Magical book

Magical book

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Three Top Reviewers Tell All

What less-than-blockbuster mystery author hasn’t dreamed of his or her ARC being plucked from a teetering pile and chosen for an attention-getting review? 

Can the writer do anything to make that happen? No. So how do top reviewers decide which books to favor? 
Maureen Corrigan

Recently the Mystery Writers of America Mid-Atlantic Chapter, of which I am a member, hosted three guests who told us how they work, what they love (and hate) in a crime novel, and why certain behavior by writers and publishers ticks them off. 

Maureen Corrigan, a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University, reviews for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and won an Edgar Award for criticism. She served as a juror for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Dennis Drabelle, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s award for excellence in reviewing, is an author and the crime fiction editor at The Washington Post. Internet critic Bethanne Patrick, known for her Book Maven blog and the influential Friday Reads on Twitter, was named one of Flavorwire’s 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Oprah magazine, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Neither Corrigan nor Patrick reviews mysteries exclusively.

Dennis Drabelle
What kind of competition does a book face when an advance reader copy goes to one of these people?

Patrick said she receives 50-75 ARCs a week. Corrigan receives about 200 a week at her home address and 50 at her office. The Washington Post receives about 150 ARCs every day. Corrigan reviews a handful of mysteries every two or three months on NPR. The Post runs a single crime fiction review each Monday and occasionally devotes a Sunday column to a mystery roundup.

How are books chosen for review?

First off, self-published books are automatically excluded. Novels by “big names” rise to the top, but beyond that, Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all keep an eye out for new and lesser known authors whose books offer something special.

The publisher’s name may persuade Patrick to give a book a closer look. “Some imprints,” she said, “are really reliable.” But the book itself has to win her over with superior writing. “It always comes back to the writing.” Corrigan said that “something unusual” will pique her interest and “open the door” but doesn’t guarantee a review. Drabelle is drawn to mysteries with exotic settings. Aside from his personal preferences, Drabelle started an occasional cozy mystery roundup column in the Post because he felt the paper should expand the range of crime fiction reviewed in its pages.
None of them is influenced by industry publications like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. They also can’t be persuaded by a publicist’s pitch. The book itself is what counts.

Bethanne Patrick
What bowls them over and makes them feel a book deserves a review?

“Authority of voice,” Corrigan said. Sometimes she’s drawn in by the plot and setting, but fully realized characters are essential. Most of all, she likes books that have the ring of authenticity rather than market-driven gimmicks—“not vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” Patrick is attracted to a fresh voice or a fictional world that is “other”—and that doesn’t necessarily mean exotic. “Even a cozy,” she said, “can take you somewhere different.” Drabelle admires authors who are skillful at withholding information to build suspense.

How do they approach writing negative reviews?

Fairness is essential, Patrick said. She cited her review of Sara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge, as “almost totally negative, but fair.” She always backs up her negative comments with examples from the book.

“It’s never a pleasure to read a bad book,” Corrigan said, and she is annoyed when a major author publishes “schlock” and starts recycling plots. When she’s “really had it” with such an author, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinion.

Drabelle concurred, saying that a book review is “a consumer report” and it’s the reviewer’s job to inform the public when a major writer publishes a bad book. He believes in saving negativism for lower down in the review because if the hard shots are fired in the first sentence people may not read on.

Do they get a lot of flack when they review a book negatively? 

Corrigan’s review of a book that had been praised by The New York Times drew angry letters and made her the target of online attacks. She was sufficiently concerned to tell Georgetown University security about what was happening.

Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all said they prefer that authors not communicate with them about reviews, whether positive or negative. “It’s always a little strange” to hear from a writer, Drabelle said. “I didn’t do it for the writer. I did it for readers.” Patrick noted that several authors have told her they learned something about their writing from her reviews, but she believes “authors shouldn’t say anything to reviewers.” Corrigan doesn’t want any writer to think a positive review means he or she has found a champion who will review all future work favorably. If Corrigan thinks the next book from that writer is lousy, she’ll say so—or she won’t review it at all.

All three frown on the deceptive practice of publishers and writers taking pull quotes from a negative review and using them to give the impression the book was praised. Drabelle said that at the Post “we don’t take it lightly when a review is distorted,” and editors have expressed their displeasure to publishers.

Can any of them explain why some bad books, with a collection of negative reviews, attract hordes of readers?
No. Patrick mentioned The Memory Keeper’s Daughter as one book that was “review-proof” and seemed to come out of nowhere to take over the bestsellers lists. Those lists, Drabelle said, “are dominated by terrible books. You’re lucky if one is any good.”

