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Turn The Page

An occasional column about book reviewing.

I.  Against the Wind

“What to leave in, what to leave out…”   Bob Seger

One thing that all book reviewers have in common is that they do a lot of typing.   These days, this means that the prime tool of the trade is not a portable Smith-Corona typewriter or an IBM Selectric but instead a computer – generally a PC Windows-based laptop or an Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.   In order to find the best of these writing tools, reviewers like me can spend many hours – sometimes an inordinate amount of time, reading laptop/notebook reviews.

Something that has been surprising to me is how much space in modern computer reviews is devoted to discussing what is largely irrelevant.   For example, we’re often told that a particular computer screen is fine for most purposes but that the images on it quickly fade when the screen is moved 45 or more degrees – as if one might close it while still typing.   Frankly, I never  move the screen while I’m using my machine – I sit straight in front of it and never move either the screen or my body.   Which brings us to the next so-called “issue” covered in the majority of these reviews – we’re told that the monitor images tend to detiorate if you’re sitting three or four feet to the left or right of the screen.   Really?   Who types while sitting a bench-length away from the screen?

Some of the reviewer’s comments are so silly that I wonder where on earth they’re going to end.   I fully suspect one day soon I’ll read that a particular computer monitor does not offer good images when the machine is turned off; or when one stands to the back of the screen.   Clearly, this is true of 100 percent of television screens but no one would be crazy enough to call it to our attention.

What relevance does this have to the book reviewer?   Well, it brought home to me that fact that it’s key to leave in what’s important, while leaving out facts that the average reader would find to be irrelevant.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading a book – a family novel – in which the female protagonist lives in Denver, Colorado.   It might be relevant if I note that the protagonist’s brother is unlikable as he’s a violent womanizer and a drug abuser.   It’s likely not so relevant if I write that I didn’t like his character because he’s portrayed as being a fan of the Denver Broncos…  Yes, all information is not equally valuable.

Something else about computer reviews is that the reviewer often hedges his or her bets with some cheap disclaimer.   Instead of recommending or not recommending a machine, their review might go like this:  “The Emerson 15.6″ AMD dual-core laptop comes with a horribly glossy display, has an awful keyboard, a terrible trackpad, a battery that dies within 90 minutes, and is cheaply built.   But, if you’re looking for the most economical thing on the market that you can use to surf the web and send e-mails, it may be just the thing for you!”   The manufacturer, of course, will quote the last 7 words of the review, hoping that the prospective buyer doesn’t look up the full review.

Again, I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for book reviewers, which is to be true throughout the review.   Don’t take a position and then run from it with a potentially face-saving “out”.   Provide an opinion and stick with it – do the prospective reader-purchaser a favor by sticking with an honest opinion.   Do not hide your recommendation in the weeds.

II.  A New Issue

One new issue that’s popped up for me is that I’ll receive a book – actually an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) – weeks or months before it’s released and begin to read it.   I’ll then communicate with the author’s or publisher’s publicist and ask if I may post a review when I finish reading it.   Often the response is that they want me to hold off on posting the review until the release date or very close to it.   So I’ll close the book and, unfortunately, often never get back to it.   It becomes a lost book, an absent review because I could not write about it when I was ready.

I would love for some of these publicists and/or publishers to consider changing their stances.   Whatever happened to the view that some publicity is better than none?   And, confusingly, some publishers take the opposite stance – that all of the “buzz” about a book should come prior to the release date:  “If a book is not being talked about before its release date, it will most likely be dead on arrival.”

It’s a confusing world out there, including for the lowly book reviewer.   LOL

Joseph Arellano

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My Book Review Rules

I first posted my Lucky 13 book review rules and policies on July 31, 2009.   I am now reposting them with a few revisions and applicable updates.

The Lucky 13 Rules

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; science fiction; business books; nonfiction survery books; inspirational books (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; mysteries and suspense thrillers; family novels; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.

2.   I am not interested in vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books promoting racism or hatred; books laden with philosophy or religion (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear:  yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice rippers or old-fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paper bound galleys or ARCs, even if they are subject to final review, editing and corrections.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded readers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is  more painful than dental work, I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been editing by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at Josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book.   My receipt of your book does not equate with an automatic positive review (I simply try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   Also, please do not send me follow-up e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to include a link to their website, or their Twitter account or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search.

