Tag Archives: reading

Top Twelve Books I Read in 2012

“I know what I’ll do,” I said to myself a few days ago. “I’ll write a post sharing the best books I read in 2012. That should be fun and easy, and it lets me do my favourite thing and recommend good books to people who may not have come across them.

Yeah. Great idea, Jo.

Over the last few days, I’ve been desperately trying to whittle my list of 69 books down to the top 10 must-reads. But I just couldn’t do it.

“I know,” I said to myself, never afraid to keep up a conversation in my own head. “Just treat a series as a single entity. I read lots of books that were part of a series last year.”

Yeah, didn’t help much. I managed to get my list down to 6 stand-alone novels and 10 series.

When I vented my frustration on Facebook and Twitter, Richard Lake suggested I make it a Top 12 list. You know, since it was 2012. That’s not cheating, right? Right?

So here you have it. I’ve divided my list into 6 stand-alone books and 6 series, and written a super-short description of why you should read them. (Note: I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by author. Because that’s just how I roll. And that way I didn’t have to find a way to rate them in comparison to each other.)

Stand-Alone Novels

Tiger Lily — Jodi Lynn Anderson

Tiger LilyA retelling of the Peter Pan story from the perspective of Tiger Lily. It’s a beautiful, tragic love story that had me laughing out loud, feeling awe and wonder at the beauty and casual cruelty of Neverland, and crying pitifully for the last few chapters. It’s rare that I’m so moved by a story. When I finished I clutched the book to my heart and carried it around with me, because I wasn’t ready to let it go.

City of the Lost — Stephen Blackmore

City of the LostJoe Sunday is not a nice guy. He’s a thug, a leg-breaker, and a sometime killer. And that’s before he’s murdered and turned into a zombie by a maniacal old man intent on achieving immortality.This bloody, visceral, gore-filled horror novel is amazing. Joe Sunday’s voice is what really makes it work. Despite his thuggish ways, he’s honourable, courageous, and the consummate hero — even when his deeds are less than heroic. I couldn’t get enough of him.

Ready Player One — Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneIf you know there’s a difference between an African and a European swallow, you’ve ever written “Don’t Panic” on the front of a notebook, or you know how many lions it takes to form Voltron, this book is for you. The plot revolves around Wade Watts, a VR computer game known as OASIS, and a search for hidden clues and treasures. But more than that, this book is an homage to the ’80s and geek culture. I loved every moment of it. Oh, and Hello, Firefly-class spaceship!

Addition — Toni Jordan

AdditionThis is a romantic drama about a woman living with extreme OCD, while searching for love and meaning in her life. It’s an authentic look at the mindset of someone whose own mental faculties seem to be working against them. Grace is unable to hold down a job, and struggles with the day-to-day necessities of choosing what to wear and doing the shopping (ten bananas, ten toothbrushes, ten eggs…). While I didn’t like the ending, I appreciated the story and think it would appeal to readers who enjoy Jodi Picoult and similar authors.

Goodnight Nobody — Jennifer Weiner

Goodnight NobodyWhen a free-spirited fashion journalist and ex-singer goes from being a single girl-about-town in New York to the suburban mother of three kids under 4, she’s pretty sure her life is over. And then one of the ‘Perfect Mommy Brigade’ is murdered, and she can’t help but investigate. Especially when she finds out her ex-boyfriend is somehow involved. This romantic crime novel is easy to read, relatable and engaging.

Giants of the Frost — Kim Wilkins

Giants of the FrostA romantic thriller involving supernatural elements by way of Norse Gods. An english scientist takes a posting to a remote Scandinavian island when her engagement goes horribly wrong, and finds herself embroiled in a love story a thousand years in the making. She’s the reborn soul of the God Vidar’s true love, and now that she’s back in the world Vidar is prepared to sacrifice anything, including his divinity, to be with her. It’s scary and exciting and romantic and tinged with enough tragedy to make it a truly authentic love story.

Series

The Morganville Vampires — Rachel Caine

Glass HousesI read all 13 Morganville Books in 2012. This is a Young Adult series set in a small town in Texas where vampires run the city and attempt to live amicably and openly with humans. Claire is 16, super-smart, and completely unprepared for what she finds when she starts college in Morganville. Packed with interesting secondary characters, an engaging plot, and more twists and turns than I can count, this series is a great example of YA writing at its best. I look forward to more Morganville in the future.