Who are the people they hope to influence?
Readers. Their job is to help readers sift through the avalanche of books published every year and find something worth reading. They’re aware that they are speaking to a shrinking audience. “I don’t think writing is in trouble,” Patrick said. “There are many good writers. Reading is in trouble.” The world offers too many distractions, and people are reading less and less. Even a bookseller friend, Patrick added, confessed to watching more TV and reading less these days.

How much influence do they have in a world where traditional book reviews are fast disappearing and readers are turning to Amazon and amateur blogs for book information?
Patrick believes that some book bloggers are as good as or better than the professional reviewers and “can do great things for a book,” while others simply post reviews that “steal from the publisher’s synopsis” and offer no serious assessment. Veteran reviewers, Corrigan pointed out, still offer a special sensibility honed by years of critical reading. Drabelle sees internet competition as an incentive for traditional reviewers to “be better than ever.”

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, do you believe traditional reviewers still matter in today’s world? Do review quotes on a book jacket or in ads influence sales? Please leave a comment!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What year is it?

Technological changes have come at breakneck speed in the past few years, and I think a lot of people are starting to forget that we weren’t always so dependent on our gadgets and devices.

I’ve been startled several times lately by reader complaints that my first Rachel Goddard novel, The Heat of the Moon, seems “dated” and, indeed, “weird” because Rachel doesn’t carry a cell phone and doesn’t use the internet to look for old newspaper stories. Why, they ask, would Rachel have to go to the Library of Congress to look up anything, when all the information in the world is available online with a few clicks?

Let me clarify a few things.

The Heat of the Moon was published in 2006. Books are seldom set in the year they’re published. In this case, the book was written and set in 1997. (At one point I write, “It was the summer of the comet with the funny name, Hale-Bopp.”) As with so many “first” novels (this was actually the eleventh book I’d written), it made the rounds of New York publishers for a year, had strong interest from two editors who loved it and wanted to publish it but couldn’t get it past the committees that make the final decisions. I put it aside for several years, until my friend Judy Clemens urged me to submit it to Poisoned Pen Press. PPP kept the manuscript for 16 months before offering a contract in 2005. It finally saw print in March of 2006.

I suppose I could have rewritten it to include cell phones and internet, but the editor loved it as it was and published it without altering a single word. (I believe she added a comma here and there, as she has strong views about serial commas.) But here’s the thing readers may not realize: even if I had “updated” it, Rachel’s search for information wouldn’t have been very different.

Rachel was looking for newspaper stories about events that occurred in Minnesota in the mid-1970s. This may come as a shock, but few newspapers had all of their archived copies online in 1997, when I wrote the book, or in 2005, when I sold it. In fact, not all historical copies are online even now. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, today, has digitized copies beginning with 1986 editions. That wouldn’t have done Rachel any good, even if those back issues had been available through the internet in 1997. The same is true of many other periodicals. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, offers online copies starting with 1990. Older copies are available on microfilm.

 Furthermore, the Library of Congress is not the all-encompassing repository of digital materials that some people imagine, and you can’t find every page of every newspaper ever printed by going to the LOC website. The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between the LOC and the National Endowment for the Humanities, began to take shape in 2003, and the first grants were awarded in 2005 for the collection and digitization of selected (not all) newspaper pages. The actual work is being done by state libraries, historical societies, and universities, and each grant covers the digitization of 100,000 pages that are considered to be of historical importance. The digitization is up to 1922 so far. (See the collection at the ChroniclingAmerica site.)

As for cell phones, when I wrote The Heat of the Moon in 1997, I didn’t know a single person who owned one, and I never saw people using them in public. Until the Motorola StarTAC, the first flip phone, came out in 1996, all cellular telephones were bulky and heavy, some weighing as much as a pound, and they cost a small fortune. The StarTAC was small but retailed for $1,000. Most mobile phones continued to be hefty for several more years. The precursor of smartphones was the Nokia Communicator 9000i (1997), the first phone with a separate keyboard. It weighed 14 ounces and cost close to $1,000. Rachel could have tucked a StarTAC into a pocket or purse, but not this Nokia. What's more important is that, as a low-paid junior veterinarian just beginning her practice, she would have fainted at the thought of spending $1,000 on a telephone. 

The boom in personal cell phone use didn’t begin until the first decade of this century, with the advent of 3G (third generation) technology and falling prices. By the end of 2007, about 295 million people worldwide owned mobile telephones. That was 9% of the entire planet’s potential customer base. Even if The Heat of the Moon had been set in 2006, when it was published, Rachel’s lack of a cell phone would not have been unusual.

In later books, Rachel does carry a cell phone and use the internet, and like a lot of series writers, I avoid identifying the years in which the stories take place. The aging of characters is a problem all authors have to deal with when they write about the same people over a long period. Should we let them age naturally with a year or so passing between books? Should we anchor them in a specific time period, and allow only a few weeks to pass in story time between installments?