10.  I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.   (I have nothing against technology, it’s simply a matter of eye strain.)

11.  I love audiobooks on CDs, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher can supply me with an audiobook copy, it’s a big plus.

12.  Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P. R. sheet with some background information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contact P. R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will be sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.  New authors – especially of nonfiction or self-published books, please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   Some self-published books are reviewed on this site, although they remain the exception to the rule.

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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Solitary Man

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reviewer

Mid-to long-distance runners are said to be lonely individuals.   That’s because they put in their miles and miles by themselves, then suddenly one day they join hundreds or thousands of other runners in a competitive event.   Book reviewing is a bit like that.  

The book reviewer is alone while he/she reads advance copies of books that others will not see for weeks or months.   Then, when the book is released he/she joins the crowd and finds out what is the consensus about the book.   The reviewer’s call has been made earlier at a time when he or she could not reflect public opinion because it has not been formed.

Let me state this again.   If I like or dislike a book it’s a call that I have to make early on in the publishing process, often when there are no other reviews to read.   This can be fun but it also introduces a scary aspect to the process.   To use the running analogy again, it’s like being excited about running a marathon on a course that no one has ever run before.

There’s also a loneliness based on distance.   The great majority of publishers are on the east coast, and most of them are based in New York City.   When review copies are mailed out, the publishers often provide a reviewer with the names of persons to be contacted if there are questions.   But the contacts are three hours ahead of our time in the west, and a reviewer with questions after 2:00 p.m. in Sacramento or San Francisco is not going to get a quick answer.   Thus, the questions are not usually asked.

Then there’s the Catch-22 of galleys.   Galleys are early release copies of forthcoming books that, by definition, are not yet ready for prime time.   It can be a sign of recognition for a reviewer to begin receiving more galleys but… 

One source has said that a great majority of the corrections to soon-to-be-released books are made at the 11th hour.   In reading a galley, a reviewer is often reading the draft that precedes the final draft.   The reviewer who wants to add life and depth to his/her review by including quotations from the upcoming book is hampered by the standard publisher’s statement that, in effect, “No quotations should be taken from this version without checking them against the final version.”  

It’s a bit hard to finish a review near the publication date when one does not and will not have access to the final version.   The result is that a reviewer is going to pull out a quote with a hope and a prayer that it was not changed in publication.   Ah, well, this is just another frustrating aspect of the work of the solitary book reviewer.   Yet there’s still something special about reading one of only a few hundred copies of a galley or an advance review copy (which often cost more to produce than the finished product) of an upcoming release.   It seems like an honor.

The lonely runner keeps putting in the next mile and then the next.   The lonely reviewer reads the next chapter in the galley and then the next.   The race never ends, but the reward is found in the journey.  

Joseph Arellano     

This article was originally published by the Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.

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Waiting for McLean Stevenson

Cakewalk: A Memoir by Kate Moses

“The byproduct of suffering, if you’re lucky, is appreciation…  My windfall has always been a sweet tooth, the gold watch that deflected the bullet aimed straight at my heart.”

I was more than 50 pages into reading a galley of Cakewalk before I realized that this is a non-fiction memoir.   At the start it reads like a novel that might have been written by Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen, although I should have taken a clue from its overly upbeat nature.   “Mom, did you know the words ‘treat’ and ‘threat’ are separated by just one letter?”   But the tone shifted before many more pages had been turned.

Kate Moses was in first grade in 1969 and this re-telling of her life story reads like a memorial to an earlier time, the 1950’s.   It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that Moses grew up living in several places including Palo Alto, Petaluma, Sonoma, outside of Philadelphia (where the Main Line ended), Virginia and Fairbanks, Alaska.   She also had relatives in San Francisco and Dayton, Ohio (“…along every road in Ohio the corn stood high as an elephant’s eye.”)

This initially appears to be an ode to food, the many treats and meals that an overweight young girl took in growing up.   She sees a cross-country trip as “an opportunity for reunion with Howard Johnson’s coconut cake.”   And she “spent every cent I was given on candy and pink Hostess Sno Balls.”   The impression that this is all about food is given further credence by a recipe that concludes each chapter.   Yet the food talk is a cover.

