Follow Your Gut: A Guide to Fair and Impartial Book Reviews

ID-10088817I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember.  I think the first novel I read was a Hardy Boys tale called The Tower Treasure.  I remember devouring the Hardy Boys books as fast as I could get my hands on them.  Finally, when I got a little older, maybe twelve, I moved on to bigger and better things like Stephen King and John Saul.

These days, I still read mainstream writers like King, John Sandford, James Lee Burke, and Greg Iles, to name a few.  However, I also read a lot by Indie writers, those who couldn’t land the gargantuan books deals like the Kings, Pattersons, and Grishams of the world.  I have thoroughly enjoyed many of these Indie books.  Often, these works give me a glimpse into the growing pains experienced by developing writers, people who are making their bones in the ultra-competitive world of self-publishing and relentless self promotion.

I’ve been “reviewing” books since I started reading, passing judgment, both good and bad, on every book I have ever read.  Mind you, it was only recently that started publishing these reviews on my blog.  As an aspiring writer of genre fiction, I would want someone to give me an honest appraisal of my work.  After all, if we only hear that our work is great, where is the opportunity ID-1003989for growth and improvement?  Every time I visit Amazon to grab a new Indie book, I am truly amazed at the number of five-star reviews many books receive.  Folks, there are a lot of good books out there, many of which I would rate as four-star.  There aren’t that many great books out there, at least not the large numbers I see on Amazon.  The last five-star book I read was Creole Bell by James Lee Burke.  That was over a year ago.  I’ve read a lot of books since then.

When I start a new book, the rating process starts when I read the first sentence.  As I read, I look at five components: story/plot, character development, dialogue, consistency, and editing.  The story or plot must be engaging, and unless I’m reading fantasy or science fiction, it must be plausible.  As an example, I recently read a novel about the mafia.  The mafia family discovered an undercover cop in their midst.  They confronted him about it, and they let him walk away!  I have studied the mafia for over twenty years, and can’t think of one instance where this happened.  I guess there’s a first time for everything, but I fairly confident this would never happen.

Some authors just tell you about a character’s traits, both physical and emotional.  This cheats the reader, and it is lazy writing.  Character development is a subtle art form.  Show me the character’s traits through their actions.  And I don’t need a piece-by-piece inventory of what they are wearing, unless it is important and moves the story forward.  I have an imagination; let me use it.

The ability to write good dialogue is an important skill.  Good dialogue can make or break a novel.  I know it when I see it.  I also know bad dialogue when I see it, because my first reaction is always, “People don’t talk like that!”  Some of the best dialogue writers, in my opinion, are John Sandford, Elmore Leonard (RIP!), and James Lee Burke.

When reading and reviewing a book, I also look for consistency in story details.  Don’t have Bob driving a blue Corvette at the beginning of the book, and red one a hundred and fifty pages in.  If something like this happens, it is also indicative of poor editing.  More importantly though, I look for character consistency.  In other words, is what a particular character doing consistent with what I know of about the character, or are they doing something out-of-character (pun intended) to accommodate the story or plot?

Finally, I look at editing, you know, the nuts and bolts stuff like grammar and spelling.  Nothing turns me off quicker than a poorly-edited novel.  I’ve read a few of these poorly-edited novels within the past several months, and I have to say it was hard not to quit them before the end.  I didn’t walk away from these books because I wanted to give the authors an honest assessment of their work.  After all, how are writers supposed to improve without constructive feedback.

ID-100198236My process is simple.  I read, and I rate as I go.  The book may start rated 4-stars.  This could go up or down as I progress through the book.  It is a fluid process.  I also take notes on the things I want to say about the book, and highlight certain passages that I can use to illustrate a certain point.  I go with what my gut tells me, and I don’t over-think the process.  Book reviews are subjective; no two will be the same because what speaks to one reviewer may not speak to another.  If I had to put my rating scale into words, this is how it would read:

1-star: poor editing, poor plot, and poor character development.

2-star: I liked something about the book, but not much, and there was poor editing. Maybe there was a character I related to.

3-star: I like the book, meaning the plot moved me to a degree, and the characters weren’t cardboard, but I wasn’t blown away.

4-star: The book was good, and either the story or the characters were great, but not both.

5-star: I was blown away.  Not many books get 5-stars.

Oh, and one more thing.  Don’t flame authors by saying things like “That guy isn’t fit to write a restaurant menu” or “She couldn’t write an ad for socks.”  Remember, these authors are pouring their hearts and souls into their work.  Critique the work, not the writer.  A few months ago, I had an author contact me requesting that I read and review her novel.  Long story short, I gave it ID-1008560two stars.  There were multiple issues, including some pretty severe editing problems.  I addressed the issues in my review, but I also talked about the things I liked about the book.  I emailed the author when the review was posted.  She emailed me back, and instead of being mad, she thanked me for the honest review and asked about my editing fees.  I don’t know if I’ll get a gig editing her next book, but I was flattered (and surprised) that she inquired.  If you get a reputation as someone who flames authors, requests for reviews will dry up.  Now go and read and review, and have fun, because ultimately that’s what it’s all about.

