Friday, January 30, 2015

Review Criteria, The Superbowl, and Liking What You Like

I'm sure you will all be overjoyed to hear that I'm adding two new elements to my review criteria: memorability, on the same scale of one-to-five as the rest, and the far less quantifiable overall emotional response, which could be anything along the lines of "curiously hungry," "lying on the floor crying for an hour," or "compelled to research the Outer Hebrides."

You're welcome.

On a different note: I wanted to talk a bit more about something I mentioned in my review of Sunshine (the bad one about the vampires, not the good one about small-town hate crimes.)

But first, two short stories: the Superbowl and The Fifth Element.


I'm not a huge sports fan. I like food and good company, though, so I agreed to watch the Superbowl with some friends a few years ago. I planned to enjoy their presence and to vegetate during the actual game.

Unfortunately, one of my friends took umbrage at my lack of investment in the game. They insisted that I MUST pay attention and appreciate what was happening on-screen. So, overriding my protests--and my insistence that I was having a perfectly good time neither knowing nor caring!--they lectured me on the proper terminology, rules, and strategies of football, quizzing me for comprehension during commercial breaks. 

For three solid hours. 

Needless to say, I had a terrible time. It ruined what was supposed to be a relaxing evening. Nor did it increase either my understanding or enjoyment of sports events. (Dear friends, if someone is willing to accompany you in something they don't enjoy, for the sake of your company, accept that as the gift that it is.)

More recently, I invited another friend to watch the movie The Fifth Element with me. I had seen it for the first time the week before. While the movie was terrible--sometimes intentionally, as a nod to the '80s traditions which inspired it, and sometimes due to actual terrible writing--I thought there were parts of it worth discussing. (Sidenote: A lot of my movie-watching commentary is about the difference between the potential of the idea and what actually ended up on film. I think a lot about reviewing occasional movies here. Any takers?)

Whether out of faith in my general taste in media, or out of her own generosity, Sarah suffered through the whole thing so that I could have someone analyze it with me. We had a lot of fun picking it apart later, and discussing what could have been done better.

These are both stories about one person being more "into" a thing than their companion. The approach ("Want to watch this thing I like that you probably won't like as much so that we can discuss it?" vs. "I require you to care about this as much as I do, and I will force you to behave like I would!") and the ultimate outcome of each evening couldn't be more different

What does this have to do with Book Grumps?

As much as I enjoy writing reviews--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I don't require any of you to agree with my judgments of books. If I praise a book which, as far as you're concerned, reads like someone put a thesaurus through a paper shredder, I won't take it personally.  I can't force you to like something. I can tell you what I like about it. Then you get to make your own judgment.

Nor is any personal insult intended if you recommend to me your favorite book in the whole wide world... and I detest it. And even if I plan to compare it to cat vomit in my review for the world at large, I won't shred it to your face, out of respect for you. Something in the book pleased and delighted you, and that's wonderful. I won't try to take that from you.

If I say that a book is terrible, I will never mean that you are terrible for liking it, or that there is something wrong with your taste.

To go for the low-hanging fruit here: I'm not above taking potshots at Twilight, but I don't want to go after fans of Twilight. There's a time and a place for young teen girls (and lonely middle-aged housewives) to feel like they are special and alluring, deserving of attention from someone fascinating and powerful. I'd hope that, in time, they would grow out of that stage and look for healthier, more well-written media, but again, I can't make them.

Everyone's reading experience is unique. A few months on Goodreads has shown me that while I have a lot of book-loving friends, even within the same genres, our tastes couldn't be more different. It's rare to find someone who looks for the same things in a book as I am. I'm grateful to Ed for the suggestion that I break down what goes into my initial "[___] out of 5 stars" rating. I hope that has helped guide your reaching choices. For some of you, the craft of writing--A.K.A., something which ties me in knots--isn't as important as whether your heart is moved. For others of you, the most beautiful story in my collection will never meet your needs, because I can consider character deaths a "happy" ending and you never will.

Instead of being an insult or an argument, that becomes an opportunity to get to know someone better. What makes you like a book that I loathe--and vice versa?

I'd be happy to enjoy a Superbowl party because my friends are there, having fun, even if I don't actually like watching football. Sarah didn't end up sharing my love of The Fifth Element, but afterwards we had a good conversation about its potential to be better.

Please feel free to disagree with my review of a book at any time, whether privately or publicly. If you thought a positive review of mine was misleading, let me know. If I canned a book you recommended to me, I'd still be happy to talk with you about why you recommended it, the things that it sparked in your heart and mind.  I've changed my mind on books before!

You can always leave me a recommendation in a comment or by email. Or you can follow me on Goodreads, where I do star ratings and short comments for the books which I didn't feel warranted a full blog post.

Now go enjoy the Superbowl in whatever way seems best to you. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Anthology Review: "Alternate Realities" by C.J. Cherryh

I have always found it tricky to recommend the novels of C.J. Cherryh to other people.

