by Laura Crum
Like most authors, I think, I have mixed feelings about reviews. It can be very gratifying (and I have had this experience) when a major reviewer, like Publisher’s Weekly, praises your latest book. And it is pleasant to check your new release’s page on Amazon (as I did the other day) and find all five star reviews. But there is a flip side to this coin. My first novel, Cutter, was harshly criticized by the big reviewer, Kirkus, and as a new author, I found this very discouraging. Not to mention the very real annoyance I felt when I discovered that a long time fan of the series, who had emailed me often to tell me how much she LOVED my books, so disliked my ninth title that she posted a scathing review on Amazon. Why, what a nice thing to do to an author whose work you’ve mostly enjoyed.
Now I don’t expect that any one will absolutely love every book I ever wrote. And I don’t mind fair criticism at all. But I know exactly why this one fan disliked my ninth book so much. The book is about my equine vet becoming pregnant and taking time away from work. It’s a fairly introspective book, as pregnancy tends to be an introspective time, and I try to portray the ups and downs that can happen to a pregnant woman honestly (as I try to portray most every thing I write about). Because this pregnant woman must also solve a trying/close-to-home murder, the story is a lot darker than your average pregnancy would probably be. And I would not fault any one who pointed out that the story has these aspects. But my one fan hated the book for a personal reason.
She had written to me for many years and made it plain she was an active, assertive career woman who basically despised women who put their careers on hold to become mothers. She herself had never had a child and didn’t intend to. Thus she found Gail’s choice to take a leave of absence from her work in order to be a mama a personal betrayal. My former fan didn’t just not enjoy the concept of the book, she was deeply (and personally) upset by it. And though I might understand that (and I certainly did not expect that all my readers would like this book), I did find it quite annoying that this one woman needed to grind her ax loudly on Amazon.
So this is the bad side of reviews. Sometimes someone hates your book because it touches a nerve in him or her. Its not about the book, its about the reviewer. And this is too bad. But it happens, as I think all authors know.
However, though fulsome praise is fun—and useful for selling books-- and hostile criticism is no fun—particularly when it seems to be more about the reviewer’s state of mind than the book-- there is another sort of review. And its this third sort that is my favorite. Sometimes a reviewer hits the nail on the head exactly—and really gets the point you were trying to make. Maybe they don’t just LOVE the book. Maybe they enjoyed some aspects and didn’t care for others. But they are able to accurately convey (both in their perceptions and in the skill of their own writing) something that you were trying very hard to get across. These reviews just make me smile.
Here’s an example from Funder, who reviewed my book, Slickrock, which is a mystery set in the midst of a horse packing trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Funder reviewed Slickrock on her blog, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”. And listen to this: “And her place descriptions are amazing! Having read Slickrock I desperately want to learn to pack. She really captures the beautiful, remote, terrifying, captivating reality of the mountains. (I could do without all the calamities that befell Gail!)”
See, when I set out to write Slickrock there was one thing I really wanted to do. And Funder has actually found better words to describe this goal than I ever had. I really wanted to capture the beautiful, remote, terrifying, captivating reality of those mountains. I’ve spent a lot of time camping there with my horses and many of the descriptive passages were taken verbatim from my journals. I deeply hoped that readers would feel I’d brought the Sierras to life on the page, and when I read that statement on Funder’s blog, I just grinned from ear to ear. I felt like I did it—I accomplished the goal. (And yeah, it’s a good story, too, but I must admit that bringing the mountains to life was what I was after.)
Also, my mysteries are about horses, and I’ve spent my whole life owning, riding and training horses. I know that non-horsemen may find all the horse detail trying, and I accept that. But it really touches my heart when a fellow horseperson appreciates how accurate my books are. Like this review from kel (who shows cowhorses and writes the blog, Horse Genes; kel knows the western horse world I write about as well or better than I do).
“I have been reading the Gail McCarthy series of mystery books by Laura Crum for the last 3 or 4 years. Barnstorming is the 12th in the series and Laura says it is her last. I surely hope not. Gail hasn't reached "armchair" status yet. She is still a vibrant character with lots of life and possibilities left. The series starts with the book Cutter and introduces you to Gail and her life as a new veterinarian. I was hooked immediately. Gail ages with the series and each book presents a new life challenge for her. Very identifiable to the reader. I love books with solid, strong, believable characters and a surrounding story that is based in fact and not "guessed at" or "made up" details. Laura does a beautiful job blending the facts of horsemanship and equestrians and the fiction of murder and mayhem.
I thought back to all the books before writing this post to see if one stood out for me, but each book offers a part of her life that is important and integral to the set. I couldn't have just one favorite. Each book brings something to the reader that makes it a favorite. Another positive aspect of the books is that Laura doesn't go overboard with graphic details or strong language in her descriptions of the murders. When she writes of the area she is riding in the detail is so clear that you can see it. When she describes how a horse is moving you can feel it. And when someone dies, they die. She didn't feel the need to shock the reader so that all you remember is how horrific of a murder scene it was. Even though you know the book is going to have a killer and a victim - you would be willing to ride along with Gail on her adventure.
