Reflections on Reviewing Novels

Buried within this reflection on my reviewing practice is a review for the novella: The Curse of the Owl by Qatarina Wanders.

There’s this in-between where I often struggle with reviews. It’s important to me to maintain a steady level of integrity. I’ve lost a few fellow indie authors’ support by offering 3 stars instead of the 4-5 stars they seek. I think there’s some kind of unspoken agreement about that, but I just can’t abide it. Especially when giving 3 stars is already a reach. I want you to come here, see what I had to say about a book, decide to read it based on that saying, and trust I was honest. If you go into a book and find I over or under-stated, you won’t come back and see what I had to say.

I don’t know if readers don’t consider books rated under 4 stars. I will. Three stars to me means: good book, worth it. 4 stars is great, and 5 is couldn’t put it down, stuck in my head, changed my life kind of story. Sometimes I’m a little looser with the last, but all of this means 3 stars is still a good book. All that said, I understand that’s not a view everyone holds, so sometimes I go 4 if I’m hovering at 3+.

This is something that happened with my recent read. The Curse of the Owl starts with pages of info dumping. Paragraphs of explanation between single lines of dialogue. I recognize it because it’s a thing I’ve just learned not to do (in that, I have done it, and now recognize to not do it). It’s also a point I find with many indie authors doing it on their own (of which I am one. I don’t have the budget for legit editors, so I make do with reader feedback and numerous go-overs). My point: indie books are often published sans the final few edits. This doesn’t make them bad books. It definitely does not mean the stories aren’t good. It just means the ratings are always there, which doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading.

For The Curse of the Owl, I left this review:

This fast read is fun and interesting, with a unique take on the supernatural world I am curious to learn more about. With a pair of kick-butt protagonists, I found the stakes real and relatable. There is definitely enough here to turn into a full-length novel. While I found the front 40% a great heap of info dumping, the action sequences through the back half were exciting and page-turning. This novella seems a great set-up for the main series I have added to my TBR.

I understated and over-stated, just a little, all the things I said I wouldn’t to maintain a level of integrity. If I wasn’t reviewing this for a service, I would have put it down in the first few pages. That thought alone should warrant this short book unworthy of 4 stars, yet that is what I gave it. The ending did pick up. It was exciting. There were multiple cool action sequences. It’s a prequel to a series about the daughter and niece of the characters told here. Like so many indie books, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. I wanted everything to get developed and told, not just washed over.

Happy Reading 🙂

CMM

Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang

Speculative Fiction, YA Fantasy

3 Stars

What a unique book this was in so many ways. I’ve never given more than 1 star to a book I didn’t, technically, finish. Honestly–probably–if the library hadn’t been about to take it back, I would have read it more leisurely and maybe not have been so bogged down in the following points.

Here’s what happened:

There is so much nerdy goodness in this book I absolutely love. Unfortunately, it was dispersed amongst the “real” story I found distracting from this talk of entomology and its uses and function within the magic system. Then, as I got into the real account, I’d be bumped back into the scholarly. While I liked both aspects of this book, I didn’t like them together. I was bored. Looking back at the first 30-40% at the halfway mark had me wondering why we needed so much to get us to this point. I wished for a story about the evolution of the word pairings only, or on the other side, a drama about Oxford students amidst colonial and social strife. Both aspects of the book were equally extraordinary. I can’t say that I’ve read a book that so nuanced the multifaceted psychology of those of underprivilege and those with. Each of Kuang’s characters perfectly highlighted an aspect those of us who can’t know too easily skip when contemplating the nature of existence from another’s perspective. And yet…

Like The Secret History, we follow a group of “friends” thrown together by their shared collegiate aspirations. At least in Babel, we’re given a clear picture of events, how they transpire, and why. The use of third person versus the single first-person telling of the former helps to give us more depth and breadth, which I appreciated much more than Tartt’s novel of similaresque theme. Yet, I enjoyed History more, which really has to do with my previous point of this meshing of too many things.

At about 65%, I skipped to the end and read the epilogue. This was enough to satisfy me so I felt I could say I read this book. Despite my basically DNFing this book, I can’t give it less than three stars. There really was so much good. I think I was just too impatient to settle in with it all?

