28 February, 2013

Social Media & Review Crews Q&A With Meoskop

*Over at SBTB Sarah is running a Q&A with Susan Mallery about her newest reader initiative. If you haven't yet read it, I would.

With the rapid changes in publishing authors have been pushed into being their own publicity department. With so many voices willing to tell authors what to do (and what not to do) it seemed like a great opportunity for us to connect with an expert on author behavior. Meoskop has been a blogger and reviewer under various names since the mid 1980's, when net access was primarily through phone numbers found in the classified ads. Back in the day we'd phone a stranger's basement to talk books.

Q: So Meoskop. (Can I call you Meoskop? Going 3rd person seems like something I should ask permission for.) You get a number of books for free. What's wrong with Susan Mallery offering books to her readers?

A: I suppose I can call myself anything I like, so yes, feel free. If it's good enough for Michael Douglas... Wait, books. Let's get back to that.  Nothing is wrong with Susan Mallery giving away any number of books she chooses. The free book is a long standing promotion. In fact, the free book is one of the best tools an author has to self promote.

Q: Then what's the issue? If authors have been giving books away since books began and many reviewers frequently receive promotional copies, why is Mallery's Review Crew controversial? Is this about gatekeeping reviews?

A: Not at all. In fact, a novice reviewer can be a consumer's best friend. The conflict lies in the author's natural (and necessary) desire to promote being at war with the consumer's natural (and necessary) desire to find reviews they can trust. The issue here is the winnowing of the review pool. Mallery says that she has thousands of readers wanting a chance at reviewing her books in advance. Where I believe she's raising the eyebrows is the consolidation of her reviewers...

Q: I have to interrupt you. If I'm not mistaken you didn't pay for a Courtney Milan book in all of 2012. In point of fact, you proclaimed yourself her number one fan girl in 2011. How can you hope to have any credibility at all on this issue?

A: Excuse me. I was assured there would be no Courtney Milan questions.

Q: You're evading the point.

A: Obviously, I am untrustworthy. This question proves that. It is that fact upon which my credibility hinges. An author or publisher who provides a free book to me has no assurance of a positive review. In fact, when it became clear to both of us that I would likely be hate reading her new release, Avon declined to provide me with an advance copy of Lorraine Heath's upcoming work. I have a track record of refusing to review authors who expect favorable reviews of their work. Or any review. I frequently decline to review ARCs that have been sent to me. Sometimes they're boring.

Q: Mallery obviously realizes not all reviews will be favorable. While she demands a review within two weeks to remain in her program, she acknowledges that not all reviews will be five star!

A: It's the tiered aspect. If Mallery ran a lottery for each release that did not have the tiered aspect this wouldn't have warranted a second look. By offering bars for her reader reviewers to hit, she introduces the elements of bias. She wants something for her time and money that is in conflict with general consumer interest. If you want the next book, review it in two weeks and you're golden. Look at all the thousands of people that want to be you. You're in the Review Crew. You're an insider. I love 5 stars (who doesn't?) but you say what you really think. On the one hand, she's saying (mostly) all the right things. On the other she is justifiably building a network of reliable superfans who can commit to deadline. It's like walking up to the people camped out for a new Chik-Fil-A in a Chik-Fil-A uniform while carrying a video camera and asking them if the food is any good. They're going to say yes. They wouldn't be there if pickle brine made their nose hairs curl.

Q: Aren't all review and promotion schemes in conflict with consumer interest?

A: Pretty much. The tightrope for the author is to conduct their promotion in a way that enhances their brand. Libby Bray puts on a cow suit, I pre-order her book. Maybe I hate it (ok, I did) but I bought it. I hit a review site I know is flawed (that would be any of them) and I see 200 happy reviews all posted in a two week window? That one star review complaining that the author never calls her mother just became the ONLY review I read. Mallery is gambling (probably correctly) that more readers will see a stack of glowing reviews and slam the preorder button than will call shenanigans. Shenanigans rarely answers the phone, anyway. It's probably going to work. But undermining already flawed review systems undermines all authors. A reader who doesn't trust anything she reads has reduced discoverability.

Q: Discvoerabi - whatever you said. That's like, making my head hurt. You're not industry, are you? That industry stuff is a snooze. I just want to find a good book and buy it. How does Susan Mallery stop me from doing that? I don't see the issue.