Barnstorming was another installment in Gail's life. She is at a crossroads and needs to see where the next phase will take her. We have all been there. She spends time riding alone on her favorite horse trying to work things out. Boy, haven't we all been there? Then Laura works her magic and starts setting the scene for the mystery, murder and mayhem.”
I do try to make all the details in my books accurate. In Hayburner, for instance, I was writing about an arsonist, and I spent a lot of time talking to the local fire investigator to be sure I got the details right. So it tickles me that Mrs Mom, who is a horsewoman and also used to be a firefighter (and writes the blog “Oh Horse Feathers”) thought I did a good job. Here’s quote from her review of Hayburner.
“It all came rushing back to me- the heavy choking smell of smoke, feeling the heat of the intense flames, the noise-- fires are NOISY. And when you add in bawling of cattle and screaming horses, well.. they tend to get even noisier. I read the first few pages and had to get up and go outside to kiss the ponies here. After shaking off the shock of the memories though, I could NOT put the book down. Once again, Laura skillfully weaves a tale that draws the reader in. Because her equine knowledge is so true, and she has such a strong ability to put into words what we horse people see day in and day out with our own horses, dogs, cats, and the world around us, Laura's books are SO easy to get lost in. There is no where that the reader needs to stop and shake their head over made up bull squeeze that is just plain WRONG. You can just continue to gallop along through the book, enjoying every stride. In HAYBURNER, not only did Laura use her incredible equine and animal knowledge in general, she also did a bang up job on talking about fire fighting, arson and the tendencies of arsonists. For me, it was an *awesome* read. And the best part? Even though this book is out of print, you can read it too for .99 on Kindle. How stinkin cool is THAT?? Do yourself a favor and catch up with Gail McCarthy and see how she battles blazes in more ways than one.”
Sometimes, of course, the reviewer is not a horse person. And some of these folks probably get tired of all the horse detail in my books. But…sometimes one of them gets the point I’m trying to make. Along these lines the other day I read another review of my latest book, Barnstorming, that I really enjoyed. The reviewer doesn’t say she loves the book. But she does give what I think are some very accurate insights about it, and this tickled me.
I don’t know this reviewer—neither did the publisher send her a review copy. She reviews books on Dorothy L, which is not a site I’m familiar with, but I believe it caters to mystery lovers. My editor saw the review and forwarded it to me, with the message that this woman was a fairly critical reviewer and didn’t always like books and any praise from her was praise indeed. I read the review and was struck by the fact that the reviewer noticed what I meant the book to be about. Well, halleluiah. It doesn’t sound as if she thought it was the greatest mystery of all time, but that’s OK. I’m happy that she got my point.
Here’s her review—perhaps you can see why it pleased me.
Lesa Holstine on Dorothy L :
“Laura Crum's twelfth mystery to feature equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, *
Barnstorming,* is a mystery involving horses and murder. But, it's also a
story about mid-life decisions, and having the courage to face life
At fifty, Gail McCarthy has decisions to make. She tells her own story in
first person, present tense. She was once an equine veterinarian with a
passion for work. But, she took ten years off to raise and homeschool her
son, Mac. Now that her husband, Blue, has inherited enough money for them
to live on, she has a tough decision. What does she want to do with her
life? Blue retired happily. Does she want to go back to her job as a vet?
Does she want to just enjoy life with her husband, son, and horses? Or is
there something else?
For Gail, those decisions can be reached on horseback as she rides the
trails near her house. But, those trails have not been so friendly to
riders lately. One man sics his dog on them. Someone is blocking the
trails. And, some of the residents in the new subdivision near the woods
have made it plain they don't like horses or riders in the backyards. And,
when one of Gail's acquaintances is shot out in the woods, soon after Gail
met her on the trails, the woods and trails seem more dangerous than ever.
Did someone target Jane, or is someone targeting women riding their horses
on the trails?
Gail turns all her information over to the investigating police officer. As
a former vet with numerous friends in the local horse community, Gail
uncovers a great deal of information that she passes on. She's afraid.
She's angry. She loves those trails and her horses. And, she's resolved to
take a stand. "I'm not standing still for this evil. I'm fighting."
For those not interested in horses or the trails through the woods, *
Barnstorming* might feel as if it drags. Others will find an engrossing
story of an evil that invades a close-knit community, and a woman
determined to fight back, not allowing fear to rule her life.
Laura Crum's Author's Note in this story is fascinating in itself. She
informs readers that it's quite possible this will be the last book in the
series. She discusses the relationship between Gail and the author, the
similarities in their lives, and the differences. The author, like her
character, may be moving on to another stage in life after fifty. She
allows the readers to observe some of that thinking process in the course
of the mystery. And, that process makes* Barnstorming *a richer, deeper
story than it would be if it was just a mystery involving horses.”