Has anyone had a similar experience with this book or any other? I’d love to hear about it.

Happy Reading! 🙂

CMM

Re-reading my Favorites

There’s a certain nervous expectation when going back to my favorite things. Do you know what I mean? Especially with books (and movies). I’ve found so much of how much I like something depends on my mood and mindset at the time. When I dive back in, there’s always a chance I was somehow out of my mind on that first interaction…

That’s why it’s even more exciting when something is just as fabulous the second and third time. Here’s when you really know you have a favorite among favorites (a FAF? Can we make that a thing?).

The final book of The Sun Eater series came out in December. I was there on release day, picking up my copy, live and in person. Here is a series too good to get in electronic form. These books need to be handled in the real world.

Of course, to properly enjoy Ashes of Man, I had to reread the entire series before diving in. Naturally, my time management sucked and here we are a month later, and I have only just finished book 1 of 5. But that’s okay. This is not a thing to be rushed.

As with the first three (four?) times reading Empire of Silence, I was instantly taken in by the style. Reminiscent of The Name of the Wind (another favorite of mine), I got actual goosebumps as I settled in to read. My first experience with Christopher Ruocchio was through an audiobook, and reading it brought to light details I missed in the distraction of carrying out tasks while I listened. This second read-through had me tagging my favorite passages and quotes, of which there are many. I don’t usually do this, though I love collecting quotes through my Kindle’s highlighter. Here’s the bad thing about not having the e-version (though upon writing this, I’ve added them to my wishlist). I don’t have a system to capture favorite lines with physical books. Only with The Sun Eater have I ever stopped to text out my favorites.

When I think about Hadrian, away from reading, just as I think of Kvothe, I think of an over-dramatic, arrogant person who has more adeptness at whatever they do than is healthy for any individual. Then I reflect on everything that happens to them, and I reconsider. “With great power comes great responsibility,” but also a fierce probability of heinous things happening. Of being ostracized by the people you love and, most horrendously, facing the consequences of your grand gestures and decisions. Both characters share a similar fate in this. Here is why this series keeps me coming back. This equality of dark and light. Of the good with the bad. Of planning a path to find it crumbling beneath them only to see that this path was where they had to end up. On this newest re-read of Empire of Silence, I wonder if Hadrian’s course would have always brought him to his final point. If he hadn’t run, if he’d followed the plan set by his father, would he still have found this operatic end? I think so, but only in an obsessive, over-analyzing mindset can I even pretend to have the discussion. I’d be shocked to hear if even the author ever considered this. There is little point of considering these what-ifs and might-haves in our real lives. Still, I find it a fun thought experiment. And isn’t part of what makes these books so great the fact that we can have these discussions about them? Here is why they’re FAFs. And unlike many series, The Sun Eater gets better with each installment.

It’s strange. I’m a little hesitant to read Ashes of Man, because once I do, it will be over…

Of course, there’s always the coming back to look forward to…

Happy Reading 🙂

CMM

Not a Review of The Secret History

Bear with my first attempt in long years at a true essay. It devolved, very fast, into a bit of a ramble. I tried to reign it in…

Occasionally, I read a book that incites a need to comment rather than simply review. I write some reviews, usually when a book has a lower readership, and I want to help spread the word about it, but those are simple words from the gut; first impressions and feelings with little deep-diving. The Secret History is a book that has led me to be a bit more editorial. Not even the book, but rather the current popularity surrounding it. Yet again, it has me asking why certain books grab mass attention while others do not? What makes us love the books we love?

On Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

including a few comparisons that underline the question: why

I’m the kind of reader who likes to know the least amount about a book before I read it. How do I choose what to read, you ask? Sometimes, a single quote or great review—more likely, a terrible review—will compel me to pick up a book. A library recommendation, a pretty cover, or a great title. It’s so much about timing and things too abstract to quantify. I think that makes me a mood reader, but I’m not that concerned with labeling this part of my life to determine it.

