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Negative reviews

I was browsing over at Don’t Read, another book review blog that you should check out, when I saw Ensis’ post on critical or negative reviews.  And then, when I was reading at Jenny Trout’s website, another blog post dealing with the same issue.

Both of them are addressing this post and this post, which state that authors shouldn’t negatively review other works.  The first post, by Chuck Wendis, can basically be boiled down to “you might hurt the other author’s feelings” and the second, by Kirsten Lamb, says that silence is more powerful than a negative review.

I disagree with both.  Now, I’m not a writer, and I’m certainly not a published author, but if you, as an author or not, are in the habit of reviewing books, you should review books honestly.  This means that I should expect to see some books that you just didn’t like.  People who publish books need to expect criticism (and yes, it hurts, and yes, it’s awful to deal with, but that is the price you pay when you produce a public work of art.)  Some of that criticism will come from other, published authors.  It happens. And it probably truly sucks.  But that is part of the deal of publishing.

More importantly, and addressing Lamb’s point, you need criticism to improve.  I guess Lamb heard the crickets chirping and immediately figured out the everything that was wrong with her novel?  I’m not quite sure, but I find that most people can’t improve unless they know what’s wrong with their novels. There’s a huge difference between “my book sucks so hard no one’s going to review it” and “The plot’s a mess, the characters are so perfect they’re unrelatable, and if I have to read the phrase ‘engorged manhood’ one more time, I’m swearing off men forever.”  One gives you something to work on; the other doesn’t.

And I have to say, while reviewing is all about opinions and thus no one needs any sort of qualification to do it, a successful, published author in the same genre will have a unique perspective when compared to a reader of your book.  Both perspectives are equally valuable – you’re trying to get the reader to read your books, after all – but I don’t think the authors should refrain because someone’s feelings should get hurt.

(Or because someone might not buy the book.  That is why people read reviews; to figure out which books to buy or not.  If your book is good enough, and/or you’re lucky enough, you may be able to make a living off of writing.  But most people can’t.  And it is not other authors’ responsibility to make sure you get as many sales as possible. Rather, if they are reviewing books, it is their responsibility to their readers to be as honest as possible.)

Now, to be fair, there are some books that are just so awful that I won’t review them.  50 Shades of Grey is a prime example – it’s terribly written, portrays an abusive relationship, and is not at all faithful to the BDSM scene.  I have nothing good to say about it.

And because of that, I feel like I can’t actually do a fair and balanced review of it.  Just like if I loved a book so much, I found nothing to critically discuss in it – probably not a fair and balanced review and I probably wouldn’t write it.  No book is so terrible that it has no redeeming features and no book is so perfect it can’t be criticized.

Reviewers have to have limits; mine is I won’t review a book if it feels like all I’m doing is bashing  the book.  Others have different limits.  But honestly, if you review books, your reviews should always be honest, not constrained by the worry of what others might think.  A review is only a good review if it’s honest.

 

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Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Musings on Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce is a young adult author (a quite popular one, at that) who, on paper, I should like. She writes strong, realistic female characters having exciting fantasy adventures, and she writes well.

But- I don’t like her writing.  And I’ve tried.  I can tell that she is a good writer; her characters and plot are well-developed, the writing is technically sound and has that indefinable “good” quality, her voice and stories are engaging – there’s nothing wrong with her books.  But I just don’t like her style.

Except for – and this is a huge except – her Circle of Magic series, which includes two quartets, The Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens, along with one stand-alone, The Will of the Empress.  I absolutely loved this series when I was younger, and I was ecstatic – and not at all let down – when The Will of the Empress came out when I was older.  She’s putting out a second stand-alone, with a story referred to but not told in TWOTE, due out this month, and I’m so very excited!  It’s called Battle Magic and I hope she goes on tour (and comes through Texas!) to promote it so I can get a signed copy.  Even if she doesn’t, I can’t wait to read it.

Anyway, dear readers, have you ever encountered an author where you loved some of their work but felt a definite disinterest in the rest of it? It’s so strange to me, because she is a good writer and there’s nothing I can point to in her books that I dislike, except a vague sense of “that’s not my style.”

Ever felt the same? Let me know in the comments!

Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Spirit’s Princess

 

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by: Ester Friesner

Spirit’s Princess is the story of Himiko, a legendary Japanese empress (Of whom I know nothing; the afterword states that she’s somewhere between myth and fact.)