From my point of view, this woman has grasped what I set out to write about in “Barnstorming”. It doesn’t sound as if she’s a horsewoman herself. Maybe she found that the trail riding passages dragged—I’m not sure. But she fully understood the way I tried to weave a meditation on “life as one grows older” into the story, and it pleases me that I was able—in this one case, anyway—to convey the message I sought to convey. Isn’t that what writing’s all about?
A big thank you to everyone who has reviewed my books on their blogs and on Amazon. I couldn’t quote all of your reviews here, and I’m sure there are a few I missed seeing. But I really do appreciate your taking the time and trouble to mention that you read my book and what you thought of it.
And finally, just to show that I know whereof I speak when it comes to trail riding (and because they’re so pretty), here are a couple of photos I took on a recent ride. May is just the prettiest month (!)
Here we are in the redwood forest. Sunny’s ears are partly pointed at what’s ahead and partly paying attention to me.
And here we are crossing the creek. See the water drops from Sunny’s front hooves hitting the surface? And the reflection is lovely. Such a lucky shot. I couldn’t have done it on purpose if I’d tried.
Any thoughts on reviews? Or on trail riding in May?
Cool! I actually dread writing reviews - I find it to be SO HARD to balance between not giving the plot away and not having anything to say other than "it's good and there's horses in it, bonus!" Glad you liked that one :)
I think the fun thing about mysteries is the adjective in front of "mystery." Like there's horse mysteries, knitting mysteries, legal mysteries, gardening mysteries, etc. You know someone's going to die (or be in danger), Our Hero(ine) will get dragged in, and (s)he will solve it after a couple of twists at the end. It's the adjective that makes it interesting - reading about the author's not-so-secret passion for quilting is, for me, almost as much fun as the dead-body part of the story.
Anyway. I think people who really don't like horses are best served by not reading the Gail books, but if you're at all interested in the big hairy beasts, they're a great look at "our" world.
I agree with you Funder. The background interest/passion is what's fun about mysteries, and people who don't have any interest in horses probably won't enjoy my books. Well said. And I HATE the synopsis thing. I have been known to refuse to write a synopsis of my own books--and I find it even harder with someone else's book.
Writing reviews is HARD--and I do it a lot. As Funder says, the need for balance is essential--you want to convey information about the book without spoilers, and also give some reader feedback. Not an easy task! My goal in writing reviews is to provide enough information for the review-reader to decide whether or not s/he would enjoy the book.
After many years of writing reviews and booktalks for my library, my "other" blog, and for professional journals and organizations, I've honed my structure to this:
1st paragraph, usually a single sentence: a hook, plot summation, or statement of a central issue.
2nd paragraph: plot summery with NO SPOILERS.
3rd (and sometimes 4th) paragraph: reader response. Sometimes this is formal, sometimes it's very personal, depending on the audience for the review. If I loved a particular plot point, use of language, exciting setting, or engaging character, I talk about it here. If the author's sentence structure and grammar is sub-standard, or if there are unlikely/impossible events (including bad science), or characters I dislike intensely, I say it.
Last paragraph is for recommendations and pitfalls (since I usually write for librarians). For example, I might say "recommended for ages 14 to adult" or, in the case of Laura's books, I'd say something like "horse lovers, rejoice!" If a book has extreme cussing, violence, or sexual situations, I mention those things at the very end.
Writing a review for a REALLY BAD book is actually difficult, but sort of fun. I don't do it very often, because if I hate a book I just set it aside and don't finish it. Sometimes, though, it's a "required" book, and then I work hard to make the review better-written than the book. One of my "bad book" reviews just got published on the VOYA site last week, if you want to read it: http://bit.ly/JzkfdW
Thank you, Aarene! That is really excellent and helpful advice on how to write a useful review. And I know you do a lot of it. I very much appreciate the review you did on your blog of my first three titles--just couldn't fit too many positive review quotes into one post without sounding like I was obnoxiously tooting my own horn. Which, in fact, I may have done, anyway.
I actually don't write reviews for books so I can't add much here. However, I think a reviewer who may not like a book can be critical without being mean or hurtful. The author puts a lot of time and a lot of themselves into every written word. So why try to drag them down by expounding on how awful you felt about the characters decisions because they don't gel with your life decisions or expectations.
I hope you don't stop writing because I think you'll miss it. Write when you feel like it. Love your horse Sunny what a great partner.
Thank you, Grey Horse. Actually, right now I am having fun writing blog posts--and this works for me. I guess many people would think writing novels was a greater goal, but for me its sort of " been there, done that." I appreciate your comment.
Great take on reading reviews of your books. It sounds as if most of the reviews you've gotten have been positive! :) YAYAY.
Alison--Yeah, more positive than negative, for sure. But I have gotten my fair share of negative reviews. I thinks its naive to assume that absolutely everyone will love your book. People have different tastes.
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