A Look At Book Reviews

Reader Reviews: A Collage of Lively Opinions

Image by Ben Kerckx at Pixabay

Do you write book reviews?
Do you read book reviews?
How much do reviews affect your choice of stories?
Have you ever been prompted to read a book just because the reviews were all over the map and you wanted to find out for yourself if it’s good or not?

Browsing on Amazon recently, I stopped to read the listing for a new western, then the reviews. And what a mixed bag!
“Childish time waster…start-to-finish nonsense…simplistic…lumbering text.”
While other reviewers said, “Good quick read…thrilling characters…

“Well-written traditional western…hero with high standards.”

Since I’ve started paying more attention to book reviews, I’ve marveled at the variety of adjectives used to describe a story — sometimes the same story!
implausible
poorly edited
unbelievable
far-fetched
ludicrous
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
acceptable
okay
satisfying
slow to start, but the pace picks up
adequate
good escapism
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
compelling
suspenseful
lovely
superb
touching

Some people wax eloquent with their descriptions:
“The inconsistencies are continual and grating…”
“Dialogue vaguely reminiscent of the Trixie Beldon series”
“The execution of the story was more like slaughter.”
I’m not sure what to make of a “western” reviewer’s point-in-favour, though: “Clean fighting by hand instead of shooting and wasting bullets.”

Sometimes a crossing of the Atlantic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. One of the British readers’ most frequent complaints is about American/Canadian writers who didn’t do their homework.
“Complete lack of research into English spoken in the UK.”
“Full of Americanisms.”
But the next reviewer, obviously not up on those differences, says:
“Brilliant read. Cannot wait for the next book!”

For me, the age of the main character makes a difference. If she’s a teen, I expect some immaturity, emotional explosions and moody, self-centered behavior. We’ve all been there. But when the character is thirty-one, has been in the work force for over ten years, and still behaves like a volatile teen, I note that in my review.

The situation of the main character appeals more to some readers, even if the character herself is kind of blah. One reader says, “I like the way a senior woman starts out on a new adventure.”
Other reviewers say that the story drags:
“Glad it was over. Not very interesting.”
“Reads like a travel brochure.”
“If you suffer from insomnia, read this book.”

I believe that some reviewers think more of encouraging the writer, and leave reviews that focus on the positives and skip over glaring faults like poor research, inconsistent behaviour or plot holes. Other reviewers are obviously writing to inform potential buyers.

A writer who wants good reviews must keep up-to-date notes on characters and changes made. Reviewers often note it when a writer hasn’t kept her facts straight:
“In the first chapter we read that her father died two years ago and she still misses him. In Chapter five we learn that he died almost ten years ago.

“In the first book of the series, her nephew was Peter. In the second book his name was Richard. But in the third book he was back to Peter again!”

Sometimes I wonder about the motive of the reviewer. After the majority of reviewers found the above book slow and the MC rather a dim bulb, along comes this enthusiastic:
“Fascinating and poignant story with lovely characters who made you want to know them as friends.”
Was this submitted by the writer’s best friend or beloved niece? Is this her honest opinion, or has someone been paid to write this review?

Now I’d like to hear what you think of reviews and how much you pay attention to them?

Our Poor, Neglected H

And now for one of the most misunderstood letters in the English language…

Rye Regular

Accused of being HIGH-BROW or even HAUGHTY, the use of an H is at least controversial. Some groups of English speakers do an automatic delete, and for sure the French do. We can’t blame the use of H and TH on the Norman invaders. Lately I heard a Cockney speaker explaining that if you want to sound like them, “Get rid of the H’s. Don’t need ’em.” Ditto with the TH’s. “Oo needs an H? Ged along royt wew wivoud ’em, we can.”

The other linguistic foible is to stick them in where they don’t belong. “H’Irvin h’Armstrong was here today. He wanted to h’ask you h’if you’d gotten his message?”

But H is here to stay, because we need to HALF– so many things, and because it starts out so many short everyday words we can’t do without:
HURT + HEAL
HOLD + HURL
HELP + HINDER
HIM + HER

Doing some research on the origins of our letter H, I discovered that our H words are mostly Germanic in origin, that their roots go back to a common Indo-European language, and they mostly began with a k or kh sound.
Here, Who, How < kho
Hind (deer) < Kemi
Hip < kheup
Heart < kadia or kerd
Hearth < kherthaz
Help < kelp

The Japanese are fond of their H, giving us words like HONCHO and HAIKU, and who knows how many more if the current linguistic melange continues.