Revivalist — Rachel Caine

9780451464132_WorkingStiff_CV.inddI read the first two books in 2012, and am looking forward to the next book in the series coming out in 2013. First, let me say that this is the same Rachel Caine who wrote the above Morganville Vampires series. But if you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know it. The tone, theme, and writing style are completely different. Bryn is a hard-working, no-nonsense, ex-soldier who decides to start a new career as funeral director. All is going well until she’s turned into a zombie. Not a slobbering, brain-eating, apocalypse-causing zombie. Oh no, something much better. A zombie created by… (wait for it!) Science! The series has it all — action, horror, romance, secret conspiracies, evil corporations, and enough double- and triple-crosses to keep me guessing from start to finish.

The Athenian Mysteries — Gary Corby

The Pericles CommissionI only read the first book in 2012, but will be reading more. The Pericles Commission is an historical crime novel set in Ancient Greece. When the older brother of Socrates has a corpse almost dropped on his head, he sets out to solve the crime. There’s plenty of real historical information and people, and an amazing crime story. I loved the cleverness and wit in the writing, and it’s a really easy read, even with the names (which were all Greek to me…).

The Disillusionists Trilogy — Carolyn Crane

Mind GamesUnlike many Urban Fantasy series out there, this one is a set trilogy of books. I read the whole series in 2012. The series centers on Justine Jones, a neurotic hypochondriac, and her role amongst the Disillusionists — a group of vigilantes set on finding the wicked and disillusioning them of their selfish behaviours. For a fee, of course. It’s a dark, gritty series set in a world of psychic powers, super-villains, and treachery, where no one can be trusted — least of all your allies — and reads like a dark superhero story.

H&W Investigations — Jess Haines

Hunted by the OthersI read the first two books in 2012, and am looking forward to reading more. This series is everything an Urban Fantasy series should be. It’s full of vampires, werewolves, and mages — but the protagonist is PI Shiarra Waynest. Human. With a major grudge against Others — the name given to supernatural creatures as a whole. The vampires are seductive and dangerous and the werewolves are honourable and prone to bursts of aggression. The series reminds me of a World of Darkness RPG. Only better. Much, much better.

Downside Ghosts — Stacia Kane

Unholy GhostsI read the first three books in 2012, and the next two are first off the rank in 2013. This is a dark Urban Fantasy series set in a near-future world where ghosts killed most of the population and magic is part of every day life — as long as it’s Church-sanctified magic. Let me say again, this series is dark. There’s ritual sacrifice, murder, drugs, disease, and betrayal. Chess, the main character, is as screwed up as it’s possible to get, and the mysteries she solves are intertwined with her own traumas and drug addiction. It’s an amazing series, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who prefers their fantasy to be full of rainbows and unicorns.

Honourable mentions also need to go to:

  •  The Black Sun’s Daughter series by M.L.N. Hanover
  • Croak by Gina Damico
  • Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi.

Have you read any of these books/series? Do you want to? What were your top reads of 2012?

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2013: The Obligatory Goal-Setting Post

Photo by Harold Neal

Happy 2013! I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season, and has hit the ground running in 2013. I know I did.

And what would the start of a new year be without the obligatory look back and look forward of a goal-setting post?

As I said last year, I’m not a believer in namby-pamby resolutions. But I love me some SMART* goals. So let’s look at how I went with last year’s goals and then I’ll share this year’s goals with you. You’ll keep me honest, right?

Last Year

Complete First Draft of TNT#1

This time last year, I set myself the goal of completing this first draft by April 30. That date came and went, so I revised my target and set a goal to complete this first draft by September 30. Again, that date came and went without me coming close to achieving the goal.

Research and Plan Novel B

I didn’t even get close to doing this. Bzzzzzt!

Social Media

I originally had a variety of social media based goals to accomplish. But as the year went on, and I embraced this blog, Facebook, and Twitter, social media become a part of my life rather than another task to be completed. I removed any SMART goals based around social media when I revisited my goals in July.

Write and share 26 Flash Fiction stories

When I looked at how I was tracking in July, I’d only posted 2 new flash fiction stories on my blog. I put my head down and worked on writing more FF and by the end of the year I’d posted 15. Although I didn’t hit my initial goal, I’m pretty happy with that result.