 

It takes place in the 3rd century, when Japan was not a country but a collection of clans, somewhat isolated. Himiko is the daughter of  chieftain, just starting out in life – I think she’s about 8 or so when the book starts.  The book follows her through up until she’s 16 or so, as she begins to learn what her calling is.

It’s all in first person, so be prepared to deal with a character who is a young child – somewhat whiny, a little bratty, can be annoying.  It never bothered me, because, hey children are like that, but I could see how others would dislike it. Eventually, she grows out of it and becomes more sure of herself and aware of how her actions affect others.  Eventually.

 

 

One of the things I really liked about this is that Himiko’s character development isn’t tied to a romantic interest or storyline, even as she goes through puberty and her younger teen years.  Often, characters this age have stories that are centered around young love (especially female characters).  Himiko, on the other hand, has a small crush and a couple of conversations about marriage with her family without being defined by a significant other.  I definitely feel like this is a teenage experience that is underrepresented in young adult fiction.

 

I can’t speak to the book’s historical authority (there are some reviews on Good Reads that are not afraid to) but I can say, that compared to the mangas and animes I’ve read or watched, it does feel more than a little American.  Or maybe Western in general.   It definitely didn’t feel terribly foreign, though the historical part was more or less convincing.  (Not terribly convincing, but I’ll buy it.)

 

It’s not a great book, overall. It was interesting, and I liked watching Himiko’s character develop but I was never so engrossed that I couldn’t put it down or was dying to know what happened next.  Himiko’s relationship with her older brother was nice, though he was a little too dependent on the nice, older brother stereotype.  There were a lot of side characters and more than a few of them weren’t developed beyond a name and one or two personality traits.

 

 

Her father was supposed to be a complex character: a good leader, a misogynist, someone who fell deeply in love, and someone who keeps his household in fear of his temper.  It doesn’t quite work – he just comes off as a giant asshole whom everyone submits to because he can yell really loud.  (In other words, a bully.)  We’re told all the time that he’s not all that bad but we never see it.

It’s not a great book, but if you like Friesner’s writing or if you’re looking for a female character who never falls in love, I’d say it’s worth reading the first chapter or so in the bookshop.  If you’re at all invested in historical and cultural accuracy or if you’re not a huge fan of magic and shamans, then I would give this book a pass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Math · Nonfiction

The Golden Ticket

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by: Lance Fortnow

A math book! I read a math book!

While I’m a huge fan of science and can appreciate math as applied to the sciences, pure math is one of those things I find best appreciated from a distance.  But  I read about this book in an article or a blog post or something and I decided that it was sounded really interesting.  The Golden Ticket looks at the P=NP problem, one of the big math problems (if you solve it, there’s a million dollars reward) of our age. 

P=NP is basically asking if all problems whose solution can be verified by a computer can be solved by a computer.  Or, basically, if all problems can be solved quickly within the realm of available computing power. (Wikipedia notes that the problems in consideration have answers that are easy to verify but not easy to find.)  If so, our world will basically have no more problems. Or, at least, very different problems than what we currently have.  If not, well, we’re stuck with the world we have now and some problems will have to be approximated instead of solved,

Fortnow goes into the history of P=NP (that’s read as “does  P=NP?”, at least in my understanding), which was okay.  It was engaging enough to keep me reading.   He does a really great job of developing the kind of problems a solution to P=NP would answer and how they would change society and problem-solving as I know it. He delves much more on the theoretical side than the practical one, so even though I understood the implications and the importance of this problem, I didn’t really get a good idea of how we went from the primary problem, P=NP, to the secondary problems, like efficient travel planning or encryption codes on computers. I wish that he had spent a little more time developing the math behind everything.

This is a book best read in a shorter period of time, to keep everything together.  I read it in three chunks, but they were pretty spaced apart and I had to flip back to remember what the book had explained earlier.  It builds on itself, so if I forgot the first chapter, I had hard time understanding, say, the fifth one.

One thing that I really appreciated was that Fortnow used the same very simple example for as many problems as he could.  It was kinda fun – an imaginary place named Friendville, where people knew upon meeting someone whether they were going to be friends or enemies. It definitely helped keep me on track, simplified the learning process, and made me chuckle a few times.   Fortnow keeps things as simple and approachable as he can and while it’s not the most engaging STEM book I’ve ever read, it’s good and I certainly didn’t struggle to get through it. (In fact, thanks to my Nook and an impressively waterproof case, I read a good chunk of this while floating the river.)

