby doesn’t see how it’s possible for Lee to get a fair trial even if she really wanted to defend him, which she doesn’t.

After all, their engagement ended because he was unfaithful to her. On top of that, his family never accepted her as worthy of him. She takes the case anyway. Like the first story, Ruby shows that in spite of her paltry courtroom experience, she can maintain her poise in a battle against an experienced district attorney who’s just as smug as Lee’s family. Yet she needs more help figuring this case out than she did with the first case. That is to say, while she has gut-feeling suspicions about the prostitute’s death, her partner handles most of the “heavy lifting” that gets Ruby out of a life-threatening jam.

The second story contains many compelling twists and turns, but in general–in these kinds of books–one expects the protagonist to be the hero of the story. It’s probable that Ruby wouldn’t have survived to the end of the second case without her partner’s intervention. For many fans, this is going to weaken the story.

Both stories could have worked on their own had they been presented as short stories even though each of them needed a little more depth even within Patterson’s trademark fast-paced style. The book would have been better if it had been presented openly as two stories. What a shame that it wasn’t put together that way.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘ The Lost Girls of Paris’ by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of ParisThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jenoff has written a compelling novel about female British agents serving in occupied France during World War II. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking novel since we learn early on that the odds are against many of the agents lasting long in the field before they’re captured and executed.

The novel is easy to follow since it focuses three characters, albeit with a good supporting cast: Eleanor, who works for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and champions and then trains and manages female agents in the field; Marie, whom Eleanor recruits due her flawless French; and Grace, who finds an abandoned suitcase in a New York train station after the war and becomes interested in a packet of the agents’ pictures.

The novel moves well, giving readers a sense of what it might have been like for these women to suddenly leave the country without telling anyone where they were going and, after arduous training, finding themselves in harm’s way. Fans of black ops novels might wish that more of the novel concentrated on the field work itself rather than the worries and intrigues at SOE headquarters. However, the girls’ work in the field is well researched and authentic.

The problematic character in the novel is Grace. After stumbling upon the pictures, she feels compelled to learn more about the SOE, Eleanor, and the girls in the packet of photographs. While Grace is a realistic character, inserting her life and her problems into this story takes away from the primary focus of the novel. She is more or less a device the author has used to help convey the story to the readers. While Grace “works” as a character, the novel might well have been stronger if she hadn’t been included.

Taking the story as it is with Grace in the mix, the material is well presented and interesting. Goodness knows the story in “real life” could have happened this way with an unconnected person stumbling upon it and trying to learn more. That said, the novel is well worth the reader’s time.

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Review: ‘The Bishop’s Pawn’ by Steve Berry

The Bishop's Pawn (Cotton Malone, #13)The Bishop’s Pawn by Steve Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those who enjoy FBI and police procedurals, black ops, off-the-grid agencies, and loose-cannon agents will find a lot to like in this story from the long-running Cotton Malone series. Berry focuses on the FBI’s vendetta against the Martin Luther King, Jr. and his death on April 4, 1968. Malone is contacted because some old documents about King’s assassination are about to come to light. The old guard wants them destroyed (if they exist), while current investigators want the truth to come out.

Malone is thrust right into the middle of a playing field of rogue agents and underworld characters that are nothing like the day-to-day life of a JAG lawyer. He has skills, but he’s new at fighting bad guys on the street who are well-practiced at being bad guys. This is the genius of the book: a novice thrust into a volatile mix because those who ask him to go there appreciate the fact he’s a loose cannon.

The story holds together even though the characters Malone confronts have hidden and dangerous agendas or otherwise aren’t who they seem to be.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the fact that it requires a lot of backstory to make sense to readers who weren’t around during the King era. This is the same issue people had with “The Da Vinci Code.” Without Dan Brown’s constant teaching, the story wouldn’t make sense even though that teaching bogged down the book. The teaching in this book bogs it down because quite a few words are devoted to it.

Nonetheless, I found the book compelling. It’s certainly a must read for those interested in the 1960s civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Malcolm

Briefly Noted: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of crazy courage–the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” – Susan Orlean

Publisher’s Description

“On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, ‘Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.’ The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?”

Assessment

If you Google this fire, you will find many pictures that are sad to see because they show the mess fire, smoke, and water make of books. The images I saw are copyrighted, so I can’t show them here. Frankly, in reading Orlean’s book, I was surprised at the number of damaged books that were saved, many by a long process of removing the moisture from the sodden pages. In many of the older books that escaped the fire and water, the smell of smoke still lingers.