Write and submit 6 short stories to fiction markets

I only submitted three over the course of the year, but again I’m pretty happy with that.

Read 50 books

This was one goal I completely blew out of the water. I read 69 books during 2013, and loved taking the time to immerse myself in reading. And I truly believe that doing so has had a positive effect on my writing as well.

Lose 8kg (17lb) and maintain fitness

I didn’t quite make my goal, unfortunately. But I did lose 6kg (13lb), which is great. (Honestly, I’m just thrilled not to have put back on the weight I lost during 2011!)

Overall

I’m pretty happy with my progress over 2012. Although I didn’t meet my writing goals, I made significant progress toward them. And, more importantly perhaps, my confidence in my writing improved and I met a lot of other writers online. I feel that 2012 was a positive year, and I can’t wait to take that positivity forward!

2013

This Year

Complete First Draft of TNT#1

With my new writing plan in place, I will continue to write every day. This will allow me to complete my first draft by 1st March.

I will then do a single revision pass to fix the continuity errors I know are present (because I changed the direction of some of the characters midway through the novel), which will be completed by 1st May. Then I will let it sit and marinate for a while before doing a second revision pass. This will be completed by 1st October. Then it will be in the hands of my Beta Readers.

Complete First Draft of Novel B

When I’m not working on TNT#1, I will use my creative time to start writing Novel B. I will complete this first draft by the end of 2013.

Write and share 12 Flash Fiction stories

Once a month I will write and share a Flash Fiction piece on my blog. These stories will be written during the time I set aside for blog writing, not during creative time.

Write and submit 6 stories to contests/fiction markets

I will identify 6 contests and fiction markets I would like to write for, and use my creative time to write short stories to submit to them.

Read 75 books

This is a slight increase on last year’s result, and means reading 6 or 7 books per month. To achieve that goal, I will continue to listen to audiobooks in the car, keep a book in “the smallest room”, and carry a book with me everywhere I go so I can use every spare 5 minutes for reading. I will also do my best to minimise my “Good Book Hangovers” (that feeling after finishing a great book where you can’t bring yourself to start a new one and say goodbye to the characters you love).

Overall

This is the year I want to push myself to the next level, and make that commitment to treat writing like a real job. No more excuses. No more “I don’t feel creative” or “I don’t have time” or “I have to do the washing/ironing/cooking/cleaning/whatever”. I’m ready, 2013.

Bring it on.

What goals have you set for 2013? (Feel free to share the link to your own obligatory goal-setting post!)

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*If you don’t know what a SMART goal is, you’re missing out on a great tool for success. There are plenty of resources in print and on the interweb to explain how SMART goals work, so I won’t go into too much detail. Let it suffice to say that any goal you set should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action-based
  • Realistic
  • Tangible/Time specific.

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The Hobbit: My Secret Shame

The Hobbit

Ask any fan of speculative fiction, and they’ll doubtless list The Hobbit  as one the must-read books of the fantasy genre. It’s the book that precedes The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sets the stage for one of the most dramatic and epic stories of all time; one that spawned the ideas for thousands of other novels, movies, songs, and artworks and forever changed the world.

Am I over-selling Tolkien’s work? I don’t think so.

In a few days, The Hobbit will be the name on everyone’s lips. The first installment of Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on the book will hit cinemas around the world, and people of all stripes will be engrossed in the story of Bilbo Baggins as he ventures forth from Hobbiton in search of treasure and adventure. It’s an exciting time.

Several years ago, my sister expressed her enjoyment of the Lord of the Rings movies. She’s never been much of a reader, but she mentioned that she’d quite like to read the books. So I picked her up a lovely boxed set that included all three LotR books as well as a copy of The Hobbit. Being the type of person who likes to work through things systematically, she decided to read the first book first. (Makes sense, right?)

A few months later I was talking to her on the phone and asked her how she was going, and if she’d finished reading The Hobbit.

“Yes,” she said. “Well, no. Well… Yes.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked.

“I was almost at the end, and I was really tired. So I stopped reading on the second last page. But that’s really the end. The story’s really over.”

And that was that. She never did read the last page of the book. I mean, sure, there’s no likely to be any grand surprises, but really? It just seems crazy to me.

