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Posts tagged ‘reviews’

Creating ARC Copies: A How-To

Once upon a time, Publisher’s Weekly asked for a review copy of a children’s book our small press had in the works. We were new to the business then and had no clue how to accommodate them, so we lost the opportunity for a high-profile review. Ouch! Now that I know better, I won’t make the same mistake again. Better still, I’ll share what I’ve learned so you won’t, either.

Source: Creating ARC Copies: A How-To | Celebrating Independent Authors

I saw a post by author Hope Clark in which she said that she buys copies of her books and sends them out to her favorite readers prior to publication so that then her books go live, there’s a batch of reviews ready to go. (She’s at a mid-seized publisher and buys the books at cost because many publishers don’t send out review copies any more.)

For the same reason, think about creating advance reader copies (ARCs) of your books so that you can send them to review sites before your books are published. In fact, major review sites won’t look at a book after its publication date; many of them expect a copy four months in advance.

You may not get in Kirkus or Book List, but it’s worth the time an effort, I think, to try. This post at Indies Unlimited takes you through the basics. Reviews early on in a book’s life not only draw more readers but improve how your book is displayed on sites like Amazon or in book newsletters.

Malcolm

 

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Review: ‘The President is Missing by Clinton and Patterson

The President Is MissingThe President Is Missing by Bill Clinton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Those of us who write novels would probably sell out our own grandmothers to collaborate with a former popular President of the United States. The good news is this: the book delivers.

I found myself thinking about the mechanics of collaboration. Did Clinton approach Patterson or did Patterson approach, Clinton? Who wrote what? Who thought of the plot? We may never know. But the plot and presentation succeed because they focus on cyber-warfare or cyber-terrorism, both of which seem to be a real threat these days. That’s the strength of the story: it focuses on a fear many of us have.

The President of the book is believable. (I would hope so.) He’s facing prospective impeachment, something the country lives with every day. He takes risks that make sense to the reader even before we know the extent of the danger. What more could one ask of a chief executive?

We have an unusual mix here: prospective terrorists offering to help the U.S. A potential traitor in the administration’s inner circle. Who can the President trust? The reader might wonder, has any of this happened already and still remains classified?

The novel has a satisfactory conclusion. I could have done without the Presidential address to Congress near the end of the novel because it focused not only on the political polarization within the novel but spoke the polarization of views outside the novel, that is to say, the fact that parties and individuals can’t seem to work together for the common good. Yes, they should be able to do that, but the end of the novel seemed to be a bit of an editorial.

This novel is an entertaining read about issues that might (one day or already) impact the U.S. and other Western nations. It’s food for thought about our dependence on the Internet and about how the nation could or should react to cyber threats. One suspects that Clinton’s knowledge of the presidency brings realism to the story. The scary thing about the book–and why one keeps reading–is that it seems all too real.

Malcolm

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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: ‘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

‘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

 

Review: ‘Newberry Sin’ by C. Hope Clark

Newberry SinNewberry Sin by C. Hope Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Readers of C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade Mystery Series (“Low Country Bribe,” “Tidewater Murder,” and “Palmetto Poison”) didn’t see Ms. Slade for several years while the author was working on her Edisto Island Mysteries. It’s a pleasure meeting Slade again in “Newberry Sin.”

Newberry has a potential murder, a truckload of motives and prospective suspects, and, of course, enough sin to require the use of oven mitts while reading this mystery. Slade and her petty boss are in town for a radio show when a local man dies under suspicious circumstances. Even though USDA investigator Slade befriends a potential confidential informant, her boss–who has a grudge against her–assigns a less-experienced investigator to the case and orders Slade to stay away from Newberry.

Slade is a somewhat less self-assured investigator in this book than in earlier stories. She has good reason to be. Her boss assigns her nothing but administrative assistant duties, there are emotional issues at home and conflicts with her boyfriend, and the looming reality that she will probably be fired if she follows up on her informant’s constant pleas for help. This mix results in a somewhat muddled approach to the case at the outset, and she makes a few mistakes that don’t help.

However, readers of “Newberry Sin” will discover a deeper, more complex Slade in this novel as she wrestles with personal and chain-of-command issues while trying to sort out who might have killed whom and why. The book starts out at a high pitch and never slows down. Every page brings a new revelation or incident that clearly shows Newberry will get worse before it gets better.

