Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Good Book and Bad Reviews --- Take the Challenge

James O. Born
I’ve been on a good fiction reading binge lately. When I say “good”, I mean a wide range of different genres and authors. I don’t mean it was all good fiction. In fact, some of it was difficult to slog through so I chucked the books and moved on through by TBR pile with an occasional manuscript or ARC someone sent me thrown in. I covered a lot o ground. It’s like when I skim through shows I’ve recorded on my DVR and erase many without watching them. It’s a feeling of satisfaction to have cleared up something you intended to do. In my case, read one of the many books I have on a bookcase now dedicated to only to books I want to read.

One book in this recent orgy of reading (I have to make it sound at least a little interesting) really stuck out in my mind and came to my attention in the most important and common way: a friend’s recommendation. Jay Lake, noted fantasy writer whom I’ve mentioned on this blog in the past told me about a science fiction writer named John Scalzi who’s books he thought I’d like. My love of science fiction is no secret and an easy enough habit to feed.

I picked up Ghost Brigades, Scalzi’s second novel and the second in a trilogy that starts with Old Man’s War. The first thing that stood out for me is that the novel, despite being the second in a series, really stands on its own well. The next thing I realized was that the novel sucked me in completely from setting to characters.

A true science fiction, set far in the future, Ghost Brigades is at once a story of man’s adaptation of technology that straddles the line of God’s and man’s domain and the story of the conflict between humans and other aliens interested in the inhabitable planets of the universe. The intrigue and military operations could be enough to make this book fun and riveting but it is the relationships and fates of the many alien and human characters that make it stand out in the crowded world of novels.

I know some crime fiction fans look down on science fiction fans the way literary writers look with distaste at crime writers. Ghost Brigades is another example of that flawed thinking. I wish I read more crime fiction written as well as this novel. Just as I advocate punching snooty literary writers I now proclaim that snooty crime writers should be beaten as well.

Scalzi has an interesting blog . A week or so back he posted some of his negative Amazon reviews and challenged other authors to follow suit. He believes we should show we can get past bad reviews. He offered a great graphic:

I will take him up and offer this:

From Amazon for Field of Fire :
This book had a good set of blurbs, from Michael Connelly and John Camp, so I bought it. The premise had some promise, but it doesn't pan out at all, and frankly as I got further into the book, I was waiting for it to end. When it did finish, the ending was pretty much what you would expect, improbable and not very satisfying.

Ouch. Gotta move on.

I extend Mr. Scalzi’s offer as well. If you’re an author, let’s see some bad reviews. C'mon, it'll feel good.


  1. Hey, thanks for the promo, Jim. I got your note, but life is a little overwhelming right now. I'll be back soon.

  2. From one of my "fans" at Amazon on Wicked Break:

    "It is difficult to wade thru this one, despite the shallowness of the plot. I did not read the first of this series, and am not encouraged to do so by this weak entry. The scenes rise only to the level of bad TV. I read to escape that."

    I'm very disappointed that he didn't specify which bad television show I rose to the level of. The A-Team? Baywatch? BE SPECIFIC, WEIRD PERSON WHO SPENDS WAY TOO MUCH TIME REVIEWING THINGS ON AMAZON!!!

  3. This is actually the worst reader review I've gotten for any of my books:

    "The plot is thin, ragged, and unengaging. I kept turning pages, thinking that soon I would begin to CARE about what was happening. I gave up on page 169. Didn't even care enough to cheat and read the ending. Lee Child (whose works I enjoy enormously) is quoted as saying, "Absolutely everything a first-rate crime novel should be." Shame on you, Lee."

    So this person dissed Lee Child in a bad review of my book. That alone causes me to dismiss it as a crackpot.

  4. Amazon reviews, what a great topic!

    Okay, this was the first one I received:

    "I made it to page 200 with this poorly written mystery. The characters are so stereotypical yet boring, characters that you wish would all be killed off. There is NOT one person in the whole bunch who has any scruples, so I found that I was not interested in any of them. There are long narrative passages between Roxanne the blackmailer and the porno king that are more like a rock and roll narrative then a mystery novel. There were dull with dialogue that would put you to sleep. The author keeps introducing characters, and the whole thing is a jumbled mess. Don't waste your time on this garbage."

    I like the description, "rock and roll narrative," though, I'd use that as a quote.

  5. Okay, here's a delicate deconstruction of DEADLOCKED posted on Amazon.

    I read a lot of mysteries but this was one that I struggled to finish due to extremely poor choices in plot devices to move or resolve issues in the story.