“My family was totally screwed up…”

This memoir is, to a great extent, about the pain of growing up.   Moses’ parents had a very unhappy marriage.   Her father was an overly serious man and her mother was fun-loving.   It did not make for a good mix.   One fault with the telling is that Moses makes a few too many negative references to her father.   He was “a rigid bullying husband…” and a violent father who caught his wife in “the stranglehold of… marriage” due to his “brutalizing domination.”   The reader gets the point after the first couple of references.

This brings up the issue of editing.   All in all, this is an entertaining read but not so much that the typical reader will want to stick with it for 368 pages.   It could easily have been shortened by a third of its length, and there is a bit too much repetition.   Ah, and a minor point, some of Peter Frampton’s lyrics are quoted incorrectly.

“It was the year we started waiting for McLean Stevenson…”

Still, there are some very entertaining stories included in Cakewalk, some of which prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.   Kate’s mother fantasized about being rescued by the actor McLean Stevenson, and she eventually was arrested – or rather, detained – while visiting the White House after being caught taking something from Pat Nixon’s bathroom!

Further, if you absolutely love food more than life itself, there are plenty of intriguing descriptions here of meals and snacks.   In fact, this autobiography is gorged with tales of food consumption.   Then there are the recipes to try out.   Be sure to try the one for chocolate chip cookies!

Cakewalk will be released on May 11, 2010.   An advance review copy was provided by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House.

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Happy Jack: A Review of Our Boys

It may just be me…   Sometimes with non-fiction sports stories – especially ones that are intended to be inspirational – I feel like I can’t get any traction as a reader.   They start off slowly and I tend to wait and wait and wait and wait, thinking they’ll speed up and the excitement will hit me.   I had this problem with the book version of Friday Night Lights.   I bought the trade paperback while on vacation thinking the read would fly by.   Instead, I plodded and crawled my way through the story and somehow never located the part where it sped up.

Sadly, The Boys… is a very Friday Night… like tale.   It’s a non-fiction account chronicled by an on-leave newspaper reporter of his year spent with a high school’s football team on the plains of Kansas.   OK, if this makes your heart beat faster it may be a book for your vacation.   (Beware that the words wheat and wheat fields are used a lot.)Our Boys (large)

Perhaps part of the problem for me is that I was reading a galley/advanced reading copy of Our Boys.   There were no teaser quotes on the front or back cover – or even inside – stating things like, “The most inspirational youth sports story of the decade!” or “This is Drape’s youth sports masterpiece!”   Galleys can be a bit dull.

Then there’s Drape’s factual reporting style.   Here’s a sample:  “The coaches’ office…  was not much to look at – blue lockers on one wall and across from them a long desk fashioned from plywood and file cabinets.   Its top was buried under papers…   Beneath it were boxes full of jerseys and T-shirts and rolls of tape.   Scouting reports dating back five years were in red binders and lined the sleeves.”   Does this make you want to know what happened next?

To be fair, the author himself notes that the Smith Center football coach was hard for reporters to cover as his proclamations “rarely veered from too familiar themes.”   Oh, the coach would say that his team respected every opponent while fearing none; he’d also praise the opponents for playing hard.

In summary, I had hopes that this true life story would offer some fun like a ride in a Volkswagen GTI.   Instead it was a ride in a John Deere Harvester as it plowed through Kansas wheat fields, never quite managing to speed up.

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Our Book Review Rules

Some book review bloggers with more experience than I have strongly suggested posting a set of book review policies, so here are my Lucky 13 rules.   Fair warning!

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; business books; inspirational stories (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.   In fact, I’m a sucker for true animal stories!

2.   I am not interested in science fiction; vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books laden with philosophy (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear: yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice ripers or old fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paperbound galleys or ARCS, even if they are subject to final review, corrections and editing.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded consumers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is more painful than dental work – I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been edited by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book; but my receipt of your book does not equate to an automatic positive review (I just try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   I have a full-time job and a part-time one and family obligations, and these must take priority in my scheduling.   Please do not send me e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.  

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to also include a link to their website, or their Twitter or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search. 

10. I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.

11. I love audio books on CD, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher or publicist can supply me with an audio book copy it’s a big plus.

12.   Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P.R. sheet with some basic information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contract P.R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will make sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.   New authors – especially of non-fiction or self-published books – please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!  

Note:  I will not be reviewing any self-published books between now and August 2, 2011.

Photo:   flickr (electriclibrarian)book rules (electriclibrarian)

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