A: Maybe she doesn't. Maybe the future is one where buyers expect hundreds of largely positive reviews to quickly appear on her books. What does that buyer do next? If the buyer disagrees with those reviews or knows about the Review Crew does the buyer stop trusting all positive reviews? Are you going to trust positive reviews on other authors? Will the three star review become the new rave review? Look! This book doesn't have 5 star reviews - it must be good! Will the one star review be the only one given credibility? In a sea of solicited 5 star reviews how do you apply comparative meaning?

Q: Was that a shot at Klausner? That got old in the 90's.

A: Not at all. I do me and I let other reviewers do them. My point is that an author who plans on having the same name (or hundreds of names) attached to her book reviews needs to carefully consider issues of credibility. Consumers already suspect reviews and review sites.

Q: Are we back to Courtney Milan?

A: You really need to get over this Courtney Milan thing. You're starting to embarrass me.

27 February, 2013

Review: The Magic Mirror And The Seventh Dwarf by Tia Nevitt

Tia Nevitt has a lot of promise. I liked (but couldn't quite love) her debut. When Dear Author featured this second tale as a Daily Deal I snatched it up. Nevitt writes with an easy style that put me in mind of Gregory Maguire at his least cumbersome. She has a fresh eye for familiar fairy tales. Taking her characters from the sidelines, Nevitt world builds like a master. I'm definitely in for her third tale and probably the one after that. Something about this author intrigues me. And yet I lack the love. The passion isn't there. I want Nevitt to take just one step further from the comfort zone.The Magic Mirror And The Seventh Dwarf (Accidental Enchantments) has a title which tells you most of what's wrong with the story. There are too many elements vying for your attention. I get that Nevitt's concept is to intertwine a slightly different version of a familiar tale with a completely new one. The difficulty she faces is making both tales equally compelling and in that she failed.

In Gretchen the dwarf Nevitt has a great character she mostly abandons for the side tale of Snow White. We all know everything we care to know about Snow White. The minor changes here don't compel me as a reader. Gretchen starts out so strong but then she fades. When we meet Gretchen she is strong, pragmatic, confident and determined to improve her life. She's a savvy commentator on the motivations of others, adept at reading faces and vocal tones. By the time we leave Gretchen she's no longer steering her own course. Gretchen has become almost tediously like our standard heroine, interested primarily in other's opinions of her. I didn't buy the lessons the author felt Gretchen needed to learn. Snow White is a complete bore. She's too good to be true and too bravely heroic to tolerate. Snow is absurdly trusting. Someone may try to rape her, someone may try to kill her, but Snow just keeps trucking. Snow's only weakness is not having friends. She's too pretty to make friends. Snow talks about being valued only for her beauty. Snow has real problems she could absolutely focus on so her insistence that beauty has been her obstacle rings false. She's the borderline anorexic girl who complains for hours about her fast metabolism keeping her from gaining weight while ignoring the laxative in her purse. Snow is used as a club to beat home the message the author wants Gretchen to learn. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever. Snow is also painfully dim. When the mirror presents a solution to her problems (a completely obvious one at that) Snow seems to have never considered it.

Gretchen was a dream until she met Snow. Soon she's repeatedly obsessing about her looks while beating herself up for prejudging beautiful women. It might have been more tolerable if there was real conflict about who Gretchen would pair off with but there isn't. He's going to be short and he's going to be the only short character the author spends much time on. Then there is the melodramatic villain. He's blinded by his own (comparative) beauty. He's a bully and an attempted rapist. I'm not sure what the point of that is. On the one hand, the author argues that Snow's near assault is a result of her beauty. On the other Gretchen's is about thwarted power and anger. Does a short need two such events? Does it need dual motivations? Rape is rape. Is it supposed to shock us that it would happen to anyone? It happens to 101 year old women. Is Mr. Bad Dwarf's bullying and violence just not enough? It serves little story purpose to have Gretchen experience the assault and the ease with which she (and Snow) shake it off bothered me.

Reading TMMATSDAE I thought of a dozen turns Nevitt could have taken. There were so many paths open to her once the character of Gretchen was established. I was sad that we wasted them on the conventional path of visually dissimilar women becoming friends. I was sorry that the burden to overcome assumptive bias was primarily on Gretchen. I was bored that Gretchen ended up with the most predictable partner possible. I think Tia Nevitt has some great books in her. I'm hoping in her next outing she sticks to her instinct for reinvention. If anyone could make dwarf romance a genre, she could.