    I could go on and on about the unrealistic and poorly written novel - my advice to you is to do another search and try another book. This one was a waste of time.

  6. Hey, Jim,

    John Scalzi is one of the new up and coming brilliant stars of SF these days. My hubby has painted several book covers for his novels. :-D

    Don't have anything published of note that required a review, so thankfully don't even have a bad one yet. Time will tell. :-D

    Have a great day.

  7. You guys rock. I knew I wouldn't be left hanging alone.

    Jeff, I meant Nash Bridges.

    Marianne. You guys know the coolest people.


  8. James O, I noted that your snarky reviewer read the book to the end. So, did he secretly love it or is he just a masochist?

    Here's a review of SHORT CHANGE, not from Amazon but from a newspaper, that sent me into a state of depression for a month, because insecure writer that I am, I only internalized the part ending in "barbs."

    "Her prose is nothing special--bland, factual, straight-forward with a few mild satiric barbs--but the story unfolds provocatively and keeps you guessing, as yet again the dark depths of the human heart are revealed amid the sun-blasted contemporary squalor of Los Angeles."

    Now I will go to--gulp--Amazon to find the really bad ones.

  9. I loved Ghost Brigades, but I loved Old Man's War even better. And if you want to wander away from that universe of Scalzi's, The Android's Dream is hilarious.

    I also recommend Tobias S. Buckell, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin--Caribbean-tinged SF. Sly Mongoose comes out the same day (August 19) that Scalzi's Zoe's Tale is coming out, so that's going to be a big day for SF for me.

  10. Ooh, I don't have very many reviews on, but I will share this stunning one from Good Reads on BLOOD TIES:

    One star: This is by far one of the worst books I've ever read. From the editing to the character (non)development, it's just dumb.

    courtesy of someone named "Kim"

  11. Jim, this is a recurring topic on this blog site.....I guess the real question is if ANYONE's review is worthy. Perhaps the underlying question should be, what IS the real purpose of reviews, Amazon or otherwise?

    One man's meat is another man's poison.

    Go-Lo, I pray that whatever depressive funk you may have fallen into, that you have thoroughly (or Thoreau-ly)put that nonsense behind you.


    PS: I'm so out of the loop,Marianne, I thought SF refered to SanFrancisco! Guess it's a mental block...but I always see SF as SanFrancisco

  12. I'm too lazy to cut-n-paste an Amazon review, but i will share this:

    I love the person who declares PISTOL POETS to be just a terrible book and "not nearly as good as GUN MONKEYS." So where's the glowing review for GUN MONKEYS? Not there. He went out of his way to post a review of the book he hated, but didn't feel the need to give some love to the one he liked. Thanks for nothing.


  13. Here's one of my favorites:

    Amazon for THE CLEANER:

    Over Hypt !

    I purchased this predicated on reviews, it is now obvious these were done by Friends, Family and employees of the Publisher.
    I gave up 50 pages from the end as it was so predictable as another "super hero" copy... it was a copy of so many mediocre prior paperbacks without heart or the ability to get me or anyone to care one way or another.
    This was my biggest error in 10 years...............

    In 10 years??? Come on. This was his biggest error? I guess I'm honored.

  14. My hubby just said that Scalzi wrote the introduction "Project Moonbase and Others" which is a first time compilation of all the scripts written by Robert Heilein - published and unpublished. Bob painted the cover. Anyway, if you want to read the Scalzi intro, go to Also has some nice info onthe book too. :-D

    Yeah, we know a LOT Of people. Editors, publishers, art directors, artists and a zillion writers. :-D Bob's been in the business 30 years, won 9 Hugo Awards, and painted massive amounts of covers. Everyone knows Bob. :-D


  15. Jim, I believe in never responding to reviews, but for you:

    "An inflated caper that should've been a short story. . .Cleanup had 10 pounds of manure stuffed in a 5 pound bag."

    -Response: Wait a minute. Isn't 10 lbs of manure in a 5 lb bag getting MORE than your money's worth?

    "I read it on a business trip to a third world country with few entertainment options. It was fine in that context and to be fair, fine as what I call "junk" reading. However, when I finished I didn't want to run out and get the author's other efforts. . . ."

    -Response: Okay, Mr. Junk Man. You ended up reading The Cleanup anyway, so. . .no blood no foul.