So my husband and I were chatting last week about seeing The Hobbit in the cinema, and he reminded me of my sister’s unfinished book. I nodded and smiled and agreed that it was funny and then tried to change the subject. But it didn’t work. He talked about his favourite parts in the book, and told me about the first time he’d read it, and got all excited about seeing the movie, and then turned his attention to me.

How old was I when I read it? How many times have I read it? What were my favourites parts?

And that’s when I had to admit my secret shame.

I haven’t read The Hobbit.

Look, it’s not my fault. No, really, hear me out. See, when I was a teenager I was largely introduced to the sci-fi/fantasy world by a guy named Adam. He also introduced me to role-playing and war-gaming and the joys of Iron Maiden. (I had a crush on him, okay? He had a fair chance of introducing me to just about anything.) So he was reading The Lord of the Rings and I showed an interest in it because, you know, then we’d have something else in common, and so he loaned me his books one after the other so I could read them, and I read them all and LOVED them and thought they were the best things ever and then we started roleplaying MERP — which is the original Lord of the Rings roleplaying game — and I got to play a half-elf and go on adventures, and that only made me love LotR more, and…. okay, I’m getting off topic.

The point is, I read Lord of the Rings without any idea that The Hobbit existed. And when I learned about The Hobbit years later, it seemed silly to go back and read it. I was 16, and at that age where reading “kids’ books” was super uncool, and besides — I already knew basically what happened. Why read the beginning of the story after you’ve already read the middle and the end? Right? Right?

And then time went on, and people assumed that I’d read The Hobbit because… well, who hasn’t? And I went along with it. I read the wiki on the book so I knew the plot, and I got involved in conversations as though I knew what I was talking about.

Yes, I faked it.

But no more!

I admitted it to my husband and now I’m admitting it to you. Because the time for faking it is gone. Now is the time for reading it.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go update my TBR list and put The Hobbit at the top.

Have you ever faked having read a book? What books are you secretly ashamed never to have read?

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Filed under Reading, The Inner Geek

Five Reasons to Review the Books You Read

Book reviews are a touchy subject at the moment. Between authors buying good ones and faking bad ones, a lot of people have recoiled from the idea of trusting reviews at all. But I believe book reviews online serve a valuable purpose. (That of informing readers.) And the best way to make sure the reviews on places like Goodreads and Amazon are accurate is to jump on the reviewing bandwagon.

Reviewing books takes time. And effort. And it often feels like no one cares. But whether you choose to review books on Goodreads, Amazon, your personal blog, or a different forum, there are at least five reasons to do it.

1. Trust me, I’m a reviewer.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of disillusioned people out there right now. People are wondering whether they can trust online reviews, whether they should bother reading them, and whether there are better ways to make decisions about what to read.

Well, the answer is: Yes. 

  • Yes, you can trust online reviews…. if they’re written by someone you know and/or trust.
  • Yes, you should read them…. but take them with a grain of salt unless they’re written by someone you know and/or trust.
  • Yes, there are better ways to make decisions about what to read… like going by the recommendations of friends you know and/or trust.

We all know that we’re more likely to read a book recommended by a friend than we are to read a book displayed on the side of a bus.  And the great thing about social media is that we can connect with people (and friends) all over the world, in an instant. So instead of bemoaning the state of online book reviews, step up and be a trusted reviewer for your friends and contacts.

2. No, really. You have to read this. Right now.

There’s a beautiful feeling you get when you finish a particularly good book. There’s a moment where you sit, transfixed, your mind still deep in the story world as you close the cover. You’re part of the world. You know the characters like they’re your best friends. Or, in some cases, like they’re secretly you — just a different, more zombie-killing you. There’s a moment of disconnection from reality. A moment when you don’t want to let go of that imaginary reality. A moment when you clutch the book to your chest, as though you can write the story into your heart. 

And when that moment passes, there’s only one thing you want to do next. You want to reminisce.

“And what about the part where…?” “Can you believe he decided to…?” “How awesome was it when…?”

If none of your friends have read the book, you find them and you say, “You have to read this book. Right now.” Partly because you want to share the wonder of the story, and partly so you’ll finally have someone to reminisce with.

Well, that’s what a book review is. When you find someone and tell them what you loved about a book and why they should read it, you’re giving them a review of the book. So, why not write it down? Then you can tell everyone you know (and some you don’t) about a book you’ve loved without having to repeat yourself.