Main Los Angeles Library – Wikipedia Photo

You can also learn on the Internet that even though there was an arson suspect who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) keep his own alibi straight, there was never enough evidence for an indictment. While the book delves into the stories of that suspect, it’s difficult to read The Library Book with this lingering lack of closure about an unsolved crime. If this book were fiction, let’s say a whodunnit, the author would be criticized for the failure of the characters to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice. The lack of closure creates within this book a lack of focus. That is, the book wanders a bit.

Nonetheless, the book is well written and demonstrates Orlean’s long-time and well-known talents for interviewing people and finding out what makes them tick. I worked in the college libraries at the universities I attended, so I share Orlean’s love of the library and, as such, see this book as not only the history of an important U.S. library but as a love letter to libraries and those who manage them.

Oddly, the fire–and the public’s support of the library after the fire, and seven years later when the main library reopened–might have saved the historic building. The building had for years been discussed as out of date and too small, along with having inadequate fire repression methods. So, a new wing was built and the old building remains, more vibrant and busy than before. If you love libraries, and especially if you have worked in libraries, you will probably enjoy this book. I did.

A Personal Note

I cannot bring myself to feel that, as an author, I am brave in any way for writing novels I hope people will read. More likely, I am foolish, for such a small percentage of books, including those from major publishers ever succeed in finding enough readers to support the publisher’s and author’s investment. Nonetheless, writing is typical of me, just one more example of my impractical life’s focus.

I never expect Hollywood or the New York Times to call and request either a film option or an interview. I have always expected more of my personal friends and online friends to read the books, but to the extent, they read novels at all, they choose the bestsellers from major publishers as a sure thing. Novels are different than other businesses in which community support often favors the local store rather than the chain. Buy local! But that seldom applies to books. The nursery, pharmacy, tire store, restaurant, and the grocery store expect my support, but they don’t buy my books. That’s a sad thing, I think, but when I read a book like this one, I have faith and hope that somebody, somewhere will ultimately find the stories I have to tell.

Susan Orlean has given us all a very memorable story and I appreciate it.

Malcolm

 

 

‘Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder’

“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” 
― Raymond Chandler

I just finished a novel (see picture) that was 99% technique and 1% nonsense. The author used a technique that’s so ubiquitous these days, it’s got to be more than a fad. It’s an epidemic.

It works like this. You’re reading a high-stakes chapter, probably a thriller, and at the end of the chapter something untoward happens such as, “Bob kicked open the door and noticed 25 men pointing their guns at him.”

You turn the page wondering, more than idly, how the hero’s going to get out of this mess. Do you find out? No. What you see is the beginning of a new section of the book called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and most of that section seems completely irrelevant or, in writer talk: a very intrusive backstory.

There’s no passion in this, and I’m not talking about the kind of passion Raymond Chandler was referring to when he wrote, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The story would have been more interesting if it had been a house of cards rather than a house of gimmicks.

The story lacked passion because when it came down to it the story and the characters didn’t really matter. Instead, they were cheap tricks strung together like the kind of necklace you can buy at a pawn shop for a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, the book cost more than that and didn’t have the gumption to acknowledge that, when compared to cheap hookers, it was more false.

The novel, written by an author whom the blurbs said was the next Stephen King or the next Michael Crichton, had an inventive beginning in which a passenger jet arrives at a small airport where the flight pilot and copilot discover that everyone on the ground is apparently dead. Unfortunately, the main characters immediately out themselves as dysfunctional. Suddenly, the novel reminds me of Chandler’s line, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

At a distance, the story has possibilities worthy of King and Chrichton. Up close, it’s dysfunctional characters and a lot of technique. The author has chosen a distasteful stew of technique, characters who are too broken to even speak to each other, and techno-speak with which to engineer this costume jewelry of a story.

Here’s a spoiler: Google, we learn, might be developing products that aren’t good for us even though they have plenty of technique in them and look like they are good for us. Well, that’s hardly a new idea. Nonetheless, it’s the driving force behind why the ground crew at the airport seem to be dead.

In the final analysis, there’s nothing to see here or, as Chandler says, “The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

It takes guts, I think, to tell a story straight rather than relying on stale smoke and cloudy mirrors. Dead on Arrival is dead on arrival.

Malcolm