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World Book Day: What makes a review?

World Book Day: What makes a review?

Happy World Book Day to one and all. I have fond memories of book-themed occasions having received annual book vouchers at school and prize book gift vouchers when I achieved in my subjects. Yes I was that geeky student waltzing off to his nearest WHSmith to cash in for previously un-bought Hardy Boys, Sharpe, or Robert Ludlum story depending on my age. Reading is wonderful, a medium that interacts with its consumer in a way movies cannot. The writer can spell out every little detail he likes, but what those mean to the reader is completely individual. Therefore every person has a slightly different encounter with a book. With the movies, an extra few layers of our imaginative powers is removed. Forsaken for million dollar special effects budgets. That’s good too. But it doesn’t beat your imagination…

So while I hope everybody is enjoying the various events that have been ongoing across the web and in libraries and community centres I have a reading themed question to ask.

You may already know that my short story The Lazarus Experiment was available for free last weekend as part of an anniversary celebration – one year since I submitted the former #tuesdayserial weekly tale to my publishers Books to Go Now. It’s now back on sale in the Kindle stores at its regular price (77p in the UK.. 99c or $1.22 in the US.. the website seems to keep showing me different prices, but I’m not American anyway…) which, lets face it, is the price of a chocolate bar and cheaper than a cup of tea in most places. One of the bonuses for me as a writer, and my publishers, this week has been the sudden appearance of reviews at last!

One reviewer over on Amazon scored my tale about Frank Swan with 4 stars, suggesting whilst she had received it free it would have been worth paying for. Jackpot! Cannot ask for more from a reader than satisfaction and endorsement like that…

The other reviewer over on the UK Amazon however scored the World War 2 set science fiction tale with just one star. One. Uno. Jeden. Een. This is the intriguing part however… the review is largely positive – crediting the plot and wanting more. However it is the lack of the more which hurts the review. With this reviewer saying if he had paid for such a short story he would have been very unhappy.

Quite the contrast between the two reviews eh? Ah, the life of the author…

I have politely pointed out that Amazon does indeed show how short the story is, and that it is tagged and promoted as a short story, but have thanked the reviewer anyway for what I feel is a fair review. It is short after all! I only responded to the review because I did not want people to think myself or my publisher to be trying to con people – it is clearly marketed in a similar way to other short stories available on the e-book market and anyone following my twitter or Facebook streams knows I am at endless pains to include the #shortstory hashtag. Short stories are back in vogue like they haven’t been since the pulps of the 30’s and 40’s or Dickens before them. I am happy shouting from the rooftops that I write them.

And yet… it has got me thinking about what goes in to a review?

What makes a story 5 stars, and another one 1 star?

It’s certainly a question with unlimited answers but to go on the second reviewers apparent scale, then War and Peace, the famously long tome by Leo Tolstoy, would be a five-star extravaganza… even if its mode of writing bores the tears out of you (as it does me). Likewise the movie Godfather may struggle to get 1 star because people prefer the 90 minute feature, despite its unquestionable status (go on i dare you…) as one of the finest films of all time.

When I review something I do it from the perspective of how the book, music, movie makes me feel. Did I enjoy it? It’s as simple as that. Obviously i expand on that notion. But if it gave me great pleasure, if I went to bed each night early just so I had more time to read more of the book…then I give a positive review. Even if it’s not technically perfect or dare I suggest it, it’s too short.

So what makes you give one star, three stars or five stars to something?

Do you start in the middle at three stars and add and detract as I do?

Or do you have some arcane method that involves the slaughtering of a turkey and the drawing of a circle in front of your bookcase in its blood? Hey, it takes all sorts…

Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to tweet me on twitter or drop a message on the Facebook page!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Reading Initiatives

 

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Review: Past Caring by Robert Goddard

The first of the three books that I picked as part of the Transworld Crime Caper was Robert Goddards debut crime novel Past Caring. Past Caring tells the story of a down on his luck, divorced, history teacher being given the opportunity to research the background of a former Home Secretary in the Pre-WW1 Liberal cabinet. What seems to our narrator as a straight forward tale of one mans fall from grace rapidly takes on sinister notions. Somebody conspired to ruin the career of this man, and possibly kill him. The story by and large chases down the who and why, dove tailing with the ghosts of the narrators own problematic life.

I chose Past Caring as the first book because I am myself a trained historian. My historical interests including the period which this book covers. What appealed to me was a work of historical fiction being set in a ‘present’ of the 1960s but pursuing the ghosts of the 1910s. The research to make it authentic must have been immense.

I had the unusual situation when reading it of finding myself not being particularly keen to get round to it, but every time I did pick it up I found I couldn’t put it down for hours. Have you experienced that situation with a book before? Influencing this was probably what I thought was a weak prologue and a rash of typographical and other mistakes in the text – it really needs proofreading – a surprise considering how long ago it was first published. The occasional use of a technique where the narrator referenced events that had not happened yet were also a little annoying and disrupted the tension and flow of the work. A lot of the characters also seem to talk with a similar well-educated polite voice. Perfectly acceptable in the memoir of the deceased Home Secretary and in conversations between historians but a little out of place when we listen in on other less well-educated people.