3. Stars belong in the Sky.

It’s not enough to just give a book a star rating. A review is so much more than just an arbitrary number between 1 and 5. A review helps your friends, and other readers, decide whether they’d enjoy reading the book themselves.

Not everyone has the same taste. Simple, but true. It’s easy to forget when we’re so enthused about the greatness of a book, but not everyone is going to enjoy it. In the same way that not everyone is going to hate the book you couldn’t manage to finish. For example:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey has 239,000 ratings on Goodreads.
  • 86,000 of those ratings have 5-stars.
  • 26,000 of those ratings have 1-star.

But none of those ratings tell me whether I would like the book or not. I could look at those numbers and decide that it’s more likely I’ll love the book than hate it. But what if I’m not like the 86,000 people? What if I’m more like the 26,000 people? How can I possibly make a subjective decision based solely on numbers?

But when I go and read some of the reviews, I find the following trends.

The majority of 5-star reviews include:

  • Christian is sooo hot. And dominant.
  • Anastasia is sooo innocent but doesn’t always back down.
  • “I don’t normally read erotica, but this is the best erotica I’ve ever read.”
  • “I was worried about the BDSM parts, but they weren’t very intense. It was just like reading about hot sex.”

The majority of 1-star reviews include:

  • There’s no real plot.
  • The characters are essentially the same as Edward & Bella with different names.
  • The writing isn’t very good.
  • The BDSM isn’t realistic.

And suddenly I have enough information to make an informed, subjective choice. So don’t just leave a star-rating. Leave real reviews, and your friends and contacts will be able to use them to make reading decisions.

4. It was awesome because it was awesome.

“You really should read this book. It’s awesome.”
“Yeah? What’s it about?”
“It’s about this guy and he does this stuff and… it’s just awesome. You should read it.”
“Is it a bit like that other book we liked?”
“No, no… Well, a bit. Yeah. But completely different. But it’s just awesome the way that he… He’s so amazing, and… You should read it. Because it’s awesome.”

Does anyone else have these conversations with people? Or is it just me?

I love it when I’m reading a book that’s so good, I barely notice the words on the page. I don’t remember what it said on page 68 or how the hero was described. I remember the way I felt when the hero triumphed at the end. When I’m reading one of those books, it’s easy to get so lost in the story, all I have at the end is a feeling that everyone should read this book. But when it comes to reviews, that’s not particularly helpful.

When I’m reading a book with the knowledge that I’m going to review it afterwords, I tend to read differently. Not with any less engagement, but with an eye for what makes the story work, as well as how it makes me feel. And, perhaps surprisingly, I find it makes reading even more enjoyable than normal. 

5. I just called to say I love you.

Reviews may or may not sell books, but they certainly spread the word and create the best kind of advertising possible: word of mouth. Looking at your book’s page on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever and seeing no reviews must be disappointing. And that’s why it must be so tempting for an author to buy or fake positive reviews. That doesn’t mean the practice is right, just that it’s understandable.

But do you know what would make it less tempting? If real people who really read the book wrote real reviews saying what they really thought. Show an author you love them: write a review of their book.

Do you review books somewhere online? Are you going to do so in the future? Do you read reviews written by your friends and trusted contacts?

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Book Recommendations

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve taken to reviewing all the books I read on Goodreads and linking them from the Reading List tab above rather than reviewing them on my main blog page. But sometimes… Well, when I read a book I really enjoy, there’s nothing I like more than recommending that book to my friends.

So, my friends, allow me to recommend some of the best books I’ve read over the last two months.

(And remember to friend or follow me on Goodreads for all my reviews.)

Addition by Toni Jordan

AdditionAddition was a good read and I really enjoyed it. The plot is simple but entertaining, the writing is amazing, and the characters are so authentic I want to put them on my Christmas Card List.

Addition is touted as being touching and funny, and I agree with that description. However, there are also parts that are incredibly uncomfortable. One of the great strengths of the writing in Addition is that we, as readers, are put right in the hot seat. We’re inside the head of a funny, non-average woman who lives with fairly extreme OCD. …read more

Unholy Ghost by Stacia Kane

Unholy Ghosts (Downside Ghosts, #1)This is a tricky book to review. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I don’t know where to start.