    "I'm half way through and am constantly confused! There are SO many characters I forget who's who - and really don't care. . .I picked this paperback up at a book exchange store for $.50 and I'm not sure it's worth the price."

    -Response: Dear Confused--At least you didn't inadvertantly reward the author's poor work by purchasing the book at retail through, where this review is posted. Whew!

    "Dolittle seems to revel in the antagonist's bad acts. And we're not talking about a fun, clever, kind of bad guy, but a bad guy who's just plain mean. . .The over-the-top gratuitous violence prevents the book from having any truly redeeming value--even as escapist entertainment. I rated this one star because a no-star rating was not available--it really should be."

    -Response: I'm sorry I killed the dog.

    Hey wow, you're right. I DO kinda feel better. Thanks, Jim Born!


  16. With this sophomore mystery, Douglas drifts away from the sober, methodical, intricate presentation of forensic facts that won his first novel and earlier nonfiction well-deserved acclaim. Here, the plot is cluttered and not terribly suspenseful, with a resolution as neat as it is predictable. Broken Wings fans may feel this sequel is rushed and disappointing.

    This is for a novel I ghosted for FBI profiler, John Douglas. It was the second in a series begun by John's longtime nonfiction writer. There was no third.

  17. These are inspirational. Doolittle's are hard to beat.


  18. Here's a reader's point of view on bad reviews. I ususally don't read them, but last night I was looking for some more books to order by Laurie R. King in her Kate Martinelli series. I have 2 of them and I want some of the earlier ones. I was looking at Barnes and Noble and found the first book. The only reason that I even read the review was because there were 2 showing and one had 5 stars and the other had only one. So I read the one star to see just what this person's problem with the book was. Basically what is said was this: "As I began to read this book I loved it. Then I got to the middle of the book and found out that the main character was a lesbian. I was so disgusted with this that I immediately returned it to the library."

    All I could think was narrow minded bigot.

  19. I think this is the one that bugged me the most, for FIELD OF DARKNESS:

    "I just hate it when I spend money for a book that's had all kinds of glowing reviews and in no way lives up to the hype. Yes, Cornelia Read can write. No, this is not a book that deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. Aside from the lamentably slow pacing, the book has such a weight of anachronistic dialogue that for anyone of an age, with a reasonably good memory, it's excruciating to keep coming across these clunkers. Dude! dates back to the 60s/70s, then fell out of use until recently. It certainly wasn't commonly used in the late 80s (when this book is set). Freakin'--as a substitute for a four-letter word I cannot write here did not come into popular usage until the 90s. The heroine's "voice" changes, depending upon her conversational partner--to such a wearying extent that it was painful to go through the changes. Madeline goes from sounding like a world-weary dowager, to a Valley Girl (like, totally!) in her exchanges with friend Ellis, to tough-girl shots with cousin Lap. Change after wearying change. It's one thing for a first-novelist to stumble, it's quite another for her editor, the copy-editor, and the proof-reader all to stumble with her. The blame for the endless discrepancies cannot be laid entirely at the author's feet. The lack of narrative drive and a likeable heroine ... something else again. It's a self-indulgent book, with clanging overtones of "clever me," and a lack of tension that makes the entire effort rather flabby. The author definitely has talent. It will be interesting to see if she can gather the discipline and determination to marshall her skills in more productive fashion next time out. For now, I'm like totally bummed, dude, that I spent my freakin' money on this book."

  20. Good grief, Miss C. I'd be having a few Dark and Stormies after that one. Whew.

    Whether you like a book or not, does not justify tearing it apart in public. I found no problem with Fields of Darkness, except that it was so gritty and showed some humans at their absolute worst. That was MY problem. But it was still a brilliant read. I haven't read your second book because it's set in a school where the teachers have too much detrimental power over the helpless (ie students). It's MY problem, no elses. I had a similar reaction to another author's 'helpless in school situation' plot recently too. I made myself read it. Glad I did, cause I loved it. Now I have to read yours - I'm working on it.

    Even more recently, I read a couple of books and desperately wanted to review them. One was a really great story and well handled, but the editing should have been gone over a few more times to get rid of five line sentences trying to cover eight years of exposition. Urk. The second one was by a very well known and loved cozy writer who has just had one of her series made into a tv series. Good on her! However, I read one of her other books, and not one of the characters appealed to me. That's also MY problem, because both of these women can write well. Never the less, I didn't write the reviews because I didn't want to give bad ones, or even semi-bad ones.