If you’d like a math book heavy on the theoretical and examples and light on the mathematical explanations – a good way to get introduced to math problems without becoming overwhelmed! – or if you’re a math person interested in taking a new perspective on an old problem, I’d definitely take a look at this book.  If you have trouble fully understanding things in only abstract ways – you need a solid grounding in how it works – then this book might be harder to fully comprehend and may not be the book for you.

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Speaking of Harry Potter…

Someone left a comment on my “about” page mentioning Harry Potter (thanks for commenting!) and it’s very timely.  Today, in a fit of book splurging, (one of the Barnes and Nobles in my city has an excellent science section; I only go about once a year but I really stock up!) I decided to undertake an ambitious project that I’ve been toying with for a while. I completely stole it from a good friend, by the way.

I’ve been wanting to learn more Spanish for most of my life.  And especially now, when I volunteer at an Argentinean cultural center where I swear everyone but me speaks lovely Spanish, I really need to learn more Spanish.  So I bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, en Espanol, and I’m going to see if I can slowly but surely get through it and learn more Spanish.  I learnt all my best English while reading, so hopefully I’ll find this more engaging than a traditional route.

If I’m successful, I’ll post a review in Spanish and if I’m not, I may never speak of this again. Either way, it should be fun!

History · Nonfiction · Science

The Poisoner’s Handbook

by: Deborah Blum

I, most awkwardly, read this book on a plane.  I don’t know if you’ve ever wandered around an airport with The Poisoner’s Handbook in your hand, but I kept on expecting to get funny looks.

Anyway, had I received any dirty looks, this book would’ve been well worth it.  It’s a science history book, extremely engaging and fun to read.  Blum writes of the founding of forensic science in New York during the Roaring Twenties.  The stars of our tale are Alexander Gettler and Charles Norman, a chemist/toxicologist and the chief medical examiner of the New York coronary office.  They’re the ones who took forensic medicine in the USA and made it a useable and respected science.  Getter developed many early techniques used to detect poisons and Norman made possible the structure, funding, and organization necessary to turn a coroner’s office into a place of science and investigation. 

Blum does an excellent job of mixing personality, history, and science.  There’s enough character development to keep the reader liking and interested in the characters, especially Norman, but not enough to make it feel like a novel.  I didn’t want to put it down, actually, even exhausted and on an airplane at dawn’s first light.  Blum is a good writer and the book informs and delights without ever feeling dry or tedious.  

It’s equal parts science and history.  The science is basic and well-developed and -explained, spaced well throughout the book so you’re never overwhelmed with information (a pet peeve of mine.)  It is, of course, a lot of chemistry – poisons! – both of the chemical natures themselves and the methods used to elucidate knowledge.   The methods were not explained in detail, which is actually good as chemistry methods tend to be insanely complicated, but they’re sketched over well enough that the reader understands what they do.  The chemical themselves are explained very well, structure and all.  I wish there had been illustrations of the chemical compounds throughout the book – as good as the written descriptions were, I think that any discussion of chemicals necessitates a drawn structure.  

The chapters are arranged by poisons – arsenic, methyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, ect., – and the science is sprinkled throughout.  Throughout what? Throughout history.  Though the chapters are called by poison names, they’re also arranged chronologically as forensic medicine and poison-detecting techniques are developed.  Murder cases and sociological factors, especially Prohibition, are discussed.  Politics and law, insofar as they intersect with science, were discussed as well.  Surprisingly, everything felt equally well discussed, with nuances presented and clear facts given.  I don’t know much about politic or legal history, so I can’t say as to Blum’s accuracy and grasp of the situation, but her presentation felt fair and was full of interesting facts.  Also, her science was well-researched enough that I’m willing to believe her history was too.  

Looking back, I realize the Gettler and Norris, rather than being the stars, are the backbone of the story.  Blum keeps on coming back to them, from tangents about murder cases, accidental deaths, and the occasional legal or social issue.  I really enjoyed hearing about how new detection methods were developed – Gettler’s dedication to finding even the smallest amounts of poison is borderline crazy but wonderful to read about.  

A warning, though! Dead bodies and ground up tissue abound in this book so if you’re squeamish, I’d give it a pass (or read with a bucket nearby, ’cause this book is really awesome and worth reading!) 

If you’re looking for a science book to read that’s not hard-core science and is a real-life example of how science impacts society, definitely pick up this book.  If you’re looking for a history book with a unique perspective on the early 20th century, you should read this book!  If you’re looking for something with extreme in-depth analysis of history or an extremely technical read, than this may not be the book for you.