Category Archives: reviews

On Reviews: “This Book is Bloody Awful”

I’m com­ing late to the brouhaha that sur­rounds cus­tomer reviews. The social web, it seems, is crawl­ing with examples of sharp prac­tice, where reviews are not writ­ten in good faith. If you want more back­ground on the present storm, read this art­icle from the New York Times about reviewers-for-hire and this from Forbes about the beha­viour of author Stephen Leather.

Customer reviews are import­ant. Without them, products with estab­lished brands would have too great an advant­age. The Stephen King brand shifts many books; the Ian Hocking brand shifts few. The sources of pro­fes­sional review — news­pa­pers, and so on — can help, but if I want to buy a product, I’ll be happy to know what other buy­ers thought.

As a writer, I do soli­cit reviews. I have after­words in Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job that point out that I pub­lish without the bene­fit of a pub­lisher, and I need all the push I can get. People do try to help me out. Many of my reviews begin with ‘The author asked me to write a review, so here I go’.

Here’s one such, from a reader called Kvsir:

I’m no critic. I’m just a guy with who like his SciFi/Fantasy stor­ies — a lot! Ironically, con­sid­er­ing my open­ing sen­tence, I gen­er­ally buy on the strength of the cus­tomer reviews which is what promp­ted me to down­load Déjà Vu in the first place so after read­ing Ian’s acknow­ledg­ments and blog excepts at the end of the book I felt moved to add one here for him as I know he’s going to read it. …I’m off to down­load Flashback, hope you make enough coin off that sale to go buy your­self a beer. Cheers!

So I soli­cit reviews in gen­eral. I also reply to tweets and emails ask­ing for reviews. I keep to the form: ‘Hi, this is Ian Hocking. Thanks for tweeting/writing. If you could pop a review on the Kindle store, I’d appre­ci­ate it. No wor­ries if not’. I try not to ask them for a pos­it­ive review, but my replies are typ­ic­ally eli­cited by tweets that praise the book in the first instance.

If someone emails me to say that they liked a book of mine, I’ll often ask them to post up their thoughts as a Kindle store review. Here’s an email I received two days ago:

I just want to tell you, [Proper Job] is one of the fun­ni­est books I have ever read! Last night I was read­ing it in bed and almost chok­ing myself with try­ing to laugh silently so I wouldn’t wake up my hus­band. I can’t remem­ber the last time I read a book that made me laugh so hard!

I asked this reader to post up a review, and she did so — almost word for word. So there’s cer­tainly a pos­it­ive bias in these reviews, and I help to cul­tiv­ate it. Do I feel any eth­ical qualms? Some, since my actions are help­ing to engender this pos­it­ive skew. However, I don’t know these people; I offer them noth­ing in return ; and they’ve already estab­lished that they like the book.

Like any writer, I have fam­ily and friends who want to see me do well. I have ten or so reviews from these, er, ‘inter­ested parties’. They are rarely five-star reviews, how­ever, and those friends/family who did not like the book remained silent. All reviews in this sub­cat­egory are truthful.

I have a simple rule for reviews of my work: they need to be an hon­est reflec­tion of what a per­son thinks, so that a pro­spect­ive reader is get­ting an accur­ate pic­ture of how the work has impacted upon a sample of people. No money should change hands. Any prompt­ing from the author should be of the ‘It would be nice if’ variety.

A word about neg­at­ive reviews. I hate it when a critic writes one, because (i) they haven’t paid for the book, and may not be one of the tar­get audi­ence, (ii) they assume a pos­i­tion super­ior to the writer, and (iii) the effect of their words are pro­por­tion­ate to their reader base. I’m much more inter­ested in neg­at­ive cus­tomer reviews. They are — most times, but not always — genu­ine, unadorned thoughts, and use­ful. Here’s a neg­at­ive review of Déjà Vu, this time a one-star review from Goodreads:

Sub-adolescent prose fails to lift the ped­es­trian plot. Where there were attempts at twists, they were obvi­ous and sig­nalled to the reader in neon lights from sev­eral miles away. Cardboard char­ac­ters per­form series of actions in loc­a­tions described in halt­ing state­ments. They have stil­ted con­ver­sa­tions with each other and the reader is left hard pressed to care what hap­pens to any of them. The crass back­story provided for the (beau­ti­ful, sexy, female) lead prot­ag­on­ist is unne­ces­sar­ily graphic and reads like filler mater­ial while the author is try­ing to work out how to proceed.

