Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Surprising Book Facts and a reflection

I came across the following image on my Facebook feed today:

The image comes from a blog post by Robert Brewer, a motivational speaker. Brewer wrote the blog post years ago, but later removed said image after he received complaints and discovered that the research he had used to create the image was bad. He even wrote a follow up post in 2015 about the lessons he learned from the experience. I have to tip my hat to him as it's not easy to admit when you're wrong, especially in a situation like this where you didn't intentionally set out to spread misinformation. 

However the diagram did remind me of things I'd heard from various people throughout the years. I remember working at a video store and recommending books based on customers' video rentals, only to be told that they hadn't really read anything since school (college or high school) beyond magazines or the occasional textbook. I've also heard people say that they haven't been to a bookstore in years, although I wasn't always able to ascertain the context and whether they meant that they hadn't read anything since then or that they got their books from somewhere else. I'd had many situations where it looked like it could be a case of either. 

I think that part of the explanation for reluctant adult readers is because of the lack of variety of reading materials in high school. Not every student was encouraged to read at home and/or have access to reading materials. Their parents wouldn't necessarily discourage it, but they wouldn't always have access to reading materials and their parents wouldn't always encourage them to read things that interested them. I've heard multiple people say that they found reading in high school to be dull and boring, as they just didn't connect with the characters in the classic works you typically find in North American classrooms. This was possibly because of the subject matter, but also possibly because teachers couldn't go into the more salacious subject matter out of a fear of losing their job. It's likely why none of my history classes during my public education discussed the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a huge ladies' man or that he played pranks like his life depended on it. Even the whole Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings thing was covered quickly and swept to the side, lest a parent complain about their child learning about Presidential sexual shenanigans. (And potential rape depending on what materials you read about Jefferson and Hemmings.)

This is why it's so important for classrooms to allow their students to explore literature on their own before starting in on the classics. A student will best appreciate something if they appreciate reading to begin with and they'll also be more likely to continue reading as adults. Using a variety of reading materials can also help, as more reluctant readers might be more open to reading a story in graphic novel format. This is a format that has long been maligned as "frivolous", however any comic book or graphic novel fan can easily attest to the fact that graphic novels can provide a rich and insightful look into various different cultures and lifestyles. It can also help provide training of a sort, as I introduced a friend's child to manga. The traditional right to left reading format helped the child, who suffered from mild dyslexia, form an attachment to reading. Once she got hooked on reading graphic novels, she branched out into YA novels and the like. Now a beautiful young woman, she's a voracious reader of anything she can get her hands on. 

I'm glad to say that many schools are trying to allow their students the freedom to read whatever they want rather than pointing them only at specific books. More schools (and parents!) need to do this in order to keep things going. Keeping the chipper spirit going, there are also more adults reading. Whatever you might think of stuff like Fifty Shades and Twilight, it did get a lot of adults to start reading. I'm also happy to say that there are far more initiatives aimed at children and teens, where the goal is to provide them with free reading materials and inspire a love of reading. Lots of local groups tend to donate books to schools, hospitals, or other locations where children can go to pick up books - however unfortunately the areas that tend to need this the most are usually the hardest to reach. 

I suppose the only thing we can do is to continue reading and try, when possible, to encourage others to pick up a book. I remain adamant in my belief that there's a book out there for everyone. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Monstress Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu

Title: Monstress Volume 1: Awakening
Author: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication date: Out now

I think that the best endorsement I can ever give a work or product is when I'm willing to keep reading beyond my initial requirement and/or purchase it with my own money. In this case, I was barely started with the first issue of Monstress when I requested the other six issues. A few pages later I ended up buying the first volume because I liked it so much. That's as good of a recommendation as any, that I spent hard cash to collect the first volume.

Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900's Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.

I can't even begin to tell you why I fell in love with the comic without discussing the artwork. It's lavishly detailed and absolutely gorgeous. The story is fantastic as well, but I've gotten into more than one series just because I loved the art style. It also helps that it suits the story very well, as there's something unique and well, "old" about the style. It's polished in its own way while avoiding the slick feel you get with some of the contemporary graphic novels and comics in the genre - this last part isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not always the right fit for every story and I'm glad that Liu went in this direction with the series. I hope that she sticks with Takeda for the series' length, as series art tends to do better when you have the same crew working on the piece from beginning to end, at least on the main pieces.

Story-wise, this is fantastic and what you'd expect from Liu's work. She does an excellent job with Maika, as the character is sympathetic without being a woobie. You can feel sorry for her without feeling like she's an absolute victim, which honestly has become fairly important to me over the years. Maybe it's because we've had so many works of fiction where the author crafts the character as someone everyone should feel sorry for because reasons - we get far too much of that and in many cases very little reason to actually feel sorry for the main character because somewhere along the line the author forgot to make the character actually sympathetic or anything beyond what's been done to them. (cough*Anita Blake*cough) In any case it's just great when we have a character that isn't written solely to garner sympathy and reduced to what things have been done to them.

I can't recommend this enough, especially to fans of series like Saga.

5/5 stars

(ARC provided by Netgalley)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When authors disappoint: The case of Kim Harrison and the one star review

It's with a heavy heart that I write this blog. Why? Because one of my favorite authors, Kim Harrison, greatly disappointed me recently.

If you're like me, you likely got into Harrison's work via the excellent Hollows novels. You read them as soon as you could get your grubby little mitts on them and branched out into her other works as you discovered them. She always seemed so down to earth and accessible that it was easy to like her in general, making her a nice parallel to diva-esque authors like Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice, who have openly made dismissive and sometimes even rude remarks about their critics. Rice is especially notorious for her caustic remarks and actions towards negative reviewers.