25 February, 2013

A Paucity of Posts

February has been a slow month for this blog. There have been a succession of DNF titles which not only failed to engage me, they failed to provoke interesting thoughts. I'm currently reading a fantastic non-fiction that I question the broad appeal of. (When I finish I'll be raving about it and you can decide.)

I think we're entering one of those romance cycles where the market and my preferences are turning away from each other. Kleypas doubled down on her paranormal series and is dipping her toes into the bondage stream. I'm not the 50 / Motorcycle / Benson reader. So there goes Kleypas. She used to be a reliable read for me - an author you reset yourself with. I'm reviewing my extensive list of books to read when the pricing system repairs. There are not a lot of Must Catch Up authors there. Most of those books will go unread.  Maybe 10% still tempt me.

I've got a big bag of books and no idea what's going to stick. Bear with me into March and we'll see if the Book Bag part of my subheading reclaims ground currently occupied by A Slacker. Perhaps I'll just start posting "HATED IT" next to DNF covers. (Minimalism redefined for book blogging.) I think a DNF without exploration is useless. Mostly, aside from the non-fic, I'm thinking about Sharon Shinn's Shapeshifter book. I hate that she went series with it. I hate that by the end the mystery of is he or isn't he was neatly resolved in exchange for a conventional validation. Sometimes as a reader I feel much like Shinn's heroine did about her lover. A certain amount of self harm is required to keep the relationship alive.

20 February, 2013

Review: Five Star Romance by Jacquelin Thomas

I didn't finish Five Star Romance. After struggling with the opening pages, I threw in the towel on page 136. It's rare for me to do a review on a DNF book but I wanted to discuss how the style of the book kept me from engaging in the content. Thomas is working with classic romance elements. Her lead, Blaze, is the family's lost boy. He blames himself for the troubles of his past far more than his family does. This leads him to value his privacy, where he can control the face he puts out to the world. Livi is a rich girl trying to make it on her own, without the protection of her family connections. When an enemy of his family reveals their secret marriage, Blaze find his personal life on the front pages.

Thomas gives herself a lot to work with. Both characters have a reason to have initially interacted and reasons not to have seen each other since. Both have strong family units that offer support and encouragement. Wealth is not an issue that divides them or hinders their freedom to live as they wish. Five Star Romance is a classic case of great on paper. Thomas relies heavily on telling over showing. Her characters interact with others (and each other) only in very brief exchanges. The vast majority of the story is told in informational dumps. For example, an important confrontation between Livi and Blaze takes place in less than a full page. In that space Blaze has arrived to apologize for assumptions he made that have driven Livi away. She refuses to speak to him and he leaves. Major changes in motivation and assumptions hinge on handfuls of dialogue followed by paragraphs of exposition.

We don't see Blaze or Livi evolve, we are told they are. And they evolve rapidly. On one page Blaze wants a divorce. On another he's committed. In the same space of time Livi flips from committed to finished. Their actions and motivations don't engage the reader because the reader never experiences the transformation with them. As well, their world is inconsistent. Livi works with Blaze's family. She's been part of their business longer than they have. Livi has had two years to study any aspect of Blaze's life she chooses. As a result, some of Livi's actions make no sense. At times she appears star struck by the world Blaze lives in but it's a world she was born to and has worked around for some time. Thomas chooses odd details unconnected to the world she's building.

"A few minutes later, Blaze and Livi walked back inside and headed straight to the dance floor.
At the end of the evening, guests were given a choice of an iPad case or a notepad, pen and flash drive set by Ungaro as a party favor. Blaze gave Livi one of each.
When they were inside his car, he glanced over at Livi and asked, “Are you ready to go home?”" Page 103, Five Star Romance

Nothing about the party favors matter to the plot. Caring about the party favors doesn't fit with the background of the characters so the inclusion seems aimed at the readers. The first 130 pages of Five Star Romance are filled with these secondary details used as a substitute for natural scene transitions. This happens, so now that happens. Then this other thing. And they were thinking that. But then they did this. Livi and Blaze never really come alive, they stay puppets moved through a pantomime tale. 

05 February, 2013

Review: Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt

This was my first foray into the Maiden Lane series and I might have one more in me before I call it quits on Hoyt for good. What makes Hoyt catnip to my fellow reviewers makes me sneeze. I think we're far enough from the release date for me to freely make use of spoilers.

