… and I’ll scratch yours. That’s how I’m feeling these days. I’m not sure I should admit this, but we need to be honest about this review-swap thing.
First of all, reviews are important. They make a difference in the books you pick to read, don’t they? Somewhere, somehow, someone reads a book and refers someone else to it. My theory is that a review is what gets that first reader talking.
Where and how to get reviews is covered all over the Web…. enough great ideas and sites abound that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I won’t cover all that here, but I will say that w hen I started gathering resources for my marketing plan, I saved some posts (you can save some Web pages to your hard drive — did you know that?) and recently went back to one that listed some places for getting free book reviews.
Some of them aren’t free anymore (they figured out where the money is, it appears) and I won’t get into that, either (except to say I’m not keen on handing over cold hard cash to get someone to read my book). There are probably others, but I did find one (“kindle bookreview“) and sent a request for my novel, Pea Body.
They agreed to provide a review for my book, if I would review one for them — essentially a “review swap.” That’s okay; I’ve done that before (haven’t we all — you love a writer’s book and before you know it, you’re penning reviews for each other). But here’s the thing: the book they sent me to review is pretty far outside of my “expertise.” It’s not a book I’d pick up and read if given the choice.
First of all, it’s a reprint. Originally published in the 1960s, it carries all the conventions of fiction from that time period, especially long, detailed character descriptions. Here’s an example: “He sighed and leaned across towards the wine bottle. The body he thus extended was a shade under six feet in length, was spare, leggy and unostentatiously muscular, was terminated at one end by expensive blue suede shoes similar to those celebrated by Mr. Elvis Presley and others of that ilk and was gracefully concluded at the other by a thick mop of dark brown and mildly bewildered hair. The face directly beneath the hair was pleasant enough and attractively suntanned but was otherwise quite undistinguished, unless one happened to find the eyes—an impossibly light blue in tone and of a curious soft translucence—worthy of note.”
Now imagine wading through that sort of detail for all of about a half-dozen major and semi-major characters. It’s not that they’re well-written, it’s just that — well, you know, you’ve been warned it’s why we don’t do it anymore — it breaks up the story. It interrupts scenes. It reminds readers we’re reading.
It’s an espionage-thriller plot (I think it’s supposed to be a thriller, but nothing much has been happening) — neither of which I read. So I’m lost as to the accepted conventions of that genre. It’s set in another country. I’m very USA-centric in my reading. I prefer books (fiction and non-fiction alike) set in places I’ve been or would like to visit. Familiarity is essential for me, rather than escapism to a place I’ve never been. So the setting leaves me feeling lost and groping for a tether of some sort that would anchor me.
On top of all that, the PDF file is chopped in some odd way… and for the first several pages, I could scroll, then the page would jump suddenly. I finally discovered I could scroll each page a bit, then at some unexpected point the last line will be chopped off (yes, along the tops of the letters) and I’ll have to click the down page to see the next page, where the bottom of that line appears. Ikes! Not the most comfortable reading experience when every few pages you have to fit the lines together in your head like some puzzle. So perhaps this rather technical issue got me off to the wrong start with this particular book. Not the author’s fault, to be sure, but it marred my reading experience nevertheless.
I’m not obligated to write this review. I can say “Thanks but no thanks” and walk away, but if I don’t write this review, I don’t get a review. And I can’t ask for a different book to review — no trades allowed. So if Iwrite a review for this book, some anonymous stranger will write a review for mine. Of course it occurs to me that reviewer could well be someone who writes slasher horror books and doesn’t see how Pea Body fits a cozy mystery — a murder without blood and guts, without deep forensics, without a terrifying evil at the heart of it, but reads a simple story with improbable sleuths and too little gore.
Still, I read on. The prospect of getting any review is a strong lure, to be sure, but I’m also doggedly determined to follow through on a commitment I’ve made, even if it’s a loose one, one I’m permitted to bow out of. In a few pages, I’m hopelessly confused. Is it that I’m distracted by the style? Other than the long character descriptions (and lack of evocative settings… which makes me think the writer assumes I know these places in Spain, so I struggle with feeling inadequate when it comes to my worldliness, all while trying to keep reading), the book does have some wonderful writing. Here’s a terrific bit of narrative, which is hard to do anyway: “SPECIAL Operatives, whatever their age, sex or nationality, are usually inclined to be fatalistic. Their professional lives are spent, for the most part, in striving to carry out weird and unlikely assignments which, in the absence of definite information, they must assume to form part of a Great Design shaped by the statesmen and governing bodies of their respective countries. Before long, however, they notice that the success or failure of their individual missions has singularly little effect on the Great Design as such, which seems to pursue its own wobbly and erratic course quite independently of all external circumstance.” Unfortunately, the paragraph goes on twice as long as that, and he nearly loses the benefit of those exquisite first sentences in this section, but it’s something to celebrate.
So I’m thinking this is what I will do in my review: I’ll admit my own shortcomings as a reader, and point out the positives of the book. I’ll assume the weaknesses in it are mine as a reader, rather than those of the writer, because — at the most fundamental level, the word-by-word level — the book is well-written.
And I’ll hope that whoever is handed my book to review will be as kind, as forgiving, and as willing to articulate more of what’s going well than of what might be at fault as I have endeavored to be for this author.
If you’ve swapped reviews and ended up in turmoil because of it, we’d love to hear about it!