The world-building in Unholy Ghosts is phenomenal. I won’t go into the details about the world here — you can easily read the blurb on the book — but trust me: you won’t find a world better portrayed than this one. The background is well thought-out, the setting is authentic, and the characters are believable. The effectiveness of the world-building was particularly evident when I reached the last few chapters and I realised I was reading about types of ghosts, herbs, and charms and I knew exactly what was going on and could predict the outcome of what the characters were doing, without needing it explained. The unfamiliar terminology of the world had been explained so well throughout the story that it was now utterly familiar. …read more

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Tiger LilyI want this story to live in my heart forever.

“Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case.”

So begins Tiger Lily, a book I can only describe as ‘hauntingly beautiful’ and ‘captivatingly catastrophic’. Tiger Lily is, in the most simple terms, a retelling of the story of Peter Pan from the point of view of Tiger Lily. But that’s not quite right. It’s actually a love story narrated by Tinkerbell, a mute fairy who reads what’s in the hearts of the people around her but has no ability to influence events. I assure you, those opening words are very true: It is a love story. And it isn’t like anything else I’ve ever heard. …read more

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneIn a dark future full of pain and misery, hunger and heartache, and evil corporations running the world, there is only one bright spot: a virtual reality game known as OASIS. Wade Watts (so named by his father because the alliteration makes him sound like the secret identity of a superhero) is just one of many gunters, searching for the Easter Egg hidden inside the OASIS. Finding the Easter Egg is the game within the game — and something that has kept gunters searching for five years. A game that depends on an encyclopedic knowledge of geek-trivia from the 1980s.

Fuelled by a love of roleplaying games, 80s TV shows and movies, and more early video games than you can poke a joystick at, this book is like the 80s on steroids. …read more

Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

Unclean Spirits (The Black Sun's Daughter, #1)When I picked up this book, I had no idea what I was getting into. The blurb looked interesting — a college student inheriting her uncle’s “business” of fighting supernatural creatures — if a little over-dramatic.

Wow. After reading the book, I can say with all honesty that the blurb is so not over-dramatic.

Jayne Heller is, indeed, a college student. At least, she used to be. Now, she’s a college drop-out with no family, no friends, and a secret desire to get back with her ex-boyfriend. She’s got a world of baggage and backstory. And despite all that, or perhaps because of it, she’s immediately likeable, relatable, and all-round fabulous as the leading lady in an urban fantasy world. And what a world! …read more

Croak by Gina Damico

Croak (Croak, #1)The minute I read the blurb on this book, I was hooked. A teenage girl goes off the rails and is sent to live with her Uncle Mort, only to find out she’s secretly a Reaper? Yes, please! Sign me up! So I went into the book with, let us say, insanely high expectations. And I’m pleased to say that it delivered on almost all of them.

Lex is a tough, troubled teenager. She doesn’t quite have a heart of gold, but it’s probably silver. Or bronze. But it doesn’t really matter. She’s a strong female lead amongst a cast full of strong characters. If I had daughters, they could do worse than to grow up with Lex’s wilfulness and determination. (Although they’d be welcome to skip the whole “reaper of the dead” angle.) …read more

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Share a book you’ve recently read that you’d like to recommend to us all.

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Five Reasons to Read Outside Your Genre

Life is a busy thing these days and sometimes it’s hard enough to carve out writing time every week. But as Stephen King says:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

If you don’t know that quote, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. If you don’t know Stephen King…. Well, I’d suggest you come on out of that cave you’re living in. You can’t be getting very good wi-fi in there.

Reading is an important part of being a writer. To quote Stephen King again:

I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.

Reading is important. And reading outside your genre is just as important as reading within it. Why? Allow me to explain.

1) Wax On, Wax Off

In much the same way you can learn ancient Chinese martial arts through doing household chores, you can learn a lot about writing through reading. That’s true regardless of what genre you read or write. Chances are, you probably decided to write in a particular genre after reading that genre extensively. Don’t stop doing that. Keep reading your favourite genre. But every few books, branch out and read another genre as well. Like the Karate Kid, you’ll eventually find that painting the fence, polishing the car, and cleaning the deck will invest you with practical skills you didn’t even know you were learning.