An irrit­at­ing thing for me to read, to be sure, and it annoys the hell out of my part­ner, but there is some use­ful feed­back here — not feed­back I agree with, but com­ments I’ll drop into the melt­ing pot of exper­i­ence from which I’ll draw sub­sequent books. If this were a critic, I’d be annoyed, but he’s a pay­ing cus­tomer and he has every right to share his opin­ion. You should have heard me mouth­ing off about Tom Hardy’s accent in the latest Batman film. I’d be embar­rassed if Christopher Nolan heard me.

A second point, which need not be made, is that reviews do not neces­sar­ily reflect the qual­ity of the work. I’ll head over to Amazon right now and pick a review of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I dont know who decided Hemingway was a great writer but it couldnt have been a decision reached on the basis of this book because its bloody awful.

Déjà Vu 5-Star Review on Red Adept

This is, I think, the first non-customer review of Déjà Vu for its cur­rent edi­tion. Red Adept is a site where authors can sub­mit their works for review. The admin­is­trat­ors make clear that reviews are non-debatable, and always pub­lish them to the book’s Amazon page after one month. I like the break­down into ‘plot’, ‘char­ac­ter devel­op­ment’, ‘writ­ing style’ and ‘editing’.

I wanted to share this excerpt:

Saskia enjoys a met­ric ton (or rather, tonne, as Mr. Hocking is British) of char­ac­ter devel­op­ment dur­ing the course of the story, since she begins from a point that’s worse off than a blank slate: the little she knows about her cur­rent life is a lie. As the plot pro­gresses, she wor­ries who she truly is, and if she’ll be lost to the resur­fa­cing of her body’s viol­ent per­son­al­ity. By the end, she’s far out­stripped every­one else in com­plex­ity and sheer awesomeness.

Did you know that Déjà Vu’s price has been slashed by 16% to make it 72p? That’s 72p British pence, people.

A Review of Déjà Vu

It’s over at BigAl’s Books and Pals.

Déjà Vu is a sci­ence fic­tion novel set in the fairly near future, and it intro­duces tech­no­logy that I can already see myself using and keep­ing in my pocket. I found the mech­an­ical won­ders a lot of fun, and I think the char­ac­ters are well-drawn, as one might expect from a psy­cho­lo­gist who writes nov­els. There were twists and turns, sur­prises and char­ac­ter shifts. On the whole, I found this a well-crafted, inter­est­ing tale of tech­no­logy and hot pursuit.

★ How Not to Be a Dick

An art­icle has passed my nose once or twice this week, ten­nis ball stylee. It’s by a man called Josh Olson, a screen­writer whose cred­its include the script for A History of Violence (itself based on the graphic novel of the same name). The art­icle is entitled — and the eas­ily offen­ded might want to cover their eyes at this point — ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script’.

In it, Olson writes enter­tain­ingly about how he is forced to turn down requests by non-professionals to read spec­u­lat­ive film scripts.

Here’s a bit that’s been quoted fre­quently around the web:

​I will not read your fuck­ing script.

That’s simple enough, isn’t it? “I will not read your fuck­ing script.” What’s not clear about that? There’s noth­ing per­sonal about it, noth­ing loaded, noth­ing com­plic­ated. I simply have no interest in read­ing your fuck­ing screen­play. None whatsoever.

He goes on:

[…] If you’re inter­ested in grow­ing as a human being and recog­niz­ing that it is, in fact, you who are the dick in this situ­ation, please read on.