Social Media’s algorithms currently love The Secret History. It crossed my feed enough times I finally picked it up (B&N’s BOGO 50% helped with that too). Within the first pages, I realized this was not a new book. Curious about why a book from 1992 is hitting charts, I put the book down to see why. I searched: ‘why is The Secret History still a favorite.’ One answer spoke of identifying with a feeling of isolation. Another spoke of our desire to belong to an elitist group, while a third remark spoke of friendship. There were a handful of other answers, but these stuck with me as I read Donna Tartt’s debut. As I read, I also found myself comparing it with The Goldfinch and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (which I just read).

While I liked The Secret History very much, I found it bloated. I found the term “friend” grossly inadequate, as few of the members of Julian’s class seemed more than forced acquaintances. Only Henry and Camilla’s pseudo-secret relationship was something more than a barely tolerated association. Richard even hears from each of them how the others aren’t that fond of him. Either explanation for this, whether truth or jealousy, begs the question of how well any of them were “friends.” That’s not to say each character wasn’t likable, at least as their part in the story is concerned. In reality, I wouldn’t have tolerated any of them as a friend of mine. They weren’t upstanding people, but rather interesting characters who propelled this drama. As this question of friendship was a highlighted point about the book’s likability, I beg the question: what about these “friends” drew readers in?

While an underlying sense of dread starts from the first page that keeps us intent on finding out how and what and who, it is the same magic Tartt uses in The Goldfinch with much more mastery. Of course, after writing this opinion, I went and read reviews and essays about The Goldfinch. Apparently, I have no idea what makes a good book. According to the critiques, The Goldfinch is about story, not character; therefore, it’s trash. Except, I liked it better. I thought Theo had more character than Richard, who we only know because he tells us. Richard says he’s a liar, though I can’t recall a point in dialogue when he does. He tells us he loves Camilla, though there is so little interaction on the page between them it seems impossible to be more than a boy’s crush (is that the point?). Julian, a supposed heavy influence, a ‘father figure,’ barely exists. Again, we only know how the “friends” feel about their teacher and mentor because we’re told. And while not necessarily a point against the book, the blurb implies some dark machinations at the hands of the Greek influence in their lives that seems manipulatively overstated. Is it a point that creates circumstance? Yes. Is it part of the story? No.

This tension both books share from their onset is threaded onto every page of The Goldfinch. Theo is isolated, handling his stress alone, though in the same alcohol and drug-induced haze as the Hamden students of The Secret History, whose theme of separateness happens surrounded by peers. Stress that culminates in tangible events. Events I felt missing in The Secret History. But History takes place with a group, while Goldfinch is a story about a singular character. And we’re back to this point about “friends.” As I said, I would love to hear more about this distinction because I’m not sure my definition of “friend” coincides. Maybe, that’s the point. That the friends aren’t. That this ‘not’ is the relatable part.

Another book I feel lays bare this human condition in much clearer terms is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Both The Secret History and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow are books social media algorithms currently love. Both are full of this sense of isolation inside a group and lose a bit of what they are in the telling. Both are just too long. Both seem to drift off as if their subtly is so delicate, drawing out the theme has made it too damaged to let fade, so it must be severed or fall to pieces. I love that readers are reading and enjoying these books. I enjoyed them. I gave both The Secret History and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow four stars. It’s only in this over-analyzation that their flaws come through. I never meant to speak badly of them, only to ask why we love them over others. When I see mostly romance and YA saturating my feeds, I forget the average reader might actually read other books, too. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one with varying tastes.

I have long contemplated—and failed to answer—the question of what makes a book great, even for my own mind. Why The Secret History? Especially why this book and not others? We’re mad when the hero dies or suffers some long-standing PTSD in science fiction and dystopian YA, but when literature shows a layer of darkness inherent in life, we call that insightful. Is it a matter of staying in one’s lane? A love story without a happily-ever-after can not be shelved romance because it breaks a pact more sacred than wedding vows. Expectation, is that the difference? If a novel is exactly what we are told it will be, it becomes popular? And is that the same thing as being good?

This wasn’t meant to be a comparison. It was meant to be a meandering commentary on why we love the books we do; why some books get press while others of similar quality, or better, do not. There really is no answer, not that I can give, but I will continue to ramble on about it.