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone started out in the 1980s and there she remains, with her land line and her little black dress. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam veteran, now has an adult daughter and is nearing retirement. Harry Bosch, another Vietnam vet, has aged in Michael Connelly’s books, but in the TV version he’s back in his forties and has been transformed into a Gulf War combatant. Robert Crais made his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike Vietnam veterans too, but today they seem as young and active as ever, unaffected by the passage of four decades. Crais hasn’t taken them into their sixties, yet he hasn’t noticeably slowed the passage of time in the outer world either. It’s fiction. If you like the characters, you don’t fret about such matters.

I allowed Rachel to age, but I didn’t let 14 years go by between book one and book six. She is now in her mid-thirties, not 41. What year is it? I have no idea, and I don’t care, because it isn’t important to any of the plots.

Although I’m sure most readers know a historical novel when they see one and don’t expect the characters to whip out cell phones or search the internet, I fear—if my own experience is any indication—that they’re less forgiving when novels are set in the near past. The 1970s have at last achieved the status of history, but do books set in 1985 or 1995 seem merely “dated” and therefore unreadable?

With my first book, I apparently landed on a dividing line that some people are unable to cross mentally. Trust me, though: cell phones and internet searches are irrelevant. All that counts is the story. Of the books I’ve published, The Heat of the Moon remains my favorite.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Those Blasted Amazon Reviews

When writers talk among themselves, where those "others" -- readers -- can't overhear or see their listserv posts, many voice complaints about Amazon reader reviews.

Those reviews have become vital to sales (or so we believe). If a book racks up at least 100 reviews, Amazon gives it greater prominence. It will show up more often on readers' screens as a recommended book, or on a list of results when a reader searches for titles within a genre. And, of course, we all believe that four and five star reviews impress both Amazon's soulless computer programs and potential buyers.

Many writers rant and rave when someone posts a one star "review" that says only, "This book is filled with bad grammar. Skip it." Or a review that pulls out a single sentence or paragraph as proof that the books is virtually unreadable. They may conclude that this stranger couldn't possibly have read the book, at least not much of it, and has posted such a "review" for malicious reasons that defy understanding.

I tend to think all this angst is a waste of energy and time.

Let me tell you about a thriller I've just finished in audiobook format, and explain why, as a writer, I could be picky and negative about it but instead am inclined to admire it. Hang in here with me, and I promise this will be relevant to the Amazon review issue. The book was written by an internationally bestselling author, someone whose novels instantly shoot to the top tier of the bestseller lists as soon as they're released in hardcover. I'd never read anything of his before, and I was curious about the reason for his success.

I laughed out loud when I heard this sentence: "[She] closed her eyes and looked down."

Now, I could make fun of a writer who thinks a person can look anywhere while her eyes are closed, and I could certainly ask why an editor didn't catch a glaring error. I could also point out several equally laughable sentences. But, to tell you the truth, the book was entertaining -- shallow, yes, and no great work of art, but thoroughly entertaining, with great narrative drive, an intriguing premise, and plenty of those twists and turns we love in thrillers. It was exactly what I needed to take my mind off a personal problem that was driving me batty. What more can you ask a thriller writer to do for you? I'm not going to condemn the novel because a few sentences were poorly phrased. But a lot of writers, I must say, would delight in using those sentences as examples of the "junk" that readers seem to prefer.

So why should writers be surprised and annoyed when readers pick out one or two flaws in our books and condemn the books as a whole because they aren't perfect? We do it ourselves, to other writers. I won't get into the motives behind this. But we do it, undeniably. When readers who are not professional reviewers cite bad grammar and awkward sentences, I believe they're grasping for some concrete reason to explain why they didn't enjoy the book. If the grammar were perfect and the writing flowed smoothly, they probably still wouldn't like it. And that's their right.

Maybe some people are weird enough to post negative comments about books they haven't read. But I can't assume that a negative review of one of my books must have come from someone who didn't read it. I accept that not everyone will love everything I write. After all, I don't love everything I read.

Speaking only for myself: If a book is, on the whole, badly written AND boring, or well-written BUT boring, that's one thing. I usually just stop reading. I give up on a huge number of books (including books by writers I know and like) because life is seeming, these days, increasingly short, and I don't have the time to waste. But if a novel has flaws -- what book doesn't? -- yet still holds my interest and entertains me all the way to the end, then I count that book as a success. If it's a bestseller, I say it deserves to be one.

I don't normally read Amazon reviews. They don't influence my book-buying in the least. I haven't looked at reviews of my own six novels in so long that I have no idea how many have been posted or whether most are favorable or not. I obsessed about such things when I began publishing. I don't anymore, and I feel better for having cut this one source of stress out of my life (although plenty of others remain).