That said, there are two fantastic qualities to the book that deserve a recommendation. On the one hand there is the memoir that forms a good chunk of chapter 1 (which is about a 6th of the size of the full book) and all the different vivid stories characters tell. The first person narrative really works in these passages and pulls you right into the middle of the mystery. The second quality is the representation of historians, historical debate and processes. I read passages of conversation by historians in the book that felt incredibly authentic. Robert Goddard knows his characters inside and out and has written a tight, gripping crime story. Certainly memorable and, although I hope you get a printing that is corrected, I do recommend reading it if you enjoy your mystery and Georgian England.

Time is running out for me to complete the Transworld Crime Caper 3 book challenge. I’m going to have to up my game. Pretty sure I can get the 2nd book, “The Business of Dying” by Simon Kernick read, but all three? College and work have something to say about that. I’m not throwing the towel in yet though…
You can order the edition reviewed in this post from Amazon here.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Fiction, Reviews

 

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“The Wild West” By Henry Brook (Review)

Native American Chief by Elwood W. McKay IIIThe area of the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains – beyond the original colonies on the eastern seaboard – has always held a mystique and wonder, both for the people who lived it and the people who look back to a place and time unrecognizable in the modern world.

The Wild West earned its name in history on the back of stories about cattle and pony rustlers, marauding Indians, bank robbing gangs, saloon shootouts and whooping prospectors striking it rich in the various mining towns of the west. It earned its reputation fast with stories traversing the infant United States by rail and telegraph new technologies that cemented and helped exaggerate the reputations of real people.

Henry Brook takes on the mission of distilling the modern legends of the 19th and early 20th Century in as easily accessible a fashion for Usborne Publishings True Stories line. It is certainly not an original topic to approach but one which this western obsessed reviewer enthusiastically approaches. The task is always clear – make it readable, make it interesting, make it educational.

The old favorites are in attendance as the book comes with ten stories including such western luminaries as: Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, the Daltons, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, my old favorite Wild Bill Hickok and one story I hadn’t read about before on mountain man Hugh Glass, which is an extraordinary tale.

Brook accomplishes his task with three approaches. He introduces each new story with a narrative passage that throws you into the setting like a fictionalized novel and then pulls out to give a sufficiently fleshed out historical account of the story in question. Added to this the book is dotted with interesting sketches in much the similar fashion of the ‘Dime Novels’ that first gave these legends legs. Brook regularly gives definitions of words readers might not be familiar with allowing them to expand their vocabulary.

At 150 something pages, the ten chapters do not stretch the readers interest allowing short quick reads each night or day (if in school) and whilst not going into detail the book does what all good young readers books should – it leaves the reader wanting to know more.

My only reservation is that whilst a map is included at the front of the book it is symbolic of the scope of the book rather than of any particular use. It can become very easy reading the stories to lose track of any sense of locality and as the American west is probably unfamiliar to a British student, maybe a small sketch of the narrative area at the start of some of the stories would have been illustrative of events. The story on Butch Cassidy is an example – a sketch of the two Americas highlighting the distances traveled would have been impressive on the reader and helped them track the people involved.

The cover price is £4.99, good value for something which can keep a kid occupied for a week or two and who knows – like an old book on the west did for me when I was a kid, Brooks book might spark a wider interest in history for the young reader.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2010 in Non-Fiction, Reviews

 

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Yeehaw! “Cowboys” by Catriona Clarke (Review)

Last weekend a couple of non-fiction books landed in the post in double quick fashion from the children’s book publishers Usborne. They had been hoping to have a lovely rush of book reviews to coincide with National Non-Fiction Book Day. Fabulous idea, alas I accidentally refused to play ball by not noticing this desire and getting all caught up in preparations for a job interview and well, feeling sorry for myself after said job interview.

To make up for it I am sat typing this review out on my blackberry at work in the hopes of posting it before Non-Fiction Day passes. The book, “Cowboys” by Catriona Clarke is part of those set of books aimed at new readers but caught the attentions of everybody in my household – parents, fiancé, and myself.

The presentation itself is clean and tidy with a mixture of paintings, cartoons and photographs to illustrate succinct points made in the text. I teach American West at GCSE level, and even I learned something useful which is a great credit to the scope of the book. It covers a simple definition of a cowboy, what they do and how they dress to the rise and decline of the Cattle Drives of the mid 19th Century, the prominence of the West in pop culture like movies and books, and lastly how the cowboy survives today (part extreme sportsman, part tourist attraction, part farmer).

The book was a little difficult for a young Czech boy who was still developing his English but it still provided a great talking point for the child and his support teacher and part of what we look for is ways to get children from different backgrounds talking and participating.

For children and teachers looking for inspiration and a talking point I highly recommend this book as the pictures are certainly a pleasure to look at. It’s the kind of book I would have snatched off the shelf during a wet break time and read again and again as my imagination carried me off into the pictures. Anything which stimulates conversation or imagination in young children gets my thumbs up.

Another book from the True Stories collection called “The Wild West” by Henry Brook will be reviewed as soon as possible. Keep an eye on the twitter feed or register for updates on this site for an alert when its done.

You can browse the Usborne catalogue here.

Can you recommend any non-fiction books for primary school readers? Post them in the comments below.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2010 in Non-Fiction, Reviews

 

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