    I still sift through books trying to find what appeals to me. I'm picky. :-D

    Miss C., I think that person has too much ego and too much time on his/her hands. Reads like a female to response to me...


  21. OK, I loved this post - thanks, Jim and everyone who has commented here, for making me laugh about the reviews on Amazon. I've had my fair share of howlers (and early on, they really did make me howl, I was so upset and couldn't work out why people were so cruel). Now I just don't read them, it's not worth the angst. Everyone has an opinion, and as I always say, the opinion belongs to the person, not the object of their attention. Also, as pointed out to me by another author, it's amazing how many of those negative reviews are written by people who cannot spell. Hmmm .... (she said checking her comment again for errors!).

  22. I am going to wonder at all of you who have been taken aback by "reviews" by those with only the shallowest perceptions of your work. I know that my old Lit prof would never have been happy with me had I offered such an analysis of any of the books that he presented.

    Indeed, I would say that many of the people are only reviewing in order to gain some small semblance of their own Warholian "fifteen minutes of fame".

    Ms. C, I recently completed both "Field of Darkness" and "Crazy School". I am startled that the reviewer didn't note that your heroine merely mirrors those whom she is faced with, and that is how she was raised to be. A survival trait developed from growing up in multiple socio-economic circles, she has developed the art of fitting in...or "camouflage", if you prefer. That is my perception, in any case, and I am looking forward to reading more of Madeline Dare's (mis)adventures.

    Our J, I just finished Messenger of Truth on the heels of your prior trio of installments, and I find myself looking forward more of the constant evolution of Maisie Dobbs.

    In any case, based upon all of your experiences, I have decided that when I am published, I simply won't have any bad reviews.


  23. Kirkus said "Konrath's prose ranges from careless to wretched" which I liked so much I used it as a blurb on an antho I'm in.

    As for Amazon reviews:

    Revolting, disgusting and without redeeming value.
    Unless you enjoy being sickened by depraved people committing almost continuous torture, psychosocial abuse, physical and mental cruelty, skip this work. No story graces the pages of this novel, merely a litany of tortures that make me hope to God I never meet this author--not even in a crowded room, let alone a dark street. Although it's rare for me to stop reading, I abandoned this book about 2/3 of the way through when I realized there was no point to all the abuse, only a self-indulgent delight in horrifying the reader. I gave it up a a bad job and only hope I can spare someone else the grossness. It was my first book by J.A.Konrath and obviously it will be my last. Find a better way to spend your time than with this book.


    What is "psychosocial abuse" anyway? Does that mean I'm abusing society?

    The thing I find most amusing is that there are no gratuitous or even graphic depictions of abuse or torture in the book. It all happens off-screen.

    The fact that the book is also pretty funny seemed lost on this reader as well.

    Now I gotta run--it's time for me to abuse society some more...

  24. These were all excellent.

    I knew Joe Konrath would have a good take on the whole issue.

    Cornelia, that reviewer was obviously unbalanced.


  25. What, just post ONE 1-star review? what to pick, what to pick . . . how about my personal favorite, largely because she posted THE EXACT same review on three of my books last year (each in my NO EVIL series).

    "This book is a fine suspense book, and please note all the comments below. I am sure that they are accurate for a reader seeking a suspense novel.

    If you are looking for romance, do NOT buy this book. It is being cross-promoted in the romance section of Amazon and others. This is not the fault of the author, merely a publishing house that misleads buyers to increase profits.

    I give it one star for the cross-promotion. I was looking for romance and wasted money on a book that has none."

    And of my debut novel, THE PREY:

    "Cardboard story line,cardboard heroine, cardboard love interest, you name it. If you have any standards for storytelling at all, give this one a miss. There, my good deed for the day is done."

    I just went through all my one-star reviews. Kind of depressing! Now going back to read the five stars . . .

  26. Okay, here's mine, for Trace Evidence:

    This thriller held great promice for me.

    Although I managed to read through it all and the basic storyline and plot were actually suspensful, I just could not get pass the writing style.

    I could not describe it better than to say "immature". The author's attempts to interject humour into her characters fell short (in a big way).

    The dialogue was just so corny at times that it completely removed from the storyline for me.

    Hopefully, this author's second book will retain the good qualities of Trace Evidence and remove the juvenile writing.

    I tried to take some comfort in the fact that she misspelled 'promise', but it was a hollow comfort and not worthy of me.

    Elizabeth Becka