Previously, I've given high marks to her western frontier/sci-fantasy/horror duology Rider At The Gate and Cloud's Rider. On the other hand, I've mentioned her problem with fuzzy climactic moments (see the review of Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song.)

Cherryh's most famous work, the "Foreigner" series, is my favorite "culture clash" tale...  and a very hard read for people who expect a little more blazing guns and a little less diplomacy in their sci-fi.

But Cherryh's anthology Alternate Realities is an absolute gift to the science fiction genre.

I cannot speak as to the quality of the anthology's third story, "Wave Without A Shore." Every time I try to read it, my eyes slowly close and the book slides from my uninspired fingers. (I suppose that's a comment on quality after all.) However, the first two--"Port Eternity" and "Voyager in Night"--are the most delicious sci-fi novellas ever put to paper. The stories are so rich, so complex. They play in my brain like half-remembered movie clips when I'm awake too late at night.

Now, 66% success is still a failing grade by the reckoning of most American school systems. For fiction, however, that's two amazing books for the price of one, plus a bonus paperweight.

My usual "summary followed by critique" format doesn't work quite as well for anthologies as for novels, when I have only a single plot to describe. Instead, I'll break both stories down beneath the cut.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review: "The Star of Kazan" by Eva Ibbotson

As a baby, Annika was abandoned in a mountain chapel. She loves her adoptive family--the servants who found her and the three eccentric professors they work for--and life in beautiful, peaceful Vienna. But she always dreams that her real mother will come find her.

Then, one day, her dream comes true.

Without warning, Annika is whisked away from the warmth and cheer of Vienna into a cold house of strangers. Her love for her long-lost mother wars with her sense that all is not well. These aristocrats eat worse than peasants, and creditors beat on their door in the middle of the night. Her new brother plays soldier and ties fireworks to his dog. The gypsy stablehand, Annika's only friend, is accused of theft. 

Meanwhile, the Viennese community she left behind investigates their own robbery--the stealing away of Annika by someone who could not possibly love her like they do.

3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: "Sunshine" by Robin McKinley

Rae "Sunshine" Seddon only went to the lake for some time to reflect. Her need to escape becomes far more literal and urgent when she is kidnapped by a vampire gang and locked in abandoned house, meant to be prey to another of their kind. But within three days, both Sunshine and her fellow prisoner are free in broad daylight, confounding their captors.

Sunshine's attempt to resume her ordinary life as a baker is doomed to fail. Now she has supernatural detectives questioning her survival, a wound that won't heal, and a vampire with a life debt hanging around her house. Not to mention the very old, very angry bloodsucker whose vengeance she unknowingly thwarted.

1.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: "Mexican Eskimo" by Anker Frankoni

This review appears before your eyes, dear reader, only after a lengthy ethical dilemma on the part of your resident grump.  Namely: is it wrong to accept a free book for promotion purposes, and then utterly trash it in a review? Or is it more wrong to withhold my thoughts on the book, and spare someone else the unpleasant experience of reading it?

My wise friend, Mac, pointed out that if accepting promotional copies of books means that one must only give them good reviews, then all an author would have to do to prevent bad press is to send a promotional copy to every reviewer. ("Ha!  You cannot give me an honest review now! Mwahahahahaha!”)

As the book in question--Mexican Eskimo by Anker Frankoni--is a new release by a debut author, reviews are thin on the ground. None of them so far mention the issues I had with the book. (Whether Mexican Eskimo is fiction or memoir adds an additional complication to reviewing it. Certain criticisms can be leveled at fiction, which cannot be handed out the same way when it is the author's own life being analyzed. Ask me sometime what happened at the beginning of my third writing course.)

In the end, I feel obliged to warn readers that the way that the book is described is... not technically false, but seriously misleading. As much as I empathize with Frankoni, as someone who hopes to publish her own books down the road, I write reviews for readers, not for authors.

And this is "Book Grumps," after all. It would be a betrayal of the crankiness promised in the domain name if I were to pander to terrible fiction at this point.

That's enough of a preface, I suppose.

1 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Navigate By Ratings + Books For 2015

Aaaaand welcome to 2015, dear readers!

It seems to me that the number of reviews have become unwieldy for easy navigating. I've updated the tagging system so that you can now browse by rating as well as by genre. This will apply to everything posted from this date forward, as well as to past reviews.

Looking for that new book you never knew you needed to read? Click "five star review" over on the right. Looking for something really grumpy? Then it'll be "one star review" you want!

(Of course, I have a few decimal point reviews. For fairness' sake, I'm rounding down. The 2.5 stars with be with the two star reviews, the 4.9s will be with the fours, etc.)

On another note, I capped out 2014 with a total of one hundred and thirty-five books read, finishing Frank Herbert's Dune just last night. I'm aiming for at least another hundred books in 2015. I'd like to start reading more new releases and using the blog to get exposure for newer, lesser-known books as well as for old favorites. This means that--as always--I am looking for recommendations.

Looking forward to another year!