Slade doesn’t want to become one of the casualties or let the bad guys get away with whatever they’re trying to do to a nice town (except for its contagious gossip).

I wanted to savor this novel for a week or so, but I couldn’t because the plot made me feel like I was riding a bat out of hell with no brakes. Slade seems to have a similar opinion.

I received a free ARC (advance readers copy) of “Newberry Sin” in exchange for an honest review.

My 2012 review of “Low Country Bribe” is here.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare’

If you’re taking a dance class and its members find out you’re a writer and ask you to write a murder mystery about the class, what will you do? I happen to know author Pat Bertram has been taking a dance class or two or three and that her friends thought such a novel would be a real hoot.

That said, I’m surprised that Pat’s publisher didn’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel that claimed “No dance class members were killed during the writing of this book.” But, Pat and her publisher Indigo Sea Press threw caution to the winds, so one wonders where the fiction begins and the truth ends–and vice versa.

The result is a very readable hoot.

When the students at a small town’s studio class find out that one of them is an author, they think it would be fun for her to write a novel about their classes in which one is killed and everybody else is a suspect. A superstitious person would know such games lead to real trouble; so would anyone who suspects the fates have a dark sense of humor. But they don’t stop to think about consequences. One of them even volunteers to be the victim. The rest of them talk about motives and murder methods.

But then somebody dies and the book thing is no longer a game. Suffice it to say, the cops are not amused by the book idea and think the writer is the killer. In this dandy mystery, everyone has a secret, a reason for covering it up, and a possible motive. The characters are well developed, the introspective protagonist wonders if she inadvertently set the stage for a murder by agreeing to write a murder mystery based on the dance class, and the cops tell her that in real life, most amateur sleuths and up dead or worse.

Readers who love mysteries will enjoy this book. Writers who write mysteries will consider being more careful when pretending to kill off their friends in a novel. And those who’ve been thinking of taking a dance class will see the story as a cautionary tale.

Pat (More Deaths Than One, Daughter I Am) has, with Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, written another compelling story.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine “monsters” from science fiction and horror classics written by H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Lewis Stevenson working together with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade to track down the killers in a string of gory London murders.

Odds are, the resulting story would be a chaotic, unbelievable mess. Or, if the muses were kind and the odds were defied, the resulting story would be a breathtaking and expertly plotted Victorian-era fantasy in which the plots, characters and themes of fictional legends fit together in a believable, wondrous harmony.

Theodora Goss’ muses were kind.

The protagonists of legend believed they could create evolved humans out of bits and pieces of the dead. They failed. The evil scientists in Goss’ story have similar ideas. “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” has been assembled from the remains of its legendary predecessors, yet unlike the “monsters” of yore, it is strikingly beautiful, functions elegantly with the well-focused skills of its creator, and contains a radiant soul.

Readers familiar with the original stories will enjoy references to even the smallest of details. For everyone else, no footnotes are required because the story stands on its own.

The plot is complicated and compelling and the pace is rapid and perfectly synchronized with a dash of humor. As a writer, I wonder how Goss created a novel that is better than the works from which it takes it themes. I suspect her precision as a poet and short story writer, her love of fairy tales and folklore, and her long-term research into the “monsters” of literature are factors. But those factors are only bits and pieces of the author’s craft, imagination and creative spirit.

Rather than analyse how Goss turned an accident waiting to happen into one of the best novels of the year, I’m willing to write it off and say: “It must be magic.”

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, folklore and magical realism short stories and novels.

Review: ‘The Man Without a Shadow’ by Joyce Carol Oates

The Man Without a ShadowThe Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a brief illness destroys Elihu Hoopes’ short-term memory, he becomes frozen in time. Long term, he thinks he’s still the age he was when he became ill. Short term, he lives in the now of 70-second bursts of knowledge about what he’s doing and who he’s with. What he’s doing is living with a relative and coming to the university for testing intended to advance scientific knowledge about memory loss. This knowledge will help everyone but Elihu because he will probably never get any better.

In many ways, this novel reads like nonfiction with short scenes depicting the psychological testing Hoopes undergoes almost daily. As the novel proceeds, we learn more about the brilliant young researcher Margot Sharpe who begins work at the lab while working on her degree. She stays on. She becomes three-dimensional to the reader, but–we might speculate–one-dimensional to herself. And that one dimension appears to be an obsession with her “patient.”