Rye Regular

Dorothy Sayers, in her book, THE FIVE RED HERRINGS, waxed merry with various accents and dropped or added aitches in a realistic way. The book was published in 1931 and she died in 1957, so I’m hoping I’ll be okay reprinting this bit.

Investigating the suspicious death of Mr Campbell, Inspector Macpherson called on Mr. Gowan. When the haughty English butler opened the door, the Inspector asked to speak to the gentleman.
“Mr Gowan is h’out. He’s gone to London.”
In his Broad Scots accent, the inspector explains…
“I will tell ye, wi’oot circumlocution, that there is mair than a suspeecion that the puir gentleman was murdered.”
“So I h’understand.”
“Your name is Halcock, is’t no?”
The butler corrected him. “H’alcock,” he said, reprovingly.
“H, a, double l?”
“There is no h’aitch in the name, young man. H’ay is the first letter, and there is h’only one h’ell.”

Then the Inspector goes on to question Hammond, Mr Gowan’s chauffeur, described as a small, perky man, mongrel in speech, but betraying a strong streak of the fundamental cockney.

“Did ye drive Mr. Gowan onywhere on Monday last?”
“Drove ‘im ter Dumfries. Mr. Alcock comes down when I was ‘avin’ me supper, and says Mr. Gowan wanted the saloon round at 8 o’clock ter tike ‘im ter Dumfries. And I says, ‘Right-oh!’ I says, ‘an’ I can pick up them there pitchers at the same time.’ That’s what I says and that’s what I done.”

As I understand Cockney, this would have sounded like, ” ‘At’s Royt. Drove ‘im ter Dumfries. Mr. Alcock comes down when Oy was ‘avin’ me suppah and says Mr. Gowan wanted the saloon round at oyt o’clock… ‘at’s wha’ Oy says and ‘at’s wha I dun.”

(The WordPress Spell-checker doesn’t like this colloquial post. There are red lines everywhere!)

Less is More

I just finished reading a blog post by Martha Kennedy with this same title. She starts out with a terse bit of editing wisdom from author Truman Capote: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

I heartily agree with what she says. Less is more. Author Jerry Jenkins stresses this over and over in his writing course: “Don’t use two adjectives; one is enough. Better yet, choose a stronger action verb.” Adverbs have similarly fallen out of style, I hear.

Mark Twain once gave wannabe writers similar advice, with a wry wit in the delivery: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

Awhile back I read a book that reminded me of his quip. A good story, but the author seems to over-use adjectives and adverbs, often as a way to pat characters on the back.
– Jill generously gave him a huge slice of pie.
– Jack unselfishly offered to drive them to the mall.
– He appreciated Jill’s considerate offer to look after his sister.
– Jack sighed appreciatively after Jill’s extremely satisfying dinner.
– Jill admired Jack’s dashing good looks.
– Jack’s humble way of suggesting…
– Jack found Jill extremely attractive.
– Jack’s unstinting effort to find the owner pleased Jill immensely.

Get my point?

These seasonings are okay when lightly sprinkled through the book, and I like stories about kind, thoughtful people. However, if superlatives appear too often it can sound like the writer’s trying to impress on forgetful readers what a wonderful, thoughtful, generous character this is. I don’t have to be told twenty times that the hero is smart, generous, and handsome or gorgeous. Perversely, this inclines me to dislike Mr/Ms goodie-two-shoes.

No matter what you’re saying about your characters’ qualities, more than three or four times is overkill. Don’t try to sneak them past the reader by embellishing their wonderful acts, either. Let the reader decide if that your character’s a keeper.

A Writer’s Cloud Nine

The Ragtag Daily Prompt this morning is OSCILLATE

Seeing this word piqued my curiosity. What’s the difference between OSCILLATE and VACILLATE?

Pursuing this inkblot of thought has put me on a cloud nine a-puff with a plethora of delectable VERBS!