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Music Review: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012

5 STARS

imgresWhen you think of iconic American rock artists and iconic American rock songs, it’s hard to imagine turning on the radio and not hearing John Mellencamp singing songs like “Jack & Diane,” “I Need a Lover,” and “Pink Houses.”   On December 10, 2013, Mellencamp fans get the ultimate Christmas gift: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012, a sprawling 19-disc, 223 song, career-spanning box set that includes John CougarNo Better Than This, and everything in between.

What I like about this box set is the fact that it is a truly comprehensive look at the career of one of America’s most beloved musical sons.  It has something for everyone.  If you want straight ahead rock and roll, Mellencamp’s early releases like John CougarNothin’ Matters And What If It DidAmerican Fool, and Uh-Huh will satisfy your itch.

With Scarecrow, Mellencamp’s musical sound and the content of his lyrics start to mature, a trend that continues with The Lonesome JubileeBig DaddyWhenever We WantedHuman WheelsDance NakedMr. Happy Go LuckyJohn Mellencamp, and Cuttin’ Heads.  Many of these songs fit well on adult contemporary radio.  This is perhaps my favorite period of Mellencamp’s music because it is, in my opinion, the most musically and lyrically diverse.

On Mellencamp’s most recent four albums, including Trouble No MoreFreedom’s RoadNo Better Than This, and Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp takes a minimalistic approach to his music.  These four albums take us on a journey through roots music, and are a mixture of country, bluegrass, blues, and folk music.  They paint a beautiful, sometimes brutal picture of life in rural America.

The box set contains a couple of surprises.  Rough Harvest is a collection of acoustic versions of some of Mellencamp’s classics, including three of my favorites, “Human Wheels,” Rain on the Scarecrow,” and “Jackie Brown.”  It also contains a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina,” a song made famous by Joan Baez, a cover of “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, and Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.”

The box set also includes the soundtrack to Falling From Grace, Mellencamp’s acting and directorial debut.  The movie was a flop, but the soundtrack is an album I find myself coming back to on a regular basis.  Aside from Mellencamp, the album has songs by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Janis Ian, and Larry Rollins.  “Whiskey Burnin’” by Larry Crane, Mellencamp’s then-lead guitarist, is one of the album’s best songs, second only to “Sweet Suzanne,” a spirited collaboration between Mellencamp, Yoakam, Prine, Joe Ely, and James McMurtry.

My one complaint is that I would like to have seen the music presented in random order, not chronologically.  When listening, it would have been nice to experience different eras of Mellencamp’s career side-by-side.  This is a minor complaint though.  This box set staggering in its scope, and is a fitting tribute to one of America’s great musicians.  Thanks for 35 years of great music, John!  Can we get 35 more?

Note: The reviewer was provided with a digital copy of this box set in exchange for an impartial review.

Book Review: Massacre Pond by Paul Doiron

downloadTitle: Massacre Pond

Author: Paul Doiron

Genre: Thriller

Series or Standalone: Book 4 in the Mike Bowditch Series

Blurb

Massacre Pond is Edgar finalist Paul Doiron’s superb new novel featuring Game Warden Mike Bowditch and a beautiful, enigmatic woman whose mission to save the Maine wilderness may have incited a murder

On an unseasonably hot October morning, Bowditch is called to the scene of a bizarre crime: the corpses of seven moose have been found senselessly butchered on the estate of Elizabeth Morse, a wealthy animal rights activist who is buying up huge parcels of timberland to create a new national park.

What at first seems like mindless slaughter—retribution by locals for the job losses Morse’s plan is already causing in the region—becomes far more sinister when a shocking murder is discovered and Mike’s investigation becomes a hunt to find a ruthless killer. In order to solve the controversial case, Bowditch risks losing everything he holds dear: his best friends, his career as a law enforcement officer, and the love of his life.

The beauty and magnificence of the Maine woods is the setting for a story of suspense and violence when one powerful woman’s missionary zeal comes face to face with ruthless cruelty.

4.5 STARS

I had never heard of Paul Doiron prior to reading this book.   The title grabbed me, and the plot and pacing of the book made it hard to put down.

Unlike traditional cop yarns, the protagonist in this book, Mike Bowditch, is a game warden, used to dealing with wildlife crimes such as poaching.  Now, he’s involved with the slaughter of innocent wildlife and a murder.

The character of Mike Bowditch was well-developed, especially with regard to some of his inner-struggles about his career, his love life, and his family.  I got a sense that Bowditch had been on the cusp of losing his job, which affected the way he interacted with his superiors and others around him.  I’m interested to know what happened, and how he got to this point in his career.  I’m going to have to go back to the start of the Bowditch series and get to know him from the beginning.  Throw in his reaction to some heartbreaking family news, what you have is a fairly complex protagonist – not as deep as James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, but Burke has had many more books to develop Robicheaux’s character.  With Doiron’s Mike Bowditch, we’re only four books in.

Having never been to Maine, I was forced to rely on Doiron’s descriptions.  He was very successful in using words and phrases to paint a beautiful mental picture of the sights, smells, and sounds of what seems like a beautiful, majestic wilderness area.  His descriptions of the area’s flora and fauna really made me feel like I was there, walking through the woods with Bowditch.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed reading this book, and will read more by this author.  The book is filled with riche descriptions, the plot is believable and flows nicely, and the character development is solid.