Mar 102014
 
Jason Striker #4: Ninja's Revenge, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes May, 1975  Berkley Medallion Books The fourth installment of Jason Striker takes place “a few months” after the previous volume, but opens a few centuries in the past, with a detailed and entertaining battle between ninjas and samurai in 16th century Japan. The protagonist/villain here is Fu Antos, that immortal ninja
Mar 072014
 
By Art Taylor

I'm in a slightly different situation from the other writers who've preceded me with this week's question: "Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?" As a short story writer whose work appears in magazines and anthologies (i.e. not a full-length collection of my own fiction yet), I'm less likely to have my work reviewed at any great length—though I certainly did appreciate having been included in a round-up of last year's best EQMM stories and getting a quick shout-out on a particular story from a reader who enjoyed it. And I'm sure I'd feel stung if someone took the time to single out one of my stories as one to not read in a particular issue of EQMM; that would take a particular brand of disappointment, wouldn't it?

But beyond being a short story writer and thus largely ignored/sheltered (take your pick) from reviews, I'm also (quickly switching hats) a professional reviewer, with articles appearing fairly regularly these days in The Washington Post and past reviews in the pages of magazines including Mystery Scene, The Oxford American, The Strand and other publications.

The Post requires, of course, that I not review books by writers with whom I've had any personal connection, so I don't find myself in the position of having to write something negative about friends, acquaintances or colleagues—though I have indeed had the time when I've run into writers after a review has been published (those authors have mostly, but not always, been kind to thank me for the attention) and in a couple of cases I've found myself ducking away from other writers carefully at the big conferences, making sometimes brisk escapes into the crowd. Such distancing (and dodging!) allows me the necessary objectivity to call books as I see them, ranging from really positive reviews (I loved Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, currently up for an Edgar Award) to pretty negative ones (well, click through for yourself).

In each case, I'm not just trying to offer a thumbs up or thumbs down, which I think is the disappointing and even destructive thing about a lot of Amazon reviews these days, and in the end, I doubt that anyone really cares whether I personally liked a book or not. Instead, I try to gauge a book on its own ambitions or intentions (best as I can judge them), on the audience that it might be aiming for, on how it fits into some larger tradition or trend, etc. My hope it to provide some context that will let the reader know what a book is trying to do, how freshly or smartly it's doing it, and whether they might want to look into it further or likely just steer clear. In fact, one of the best comments I got on a review was from a friend who said, "I could tell that you didn't care much for that book you reviewed, but it sounds like just what I'd want to read. Is that bad?" No, not bad at all. In fact, that makes me feel like I did my job.

While I haven't myself gone through the process of writing and revising a book-length manuscript, finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting edited further, etc., I do respect and admire anyone who's gone through that and come out the other end with a published book in hand—and because I can certainly imagine what it must feel like to come through that process and find a lot of negativity waiting at the end of it, I don't cast such aspersions lightly. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that critics in general take great pleasure in trashing someone else's work or in being clever at the expense of somebody else. Still, I do think there's an obligation to be honest about what might not be working in a novel and to give readers some insight (as I said above) about whether a book might just not be right for them. No one is served well if you just give a little pat on the back to everything you read.

Good critical commentary—whether a single review or the weekly contributions of critics like Ron Charles or Michael Dirda, the columnists I most admire—celebrates great accomplishments more often than not and provides both a deeper understanding of the work under discussion and of the larger world of literature across a wide set of genres. While I know the first question this week is about whether we read reviews of our own work, I do want to stress that everything I've tried to say here is why I read reviews in general—even of highly praised books that I ultimately have no intention of reading myself. There's lots to learn from a careful and conscientious critic, about our own craft and others' work and a whole lot more.
Mar 062014
 
Soldier For Hire #6: Commando Squad, by Mark K. Roberts No month stated, 1982  Zebra Books Mark Roberts's second go on the Soldier For Hire series is nearly as outrageous as the others I’ve read, once again featuring our “hero” JC Stonewall acting like a regular horse’s ass, but this particular installment goes to some dark extremes that put the novel on a scuzzy level. More damningly,
Mar 032014
 
Shannon #3: The Mindbenders, by Jake Quinn January, 1975  Leisure Books As half-assed and leisurely-paced as its predecessors, the third and final installment of the Shannon series once again sees our titular hero more concerned with downing whiskey and scoring with his hooker girlfriend. Meanwhile an Anton LaVey-styled “medium” is implanting mind-control devices in the heads of UN employees
Feb 272014
 
The Specialist #7: The Vendetta, by John Cutter February, 1985  Signet Books I’m betting John Shirley's original title for this volume of The Specialist was “Make ‘Em Pay,” as the phrase is repeated a few times by bloodthirsty hero Jack Sullivan, who’s in full Johnny Rock mode this time out – in fact going even further, to the point where he’s practically a psychopath. I’ve said before that
Feb 242014
 
The Worshipped And The Damned, by William Hegner February, 1975  Pocket Books William Hegner, an unjustly obscure trash fiction master, published several novels in the 1970s, many of them paperback originals for Pocket Books. The Worshipped And The Damned is one of his later Pocket releases, after which he moved over to Playboy Books and then dropped off the map. I think I read an obituary
Feb 202014
 
Mondo #3: A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, by Anthony DeStefano No month stated, 1977 Manor Books It took me four years, but I’ve finally finished the Mondo trilogy. And I’m happy to report that this concluding installment is a big improvement over the previous volume, and is almost as good as Mondo #1. The main reason for this is that Mondo himself is once again a cold-blooded bastard,
Feb 172014
 
Festival, by Bryan Hay June, 1973  Pocket Books This slim paperback original details the planning and development of a Woodstock-style rock festival. One thing the front and back cover don’t make clear is that Festival actually takes place in Canada; Toronto and a desolate area of western Ontario, to be exact. Another thing the front or back covers don’t make clear is how much of a bore the
Feb 132014
 
Steele #2: Cold Steele, by J.D. Masters November, 1989  Charter Books Two weeks after the first volume and Lt. Donovan Steele is still in shutdown mode, being repaired and partially rebuilt after suffering so much destruction in the previous book. And while he’s given new cybnetic accessories with which to kill people, Simon Hawke (aka “J.D. Masters”) is once again more focused on plumbing
Feb 102014
 
The Immortal, by John Tigges No month stated, 1986  Leisure Books John Tigges published several horror paperbacks through Leisure Books in the ‘80s; I’ve picked up a few over the years, but this is the first I’ve read. Like most other Leisure horror novels The Immortal runs to a fat 400 pages, but it’s got super-big print and Tigges’s writing is so pulpy and melodramatic that you’ll finish

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