Over at one of my favorite hangouts, Merriam-Webster, I’ve learned that
Oscillate means to swing back and forth,
or move back and forth between two points
For example: an oscillating electric fan.
You can oscillate between opposing beliefs, feelings, or theories
For example, the way people’s moods and views on whatever tend to do.
Oscillate can mean a variation from a fixed or given point
For example: Stats, interest rates, test results that vary from the norm.
Or how clean your laundry actually get compared to those in the ads for new Blastout laundry detergent.

All the lovely & useful words explained for comparison sake:
swing, sway, vibrate, fluctuate, waver, undulate

When I hear the word OSCILLATE my mind automatically goes to a fan, because it carries the sense of a regular or timed back & forth.

Vacillate means:
– to waver in mind, will, or feeling, hesitate between choices
– prolonged hesitation from inability to reach a firm decision.
Pondering, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” is vacillating if you do it for long.

Or to sway through lack of equilibrium, to fluctuate, oscillate. When I think of VACILLATE, I automatically think of indecision.

More lovely and useful synonyms:
Hesitate, waver, dither, teeter

Word lover that I am, this is like a trip through the chocolate factory, inhaling the aromas. I hesitate to promise I’ll put all these useful verbs to use –and I may vacillate at times as to which one to choose – but it’s always good to understand the nuances.

Assignment for Schools: TEACH

Fandango’s Provocative question #104:
What do you think is the one subject (or thing) that should be taught in school that isn’t?

Since this touches on one of my big concerns, I’ll post a response. The Ragtag Daily Prompt this morning, ASSIGNMENT, should fit into this topic quite nicely.

One day I was checking out at the local supermarket and the clerk asked if I’d like to donate some money toward the literacy program in local schools. “To help students learn to read.”

I was puzzled. “Isn’t that what they do in school?” I asked. She looked at me blankly; maybe she thought I was, like, totally out of it – which I am when it comes to today’s education.

Another time a friend told me that her niece was in Grade Three and couldn’t even spell the word “ARE.” She only knew the text-speak “R.” Fifteen years ago I listened to a group of about twenty grown-in-Canada adults under thirty puzzle over what country Ottawa is in.

For the past century or so, our schools have been places to try out social experiments in education. One of these was to eliminate phonics. Ontario, thirty-some years back, went even further and abolished the teaching of grammar, because having to obey rules hinders the free flow of the student’s thoughts. “We want them to be creative, not slowed down by following all the rules.”

A few years ago a teen told me students aren’t “on the same page” when it comes to studying literature. That is, there’s no novel to study and assess together. Students pick a book they want to read and then discuss it in class. Since no one else has read the same book, do you hear any other opinion than your own?

Back in 1987 the Southam News Agency shocked us all with the results of their nation-wide study on literacy in Canada: 24% of Canadians are functionally illiterate. To determine “literacy” the subjects were given reading and writing assignments as well as having to read bank statements, time schedules, and calculate the change you’d get at a store.

Immigrant or native-born didn’t make much difference. One of every three Grade 8 graduates and one of every twelve Grade 12 grads were functionally illiterate in day-to-day affairs. The study found that many students entering universities had to take remedial reading classes.

A study done in 1989 shows that 20% of Canadians have strong literacy skills. This is a diverse group of people who exhibit a broad range of reading skills and various strategies for dealing with complex material. These people can meet most reading demands and handle new reading challenges.

A report in 2020 laments that, although public interest in literacy was strong between 1980 and 2000… “Against this background, it is surprising that the Canadian literacy infrastructure was subsequently largely dismantled.”
From a report by the European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, Vol.11, No.1, 2020, pp. 109-125.

Apart from the need to teach better Reading, Writing, Grammar, Literature, and Math skills in Canadian schools, I think our children need to learn some HISTORY. Not the dates part so much, but basic concepts of social history: something about the Colonial days, Victorian Times, the Wars, the Roaring Twenties, the Dirty Thirties, the Cold War.

I wish our children could learn enough history to help them understand how other people have lived on this earth and gone through tough times, too. That people once entertained different ideas, upheld various ideals that were valid. That peer pressure is nothing new. That Covid-19 isn’t the worst plague ever. I’d like to see them get a good general history of the world that would bring them through time to where we are now. It would bring them down to earth and ground them – and hopefully generate more appreciation for our privileged era.