2) Learn From a Master

If you wanted to learn portrait painting, you wouldn’t ask a sculptor to teach you. So if you want to write a strong romance sub-plot, why are you reading science fiction? I’m not saying you won’t learn anything about romance writing from a sci-fi author, but wouldn’t you rather learn from a master of the craft? Broaden your reading horizons and you’ll find yourself adding all manner of writing techniques to your repertoire.

Reading romance novels will teach you how to build realistic romances. Thrillers will teach you how to build suspense. Police procedurals will teach you how to structure investigations. Fantasy novels will teach you how to build an authentic setting and reveal it without info-dumping. Science Fiction and Historicals will teach you how to seamlessly weave facts into your fiction. With all these masters at your disposal, don’t settle for learning from anyone else.

3) Understand Your Audience

Readers don’t generally delineate themselves by genre. If you ask someone what they like to read, they’ll say things like, “Oh, I like anything with a good story.” They may still gravitate to particular areas of a book store (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, YA, Crime, Literature, Whatever) but that doesn’t mean they don’t read other genres. Do you really think everyone who enjoyed Twilight describes themselves as Young Adult reader? Or everyone who read Harry Potter was a Fantasy reader? 

Reading outside your genre helps you identify what it is about your own book that will attract readers. It’s easy to say, “My book will appeal to Crime readers,” but that doesn’t say much. “My book will appeal to Crime readers who enjoy Lee Child,” is a little more helpful. But it shows how well you understand your audience when you say, “My book is a space opera set in the year 3420 and will appeal to readers who enjoy the feel of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and the suspense of Lee Child.”

4) Avoid  Snobbery

 Literary snobbery is ubiquitous in the writing world.You’ve got everything from the old Literature vs Genre Fiction divide through to people who look down on YA fiction (“It’s not as sophisticated as “real” fiction.”), romance novels (“They’re all formulaic.”), and fantasy  (“It’s all just made up.”). That type of snobbery doesn’t do anyone any favours. But once you’ve learned how to write your sub-plots from the masters and you’ve identified that your audience probably reads other genres as well, it’s hard to maintain that level of snobbery. I’m not saying every single book every published is worthy of your respect, but at least you can start dismissing individual titles instead of entire genres.

5) There’s No Place Like Home

One of the best things about going on vacation is coming home. Not just because it’s familiar (although it is), and not just because you can relax (although you can). No, the great thing about coming home is that you see your surroundings with fresh eyes. You notice details that you haven’t before. You realise the roses in next door’s garden are blooming (just like the ones out front of the B&B you stayed at!) and the guy who says hello every morning when you’re walking your dog always wears a red jacket (just like the one your tour guide was wearing!). You also notice what’s missing. (How did you not realise your town doesn’t have a Korean restaurant? And how have you survived all this time without a good china teapot?) In short, the world looks different, not because it has changed, but because you have changed through your travels.

Reading outside your genre works like this. When you return to the genre where you feel comfortable and relaxed, you’ll notice the changes. You’ll notice the techniques your favourite author has borrowed from other genres and you’ll notice when s/he should have done so and didn’t. And that in turn will help you use and avoid those things in your own writing.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and start reading!

Do you usually read outside your genre? Do you think it’s worthwhile?

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Authors Behaving Badly: The Seedy Underbelly of Reviewing

Up until a few months ago, I didn’t realise there was a seedy underbelly to publishing. But all of a sudden, I can’t seem to look anywhere without turning up odd or unpleasant behaviour from authors, publishers, or other members of the writing community. It’s actually got to the point that my husband asks me of an evening, “So, what’s the controversy today?”

“So, what is the controversy today?” I hear you ask.

First, let me run through some of the more recent incidents, just in case you missed them.

The ‘Stop the GoodReads Bullies’ Bullies

Wherein a group of authors sick of being “bullied” by reviewers on GoodReads (who had the nerve to give less than 5 star ratings) start their own website and reveal the real identities and contact information of those reviewers in a clear effort to encourage abusive retribution.

The LendInk Debacle

Wherein a group of vigilante authors use Twitter and DMCA notices to shut down a perfectly legitimate business venture because they think it’s an illegal book piracy site.

The Weird Tales Racist Book-Promo Backflip

Wherein a respected fiction magazine actively promotes a racist self-published novel, then changes their mind and claims they were ignorant of the racist themes when the internet explodes against them.