Yes. That’s right. I called you a dick. Because you cre­ated this situ­ation. You put me in this spot where my only option is to acqui­esce to your demands or be the bad guy. That, my friend, is the very defin­i­tion of a dick move.

It is entirely pos­sible that the per­son Olson refers to here is a genu­ine dick. There are some twenty-four carat dicks in the world; I’ve met some myself. However, there are occa­sions when a per­son puts you in a place where the only pos­sible out­comes will present you in a bad light because you can’t cope. It sug­gests to me that some grow­ing might be pos­sible on both sides. However, I didn’t write this art­icle to dis­pense pop psy­cho­logy. I’ve got some swear­ing of my own to do.

It rarely takes more than a page to recog­nize that you’re in the pres­ence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sen­tence to know you’re deal­ing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you dis­agree with that state­ment, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

My response to this is pre­dic­ated on being a teacher first and a writer second. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve worked with some people who find it dif­fi­cult to express them­selves in writ­ten English. Essentially: Olson, belt up.

It is a per­sist­ent and toxic myth that the world is divided into those who can write and those who can­not. There was a time when Olson couldn’t write a damn. Me too, and my other writer friends. Like any appren­tice­ship, the road is long. Being labelled a ‘non-writer’ might well mean that your writ­ing is bloody awful — but that is rare. Most adult, nat­ive speak­ers of English who’ve read a good­ish num­ber of books, seen films, and can tell a story over the din­ner table or the pub, have the poten­tial to write some­thing that oth­ers might find com­pel­ling. Therefore, a pro­fes­sional writer can prob­ably come up with some­thing use­ful to tell the appren­tice writer.

Olson’s art­icle reads very much like a polemic writ­ten by a man who is pissed off with his cor­res­pond­ent (who replied to Olson’s dis­missal with a terse ‘Thanks for your opin­ion’) and prefers to share his response — essen­tially a ‘Don’t you know how busy I am?’ — with the world.

The thing is, would-be writers get vir­tu­ally no sup­port from the industry. Your manu­script will prob­ably get no feed­back from pub­lish­ers or agents bey­ond some­thing like ‘Your call is import­ant to us. Please hold and listen to Vivaldi for six months, then we’ll send you a post­card’. As a writer, you are expec­ted to present your­self to the pub­lish­ing industry fully formed. There is no uni­ver­sity for fic­tion (though some might think so). Manuscripts are not con­sidered with any due pro­cess or trans­par­ency. The sup­port net­work for writers com­prises, in effect, indi­vidu­als within the industry who are will­ing to give some of their time for free.

I’ve writ­ten about this before, but when I approached sev­eral estab­lished writers about read­ing my debut novel, I did not receive what I’ll term ‘Olson’s Dick Response’ (i.e. ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Book’) from any of themWell, apart from one; but he didn’t swear.. You can see the product of that gen­er­os­ity in the quotes beneath the title of this blog.

I’m no angel myself. Would-be writers con­tact me with some reg­u­lar­ity, and if I have time — there’s not much of it — I’ll agree to per­use a chapter or two. A recent example is Stephen J. Sweeney’s The Honour of the KnightsThe cycle of books is called ‘Battle for the Solar System’. What’s not to like?. Stephen sent me a polite email ask­ing if I’d read the book and I said, ‘Sure.’ As it hap­pens, because of work com­mit­ments, I’ve haven’t got fur­ther than a couple of chapters in — but the book is good and I’ve no doubt I’ll get round to fin­ish­ing it. The first scene, in which the main char­ac­ter par­ti­cip­ates in a space dog-fight, is com­pel­ling and character-driven. Now, OK; there are typos and what­not. No big­gie. Stephen is pound­ing pave­ments and get­ting his book into Waterstone’s (I know that pain) and doesn’t need people like me telling him to fuck off. If I like the book, I’ll do the nat­ural thing and review it, maybe bother someone fur­ther up the foodchain.

So, any­way: There are people in the industry who are not like Olson.