But Harrison? She just didn't seem to be the type to do things that us Internet bloggers, reviewers, and readers tend to label "badly behaving author" behavior.

That's what makes her actions that much more disappointing.

Last year Harrison put out The Drafter, a book that showed a marked departure from the type of storytelling she displayed in the Hollows series. It's definitely not an easy read given its style and I myself even put down my copy until I had more time to really devote to the book. Now I'm not so sure that I want to return to it, as a few days ago on August 1st Harrison made a post on her Facebook account asking her followers to upvote a positive review in order to make a negative one less visible.

Her reason for doing this was that she just didn't like looking at the negative review and that she felt that Amazon shouldn't highlight reviews by "casual reviewers". Harrison also rationalized that since the book had a four star rating, the negative review shouldn't be the one at the top of the list when looking at reviews by "most helpful". 

The review she's referring to is likely this one and the reviewer, while they have only reviewed 11 items, still gives a review that nicely details why they didn't enjoy the work. It's more than a lot of people give in their reviews and honestly, as far as bad reviews go this generally looks like the type that authors want since it's not nasty, it gives reasons for why they didn't like it, and isn't just someone saying that it was too different from the author's prior work. The review is sitting at 106 of 138 helpful votes, so I can only wonder how many of the "not helpful" votes on it (or on any of the non-4 or 5 star reviews) were added after Harrison posted her comment. 

Now while I suppose I can understand her consternation that the most helpful review on Amazon is for a negative review, one of the people responding to her on Facebook is correct - barring campaigns to upvote a specific review, reviews gain the "most helpful" status by people reading the review and finding it helpful. It doesn't mean that those readers would automatically share the same opinion of the book upon completion, just that it helped them in their decision making process. It also doesn't mean that the reader will leave with the idea that they won't purchase the book. If they're anything like me, they likely read the negative reviews to get a more well rounded idea of the book before acquiring the work and reading it. I've had a lot of books that were actually saved by negative reviews, as they cautioned me to not get my expectations overly high or warned me that the book didn't entirely match up to its description or so on, times when honestly, my expectations were a little high and/or I went into the work expecting something different than what it actually was. (How many of us have picked up a book with jacket descriptions that didn't even remotely match up to what the book actually was?) For that matter the helpful votes might have been written by people who didn't post their own reviews but went away from the book with a similar outlook. They might have not posted their review because they felt theirs was redundant, didn't like to review... or because they were afraid of being harassed if they posted a negative review. 

I just always thought that Harrison was better than the authors who ask their readers to manipulate review rankings in order to make specific types of reviews less visible. Not only is this potentially a violation of Amazon's TOS, but she had to have known that this type of post usually results in people writing reviews to counteract the negative reviews and in my past experience is that not all of the people who write such reviews will have actually read the work in question. They just post the positive reviews in the hope of getting a pat on the head from their author and showing their devotion. 

Such posts also run the risk of causing people to attack the negative reviews. I will say that Harrison never specifically named the reviewer, but given that she specifically mentions a one star review that's the most helpful it's not hard to figure out who she's talking about. The attacks haven't occurred just yet, but the problem is that they can and have happened to other reviewers that were directly or indirectly highlighted by authors complaining about negative reviews. Hell, this review received a metric shit ton of negative feedback and even some real world harassment after mainstream author Emily Giffin made a vague reference about it on her Facebook account. As an author that publishes nowadays and has a strong online presence, there's no way that she could be unaware of this in at least part.

This is just disappointing since I always figured that Harrison was above cheap tactics like this. The problem with actions like hers is that it runs the risk of silencing readers and I know of several people who stopped blogging and reviewing because they were afraid of authors retaliating in some form or fashion because they didn't like that a negative review was written and/or was visible. Stuff like this portrays negative reviewers as second class citizens. They're able to write and publish, but heaven forbid that they ever become visible. In a way this could even be seen as a form of censorship in a way, given that her actions were done in order to make a helpful review less visible. No, she wasn't actively asking for its removal but her actions could have caused the reviewer to remove their honest review because they didn't want to be harassed. It also makes it less visible for people who might otherwise have found the review helpful and didn't want to click through the various pages of reviews. 

I can understand her being upset. It's not easy seeing a negative review and seeing it voted "most helpful", however it's a bad idea to ask people to perform actions that would hide or otherwise obscure a review. Especially as that runs the risk of discouraging other reviewers because they're afraid of harassment from the author and/or their fans. She might not have realized all of this when she posted on Facebook, but she should've been aware that it could be poorly received even if she didn't specifically name the reviewer because history has shown that fans can and do find these reviews and in some cases, openly harass the reviewer. I know she can't be responsible for what her fans do, but this has happened so many times that "don't do anything that can identify a reviewer", "don't make campaigns to raise review rankings and/or stars", and "if you must rant, rant in a non-specific manner" are extremely well known guidelines for authors as a whole. 

Harrison, I thought you were better than this. Really, would it have killed you to, as some fans have told negative reviewers, "just stop reading" and stop visiting the site? Negative reviews happen. Sometimes people find them helpful. It doesn't mean that the book is complete crap or that everyone will share their viewpoint, just that this person had an opinion other people found helpful. It's difficult, but you just have to move on from that. The fan in me doesn't want to label you a badly behaving author, but this type of thing falls solidly in that area. 

Further reading