Now that we’re all caught up, let’s move on to today’s little gem shall we?

I turned on my computer this morning to find the internet abuzz with details of book reviews for sale. If you don’t want to click through and read the story, here’s the gist:

Entrepreneur Todd Rutherford used to work for a marketing department where he would write press releases and contact review sites to organise book reviews. One day he realised it was a lot of hard work, and there were more books than reviewers. So he created GettingBookReviews.com, a site where authors could pay $99 for him to review their book — positive review guaranteed!

For the value-savvy author, there were package deals: $499 would get you 20 different, positive online reviews. A mere $999 would guarantee you 50 individually hand-crafted 5-star reviews posted on the web.

Mr Rutherford was soon raking in $28,000 per month.

Per. Month.

A bit of simple maths will tell you that $28K works out to somewhere between  28 and 280 books every month. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to read 280 books a month. I don’t even have time to read 28 books a month. Especially not if I have to read 28 books then write 1400 individually hand-crafted reviews. So Rutherford outsourced. One of the freelance reviewers quoted in the article admits that she never actually read the books she was reviewing. She just googled them online, skimmed through a couple of pages, then wrote 5-star reviews. (She does say that she wishes she’d been able to read some of the books though, so it’s okay.)

When I read this story, I have to admit that I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised that authors were buying good reviews on blogs, GoodReads, Amazon, etc. (In fact, the only thing that really surprised me was how lucrative fake-reviewing could be!) But just because I wasn’t surprised doesn’t mean I was happy about it.

It got me thinking about a few things, though.

  1. Just about everyone I’ve come into contact with today has roundly condemned the practice of buying positive reviews. And yet Rutherford’s site took orders for 4500 reviews. How is it that those authors aren’t jumping up and down and  defending the practice? Or is it one of those things that’s only ethically wrong when people find out about it?
  2. Authors and publishers routinely send free copies (ARCs) of books to book bloggers and reviewers. That’s standard practice. So why exactly is GettingBookReviews.com so controversial? Is it (a) Because it involves the exchange of cold hard cash? (b) Because the service guarantees positive (and often gushing) reviews? Or (c) Because the reviewers don’t necessarily read the books?
  3. If the answer to the previous question is (b) or (c), that opens up a whole lot of other questions/concerns. For example, where do we stand on self-published authors reviewing each other’s books as a sort of quid pro quo marketing strategy? If one Indie Author provides a positive review of a friend’s book in exchange for the friend doing the same for hers (with or without reading the novel herself), how is that ethically different to Rutherford’s  services?
  4. Following on from that, what about smaller quid pro quo exchanges such as Facebook likes? Or Twitter follows? No, they’re not directly linked to book sales (although neither are reviews), but we all know that we’re more inclined to hit the LIKE or FOLLOW button if several thousand people have done so before us than if we’re the first one.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of paying people to write reviews of my books. However, I can’t categorically say I’ll never feel differently. I can imagine sitting at my computer, proudly looking at my book on Amazon.com while my eyes flick back and forth between the “Buy this book” button and the “Be the first to review this book” link. After refreshing the page several hundred times in the first hour, I may be more than happy to pay someone to write that first review. For my own sanity, if nothing else.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of requesting someone write a positive review. I am comfortable asking my friends and family not to write a review panning my book. Seriously, folks, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of someone writing a review of my book if they haven’t read it. I’m not writing so people can pat me on the back, I’m writing because I have stories I want people to read. And writing a review without reading the words I’ve laboured over devalues my work.

(If you’re interested in other points of view, both Chuck Wendig and Alan Baxter have both blogged about this issue today and their opinions are always worth a read.)

EDIT: Joel Friedlander also has a great post on this topic, explaining how paying for reviews cheapens the review process for both authors and readers.

As a reader… Well, as a reader I instinctively distrust any review that has nothing negative to say about a book. I’m more likely to be influenced by a well-crafted 3 or 4 star review, detailing what the reviewer liked and didn’t like about the story, characters, writing, etc than I am by a gushingly enthusiastic 5 star review. So perhaps this controversy, such as it is, doesn’t affect me overmuch at all.

Writers: Have you ever paid for a review? Would you ever consider doing so?  

Readers: Does this change the way you think about the reviews you read online?

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Filed under Opinion, Writing