Archives: Reading

Views on Reviews

I’m considering reviews today, from the perspective of both a reader and a writer. What value is there in a review?

On-line we find two prominent sources of reviews: Goodreads and Amazon. There are a plethora of other sources on the web for reviews, but the two aforementioned are the big dogs, the Siskel and Ebert, the Statler and Waldorf. Is there any value to us as readers in these reviews? I don’t recall being swayed by a review on either site to either purchase or bypass a book. What about you? Does either site influence your decision making?

Goodreads seems primarily a collator of numerical evaluations, readers moved enough to provide a rating on a scale of one to five, but not sufficiently motivated to describe their reactions. There is the virtue of simplicity in that. A large enough aggregate can provide a snapshot of the general reaction to a book. But as a reader that fails to move my needle one way or the other. And as a writer, I question whether Goodreads reviews drive book purchases. Have any of you seen the average review numbers for one of my books and said to yourself “The reaction to this is overall favorable. Based on this trend I will download a copy of this book to my Kindle.”

Amazon strikes me as similar to Goodreads. But since it requires some sort of written response in addition to the facile assignment of a number, any given book will have fewer reviews than on Goodreads. As a reader, in theory a collection of arguments pro and con should help guide me. But I don’t think that in practice I’ve ever read a book because of Amazon reviews. As a writer, Amazon reviews can provide a positive influence on sales. Not because the reviews influence readers, but because the reviews influence Amazon. Once a threshold of positive reviews is reached, the Amazon algorithms decide that customers are really purchasing this, triggering a ramping up of advertising. So, yay Amazon reviews, I guess.

The reviews that have convinced me to pick up a book come from independent sites, sites that aren’t primarily review sites, or that cover more territory than simply book reviews. Blackgate, for example. Or a personal web log, written by someone whose taste in literature appears to largely overlap with mne.

Is mine a common experience? Or am I an outlier on this?

More Too Late Book Reviews

I admit that I get around to reading certain influential, well-regarded, even seminal books rather late. Given finite time, the truth is many of them I’ll give a miss entirely. Better late than never, goes the axiom, a truism that’s probably circumstantial in application. In the circumstance at issue, it holds up.

“What are you babbling about,” you ask? Fair question. I’m on the cusp of sickness, and feeling a bit loopy, so it’s likely I’m meandering. This is what I’m babbling about:

Styles

I’ve nearly completed re-reading “The Worm Ouroboros,” E.R. Eddison’s underappreciated masterpiece. It is a mine worth delving into again, its depths not fully plumbed, its treasures still unmeasured. If I haven’t made myself clear, I love it. The villains are Shakespearean, complex and fascinating. The heros are Homeric, grandly larger than life, embodiments of virility and arete. The language is gorgeous, archaically poetic.

An aside: I know Tolkien read and appreciated “The Worm Ouroboros” despite Eddison’s philosophy, as espoused in the book, being antithetical to Tolkien’s. But I wonder how deeply “The Lord of the Rings” was inspired by “Worm,” if at all. I mention it, because while reading a description in “Worm” of a mustering of troops I was reminded of the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Pippen is watching the arrival of soldiers before the siege of Gondor, the description of the men, the naming and characterization of the leaders, their homes, etc. A side by side comparison would be interesting, I think.

I’m also in the last third of Steven Brust’s most recent Vlad Taltos novel, “Hawk.” “Hawk” is about as stylistically far away as it is possible to be from “Worm.” It is written in first-person smart ass. It is terse, sarcastic. Descriptions are sparse. The language is colloquial, contemporary. If I haven’t made myself clear (and I probably haven’t) I love it.

There are many who cannot appreciate “Worm.” The prose is too dense, too purple. The speech is stilted, unnatural. And he who requires a novel to reaffirm his socio-political convictions will not make it through the first fifty pages.

There are many who cannot appreciate the Vlad Taltos books. The prose does not conform to some readers’ notions of what period fantasy should be. It is unabashedly contemporary. He who requires immersion in faux-historical language will not make it through the first page (though this particular reader might enjoy the “Phoenix Guard” novels.)

Me, I love the gamut. I look for a good story, and I don’t care if it is vintage or modern. So I’ve got that going for me.

Home

Hobbits are the quintessential homebodies. So it is no wonder that Professor Tolkien’s literary masterpiece includes one of the few examples in speculative fiction of a lovingly detailed home. Bag End is so finely realized that most of us would love to live there. That makes it a rarity. Homes in speculative fiction are usually jumping off points, or places characters are pleased to leave, or destroyed in order to compel the characters to leave. Homes are seldom longed for, or if they are, we take the character’s word for it, instead of vicariously experiencing that longing ourselves as we do with the Baggins’ cozy hole in the ground.