Writers can't control readers' reactions to our books. We can't control what strangers say or post online about our books. Tearing our hair out over one or two nonsensical Amazon reviews seems pointless to me.

Other writers, of course, may (and do) have a different view.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sole Survivors

Serial killers aren’t in the habit of letting their victims survive, and when someone—usually a woman—does escape alive, the trauma is likely to leave deep, lasting scars. Two popular thriller writers recently published novels featuring sole survivors coping with the aftereffects of their experiences.

Cold Cold Heart
Tami Hoag
Hardcover, 368 pages
Dutton Adult, January 13, 2015
ISBN-10: 0525954546
ISBN-13: 978-0525954545

Dana Nolan, a TV reporter in her twenties, escaped from a notorious serial murderer by killing him before he could kill her. But she is left with physical wounds that have destroyed her beauty and a head injury that scrambles her memory, robs her of the ability to speak coherently, and makes her dependent on her mother and stepfather. Tormented by flashbacks and nightmares, filled with rage at her own helplessness, Dana has little hope for her future. She can’t clearly recall her ordeal or the man who brutalized her, but the police push her to try, while her hovering mother wants to enclose her in a protective bubble.

Leaving the rehab facility after a long stay, Dana has no choice but to move back to her hometown and the house she grew up in. Instead of finding the peace and quiet she needs to heal, she discovers that her abduction has reignited interest in the disappearance of her best friend, Casey Grant, the summer after their high school graduation. When she encounters Casey’s ex-boyfriend, John Villante, she blurts, “You killed my best friend.” John, a Middle East war veteran so crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder that he’s reduced to delivering pizzas for a living and occupying his boyhood room in his despicable father’s house, has a lot in common with Dana, but they see each other as enemies. Tim Carver, Dana’s high school boyfriend and an officer on the local police force, makes sure John remains under the shadow of suspicion not only for Casey’s disappearance and probable murder, but also for any other crime that occurs in town. When her therapist advises Dana to find a “project” to give her days a purpose, she passes up harmless, enjoyable occupations and chooses instead to find out what happened to Casey. Driven to learn the truth even as she struggles with her own handicaps, Dana puts her life in danger again to uncover explosive secrets beneath the surface of small town life.

The mystery of what happened to Casey is slow to get started, and readers never get to know the long-gone girl well enough to care about her. Avid mystery fans may spot Casey’s killer before the book’s climactic scenes. But Cold Cold Heart is nevertheless a gripping novel because it immerses readers in the emotional turmoil of two people suffering from different forms of PTSD. Although neither Dana nor John is always likable, it’s impossible to be unmoved by Hoag’s depiction of their struggles to find solid footing in a world that seems to shift constantly beneath their feet. In an afterword, Hoag describes the relatively mild but never-ending consequences of a head injury she suffered as a child and challenges readers to learn more about PTSD, a condition that affects far more people than we may realize.

Die Again
Tess Gerritsen
Hardcover, 352 pages
Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014
ISBN-10: 0345543858
ISBN-13: 978-0345543851

I’ve read every Rizzoli and Isles novel Gerritsen has published, and I found this one different from the others, disappointing in some respects, but ultimately enjoyable.

About a third of the book is set in the past and narrated by Millie Jacobson, a young woman who was on safari in a remote part of Botswana several years ago when the guide started killing the tourists one by one. Alternating with Millie’s unfolding story are chapters set in present-day Boston, where homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles are investigating the grisly murder of big-game hunter and taxidermist Leon Gott. The victim, who was putting his taxidermy skills to work on a rare leopard that died at a local zoo, bears the claw marks of a big cat and has been gutted and hung like a hunter’s kill. After discovering that Gott’s son disappeared in Botswana, Rizzoli and Isles wonder if the unsolved safari homicides might be connected to the Boston murder. Eventually Jane Rizzoli and her husband, FBI agent Gabriel Dean, travel to Africa to question the sole survivor of the safari massacre, who lives in fear that the killer will come back for her one day.

The scenes set in Africa are riveting as they detail the safari group’s inexorable slide into chaos and terror. The Boston scenes with Rizzoli and Isles are less compelling. The grind of an investigation, interrupted by personal scenes with Rizzoli’s parents, can’t compete with the chills of people trying to stay alive in the African bush while a killer stalks them as if they’re prey animals. (Rizzoli’s parents, at this stage, would be tiresome in any story. Why would her mother, after building a happy, fulfilling new life on her own, make the stupid decision she does?) The usual spark seems to be missing from the odd couple friendship of Rizzoli and Isles.

On the strength of the African scenes, though, I recommend Die Again. Fans of the series will not want to miss it.