Thief of Shadows is one of those books where all the characters are very strongly something until suddenly they are not. Winter Makepeace is a dedicated teacher with a serious Batman complex. He runs around in an ornate, colorful costume and leaps on rooftops to ferret out enslaved children. His rationale for the elaborate disguise (striking fear into men's hearts) was a bit of a yawn. Leaving his attire aside, the rest of Winter Makepeace had promise. Through his dedication to the children a true conflict existed for him and Isabel. Unfortunately it takes just one nonconsensual blowjob for Winter Makepeace to forget everything he holds dear. Isabel sucks the character right out of him. Suddenly he's gone from swearing his life has been promised to a higher purpose to abandoning everything he once stood for. No longer is the need of the many (the orphans) greater than the need of the one (himself and a favored orphan). No longer are his nightly raids on criminals the calling he cannot set aside. Winter packs his bags and arrives at Isabel's house with boots made for knocking.

Isabel is no better. She's a flighty hedonist who refuses to bond with the child sharing her home. She orders him away and complains to the servants when she sees signs of him in her home. She works on the charity board for the orphanage but never spends time there. Her goals are a life in society filled with distractions. After sexually assaulting Winter she suddenly craves children and stability. By the end of the book Isabel has packed down her mansion and set up house in the orphanage by Winter's side. She's busy making it a home. No mention is made of the probable social cost because now Isabel has a makeshift family and therefore has satisfied all her life's desires. If I were Makepeace, I'd be worried about a sexual predator in a house of young men but then if I were Makepeace I'd have shoved her off a balcony instead of chasing her down and professing my love.

Along the way there is a tedious Pygmalion subplot even the characters fail to take seriously. There are a few Bad Guys and Even Worse Guys and a bit of Conspiracy keeping time for us so Isabel and Winter can pretend anything matters but getting naked. The plot points are so disposable that one involving a young jewish orphan is completely cast side once Winter buys his knocking boots. Presumably the concerns he had about taking her into a Christian Home are swept away by the clarity of passion. Or something. There's also this dude that wants the orphanage for REASONS and is thwarted by an old lady with a pile of slingshots. I don't know why he wouldn't just beat the crap out of our orphans, but he throws his hands up like a modern couple whose live in nanny has walked off in a huff. How can he manage these dirty, dirty children?

Hoyt keeps being recommended to me by people whose opinion I generally agree with. This is my second or third attempt at her. I do appreciate her ability to create distinct characters but I think she lacks follow through. I have another Maiden Lane book cued up on the old TBR but I'll stop there. It hurts my eyes when I roll them.

01 February, 2013

Review: The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

Sharon Shinn has been all about confusing her readers since her career started. Is she chicken, or is she fish? Taken as a whole, her career makes perfect sense. She writes fairly standard romances with strong science fiction elements and extremely real human interaction. Shinn understands power dynamics in a way that sets her apart. She breaks your heart by loading her implausible worlds with plausibility. In that sense, The Shape of Desire is anything but a departure. Taken on it's own, I can see why it confused readers in it's hardcover release.

The Shape of Desire is a rumination on human relationships. What we are willing to trade away to have specific people in our lives and what we are not. In the case of Maria, she has given up stability. Her lover claims to be a shape shifter. Maria has never seen Dante change out of his human form. She has never seen anyone change from a human form. What Maria knows is that when she is with Dante she is blissfully happy and when she is not she falls apart. Much of the book focuses on her relationships with other people. Although forced to keep Dante a secret, Maria is close to her family. Her coworkers are involved in each other's lives, including that of a woman in an abusive relationship. While trying to befriend her Maria is forced to consider harder questions about both their lives. When is concern misplaced? What does an outsider know of the risks and rewards inside a relationship?

Shinn is successful in creating a memorable tale with important questions at it's heart. She's less successful in making me care about Dante and Maria. I never connected with Dante, despite the evolution of his character. I sometimes grew impatient with Maria. I was more interested in some of the coworkers and I was frankly disappointed to have all of Maria's questions so neatly answered. The book would be more powerful as an open ended single title than as a start of a new series. That said, there is an unanswered question at the end of the book that neatly underlines the theme of the whole. What will we allow ourselves to believe or accept to have the thing we love? Late in the book Maria, who hungers for a child, has the opportunity to raise one. Does she have a right to this child? Has this child been stolen? For the reader, as for Maria, the question hangs as something that cannot be examined too closely. Maria has what she longed for. Is that enough?