Holiday Reading

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Christmas is behind you. The detritus of wrapping paper, bows, packing material, and boxes has been disposed of. The refrigerator is stuffed with leftovers. You hope to make enough room for party platters and bottles of champagne within a few days. The presents of clothing are washed, folded, and put away.

And now you’re looking forward to utilizing the best of the presents: the bookstore gift cards. What to buy? Relax, dear reader. I’m here to help.

Fiction Description

Opinion time, readers. What is your preference, or perhaps tolerance, for the amount of description of places, things, physical appearance, etc. in fiction? Do you like to have an exacting rundown of what the characters look like, what the furniture in a room looks like and how it is arranged, and what everyone is wearing? Or do you tend to skip the descriptive paragraphs and scan down the page until the action recommences?

Slim Volumes

I’ve been ill. Still am, to be honest. Head throbbing, muscles and joints aching. Tired. No surprise then that it is hard to concentrate. But today is Sunday, so a web log post must be completed, illness be damned.

I’ve been re-reading Simon Hawke’s “TimeWars” novels. Fun, fast-paced stuff, the kind you really don’t see much of in today’s marketplace of 300+ page novels. Number four in the series, the one I”m reading now, weighs in at about 196 pages, if I remember correctly. I’m too tired to check. My bookshelves hold a lot of paperbacks of roughly the same page count, the 175-200 page range. I miss those. Not that I dislike longer books, it’s just that I don’t seem to have any other option when it comes to new releases.

Currently in the Book Chute

I am usually reading three or four books at any given point, all at varying points of completion. Call it the book chute. There are books upstream, queuing up to enter the chute, and there are others just emerging from the chute, freshly read. So here’s a snapshot of the book chute now, and it is fairly representative.

I finished Robert Sheckley’s “Immortality, Inc.” recently. And I’m about a quarter into Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” Yes, I’m late to the party on both of those. “Snow Crash” I’ve meant to read for years, but I wanted to buy a copy instead of checking it out from the library. I’m also cheap, so I wanted to buy a used copy, but have never been able to find anything other than new. Birthday gift card to the rescue! Actually my intent was to pick up the latest of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, but Barnes & Noble didn’t have a copy in stock (odd, since they’d been pushing it in the inescapable online advertisements that accompany my web browsing.)

I mention “Immortality, Inc.” and “Snow Crash” together because I find it interesting to read almost side by side two visions of the future written about fifty years apart. Both still hold up despite missing certain developments. Sheckley didn’t forecast the computer revolution. And it is disconcerting to read so much about telephone operators and pay calls. The nineteen-fifties permeate the book, but it is still an inventive take on the future. Stephenson stuck with the cyberpunk conception of the internet as an immersive, virtual world, navigated on foot by avatars, interfacing with programs on an almost physical basis instead of through the intermediation of a keyboard. And he didn’t take wi-fi far enough, not envisioning the speed and data capacity we now take for granted. But I’m digging the book to this point.

I’m also reading M.A.R. Barker’s “Flamesong.” I finished the first of his Tékumel novels, “The Man of Gold,” a couple of months ago, and moved on to “Flamesong.” The world-building is first rate, and hyper-detailed. Perhaps overly so. I almost worry there will be a test once I’ve finished the book.

I’m reading “The Thousand” by Kevin Guilefoile. Think Dan Brown, but with more originality and a bit of a sci-fi component. And, so far, better writing.

Then there’s the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories sitting on the upstairs toilet tank, “The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” One must have a bathroom book, right?

In line I’ve got a couple of Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels, conveniently combined in a single volume, and a John Ringo novel, “Live Free or Die.”

So long as I keep the chute fed, I’m content.

Dune: The Spice Still Flows

Is there a work of science fiction that acts as the standard-bearer for the entire genre, the way “The Lord of the Rings” does for fantasy? I’m not sure. The field is crowded with worthy candidates. But I’d nominate Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”

It is a sprawling, glorious space opera, replete with memorable images, clever conceits, scientific speculation on a grand scale, and magnificent characters. The villains are vile and the heroes heroic. Who can ever forget Baron Vladimir Harkonnen? Or Duncan Idaho? “Dune” gave us mentats, gholas, hunter-seekers, the Gom Jabbar, and ornithopters.