The novel’s short scenes, with Oates’ typical reliance on up-close detail, tend to mimic Hoopes’ periods of contiguous present-day memory. As a person with a continuing existence, other characters (and the reader) know more about his life than he does–except for the past which for him is always yesterday. He sees others aging but is not aware he is aging.

As one reads, one suspects Sharpe’s life is in danger of losing it’s wholeness. She’s becoming famous for her brilliance as a researcher while becoming more single minded in her devotion to Hoopes. She questions not only the ethics of the testing, but also her own ethics wherein her feelings for Hoopes begin to look like a one-sided fantasy which has a history for her but not for him. He seems to have some consciousness of her over time even though she has to introduce herself every time she sees him–even if she leaves the room for a minute.

The opening lines of the novel tell you where all this is going:

“Notes on Amnesia Project ‘E.H.’ (1965-1996).
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“At last, she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they’ve first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.”

It’s a bumpy ride. Some readers will get lost with the repetition of the testing scenes, while others might find their eyes glazing with the titles of the scholarly papers that arise out of what Sharpe and her colleagues learn. Others will enjoy the exploration of Hoopes’ and Sharpe’s loneliness and how their fragmented lives fit together, and then they don’t, and then fit together, and then they don’t, rather like a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm.

With diligence, and an ability to live only within the present moment while reading, readers will discover this book has something profound to offer them.

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy.

Quickly Noted: ‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien

“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.” – from “The Little Red Chairs”

What do the fairy tale setting in a remote Irish town and Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, have in common? In a sane world, nothing. In her alternate history, 85-year-old Edna O’Brien combines what begins as an apparent folktale with the chilling angst of an Irish woman, Fidelma, who stumbles beneath the butcher’s spell before she knows he’s the butcher. As a stranger in her small town, Vlad is an event, a hypnotizing holy man and trickster with wisdom and danger in his eyes, the kind of man every mother warns every daughter about.

littleredchairsAs the story begins with all the charm of “The Music Man,” it’s easy to fall beneath the steel wheels of O’Brien’s spell and hope against hope tht her words are leading toward something perhaps a bit scandalous, something that might leave the townspeople–and especially Fidelma–with a few bittersweet scars of the kind that aren’t really cut that deep. But O’Brien’s tale goes where it must, to graphic and unspeakable horror from which Fidelma cannot quite escape. None of those 11,541 chairs was for her, but–if she had lived and breathed outside of fiction–destiny owed her a chair and, perhaps, absolution.

The Butcher of Bosnia is, in some mysterious way, the air which this story needs in order to breathe, and yet in other ways who he is and what he did are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Fiedelma, her suffering, her acts which were a curse to her village, her misplaced innocence that brought her, as naivete often does, to a hell from which there was no escape.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her New York Times review, “O’Brien is not interested in sensationalizing her material, and ‘The Little Red Chairs’ is not a novel of suspense, still less a mystery or a thriller; it is something more challenging, a work of meditation and penance. How does one come to terms with one’s own complicity in evil, even if that complicity is ‘innocent’? Should we trust the stranger who arrives out of nowhere in our community? Should we mistrust the stranger? When is innocence self-destructive? Given the nature of the world, when is skepticism, even cynicism, justified? Much is made of innocence in fiction, as in life, but in O’Brien’s unsentimental imagination the innocent suffer greatly because they are not distrustful enough.”

When we consort with the devil, by whatever name he identifies himself, should we not expect betrayal? It’s not an easy question, spells being what they are and innocence being what it is. Is there a message in this book? Yes: trust ensures our doom.

Oates’ questions are ever on our minds these days when terrorism comes out of nowhere and visits pleasant communities and exuberant celebrations in large cities.  I wonder if we can afford to be innocent these days. If not, what a pity. Suffice it to say, Fidelma will find little pity because those who (we often say) should have known better are seldom afforded the compassion granted the skeptical or the ignorant.

Yes, this novel is a masterpiece. Yes, it is well told, dark and deep. But it should carry on its cover a warning: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” You cannot read this novel without being forever changed. I dealt with the book quickly here because I am too faint of hear to speak about it at length.

Malcolm