★ The Fountain

The Fountain is a 2006 film by dir­ector and screen­writer Darren Aronofsky. Back in 2002, Aronofsky was about to begin film­ing when Brad Pitt, the film’s star, pulled out over cre­at­ive dif­fer­ences. The sets were auc­tioned and the pro­ject shelved. Then, in 2005, Hugh Jackman came on board — bring­ing his box-office cap­ital with him. The Fountain was released in November, 2006.

Watching the film yes­ter­day after­noon promp­ted some thoughts about meta­phor. I thought I’d write them down. This isn’t a review as such, but it does con­tain some spoilers.

This film is not­able in sev­eral respects. While most Hollywood movies drip with Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), The Fountain bene­fits from exquis­ite macro-photography. (This involves film­ing chem­ical reac­tions with high-speed, high-magnification cam­eras to cre­ate organic-looking starscapes and vis­tas.) The decision to forego CGINot entirely, how­ever. The flowers that bloom in the body of the Jackman’s con­quista­dor are computer-generated. was taken for budget­ary reas­ons, but it lifts the aes­thetic of the film well above its contemporaries.

Another point of interest is the splintered nar­rat­ive, which one might call ‘non­lin­ear’. But not only is this nar­rat­ive broken apart, it delib­er­ately fails to make sense. That is, ques­tions are intro­duced and not answered; one is never sure that the dif­fer­ent nar­rat­ive threads are designed to com­ple­ment or clash. Do they hap­pen in the same uni­verse? Is one the dream of another, writ­ten down?

We have the story of a Spanish con­quista­dor search­ing for the so-called tree of life with which to save Spain from ruin. We have the bril­liant doc­tor racing to find a cure for his wife’s brain tumour — a cure that some­how involves the bark of a single, South American tree. And we have the Last Man: a guard­ian astro­naut tak­ing the same tree to an exploded, dying star that once inspired the Mayans as their under­world. Three times; three people. Why are they played by the same man?

Aronofsky appears to have taken his meta­phors in all dir­ec­tions. Where they clash with the plot, the meta­phor wins. The con­quista­dor, the doc­tor and the astro­naut: they should not be the same man. But using the same actor expresses unity. Unity is sym­bol­ised by the tree itself (which is one of two) and by the loss of the doctor’s wed­ding ring, and even the unend­ing KubrickAronofsky’s macro-photographic spe­cial effects are remin­is­cent of the slit-scan tech­nique Kubrick used in his star­gate sequence.–esque sym­metry of the shots selec­ted by the dir­ector. All the scenes — apart from one — involve a phys­ical jour­ney through, for instance, a hos­pital cor­ridor, a museum, a temple.

Once again, it seems that the story is meta­phor. Strengthen the meta­phor, strengthen the story. The plot can go to hell. Sometimes it should, just to see to what happens.

You mean they haven’t even heard of James Bond?

Remember when, as a child, you’d sud­denly see things from a new per­spect­ive? I must have been about nine, or per­haps eight, when it struck me that there were people in the world who had not heard of James Bond. That thought held me in a tighter grip than the notion that some people had no access to drink­ing water, or the Bible…but no James Bond? What kind of alien exist­ence would that be?
Continue read­ing

Reviews to die for

The anti­pope — Charles Stross — has been brave enough to post his most neg­at­ive Amazon reviews.

The writ­ing is some of the worst I have ever exper­i­enced.’ (Accelerando)

Reminds me of cheap SF com­ics of the 50s and badly writ­ten online adven­ture games.’ (Halting State)

Déjà Vu had one abso­lute stinker of a review, and it was writ­ten for Interzone by Martin Lewis. It was his first review for Interzone and, as I under­stand it, his last. I can’t find it on the web and I cere­mo­ni­ally burnt my copy…but I think it said some­thing like, ‘Tedious char­ac­ter­isa­tion, awful dia­logue, gen­er­ally so bor­ing I wanted to poke my eyes out’.

(Via Charlie’s Diary.)