The Peril of a Great Name

Today’s Word of the Day Challenge from Kristian is FIGMENT, as in FIGMENT of your IMAGINATION. Well, here’s one. 🙂

“When I Win the Lottery…”

How many times have you heard someone say this? I have. And I’ve read about people who did win the lottery, how it played out for them. I gather it does wonders for what people think of, or expect from, you.

If you were to win a lottery, your reputation for wealth would spread far and wide. If you win the lottery, you’ll have long lost relatives who remember you, show up and want to be fed. You’ll have the most sincere wanna-be friends with pressing needs who need to borrow “…just a few bucks. Come on, you have so much.” Sales people of all kinds will be trying to get their foot in your door.

Years back a couple in our town won the lottery and she kept on working at her sales job, one she really enjoyed. But some people resented that. “She’s got all that money now and she’s taking a job away from someone who needs it!” To avoid all these things, some lottery winners have had to move to a place where nobody knew them.

Yes, winning the lottery is a mixed blessing & curse.

And America Has Won the Lottery!

A few decades ago, back in Ontario, a tractor-trailer outfit (a.k.a. a semi) stopped on the weigh scale on the Canadian border, heading into Detroit. The log book said the truck was empty, and the trucker said the same, but Canadian Customs officers were suspicious. Their scale was telling them this “empty” truck weighed more than it should.

They insisted he open the trailer and let them have a look inside… And what to their wondering eyes did appear…
but two dozen people (give or take). People who barely spoke English. Who carried Polish ID + passports.

An Imaginary Figment

Frowning Customs agents turned to the trucker for an explanation and he admitted these people have paid him to smuggle them into the US. “They seem to believe America is so rich that money is just lying around on the streets,” he explained. “So they flew to Canada as visitors and hired me to take them into the States. They want to pick up some of this money that’s lying around.”

The Polish folks were sent home – probably under the allusion that they were so close to riches and weren’t allowed to get their hands on any. And, trying to make a quick buck, the Canadian trucker was charged with smuggling human cargo.

I think of this incident whenever I read comments about how America should open her doors to the poor and needy of other lands. With the fantastic reputation she now has, there’d be standing room only! I think if you go to just about any nation and ask around, people will tell you, “Of course we’re poor compared to those rich Americans.”

Image: DarkmoonArt_de — Pixabay

Easy Money to Be Made! Just Get In

Some people do know that money doesn’t just lie around on the streets, but they still have a pretty rosy image. I was talking to a friend lately, someone who’s lived in Mexico and, with her husband, makes frequent trips there still. She tells me that a lot of Mexicans have the same impression of America: everyone there is rich. If you can get into the States you’ll only have to work a bit and the money will come flowing in. I’m sure the reality is a shock.

There was a time when America meant hard work. It was a new world, with forests to chop down and land to clear, railroads to build, factories to work in. As she prospered, her reputation for wealth increased. People in other lands now believe Americans all have great jobs and yachts and vacations around the world. From what they see, money obviously comes easy in the US. And some American writers are quick to support this thinking.

One blogger, quoting the plaque on the Statue of Liberty, felt that the States should just open the borders and let people come. Lots of room! Lots of jobs! Another article writer claims the US has room for a hundred times more people that what are living there now. (Mind you, this writer said nothing about where all these newcomers would find work. A lot of manufactured goods seem to be coming from overseas these days.)

I get the impression that many Americans — those who blog and write articles — are saying, “America is so rich. We can share.” (Or rather, “Our govt can share.”) That seems to be the “Haves” perspective. Those folks with good jobs or pensions, those who’ve won their share of the American lottery and are enjoying it.

Unlike those hopeful Poles, I’ve been in the States, seen enough places, and read enough that I realize there’s a major “Have Not” section in the US, too. So how do the Have Nots – all those folks living in ghettos, tenement slums, on the streets, Appalachian villages, and homeless camps in Florida – look at this “y’all come” generosity? Folks who’ve missed out somehow on the big win, what’s their take on this? If they were allowed to share their perspective, they could tell money-seekers a thing or two.

To Whom It May Concern:
Canada is a tough place to survive; you have to work hard to make a living; we’re almost all relatively poor; precipitation is unpredictable; our winters can be bitterly cold. We’re glad for immigrants but not delusions. 🙂