Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Unexpected Applause: The Last of the Venitars

Yes, it's been a while since I've done one of these, and I'm not doing a very good job at having at least one a month (my own, personal goal), but there have been... extenuating circumstances. One of those was the month of April. I did almost no reading in April that wasn't related to research for A to Z, but I'm almost all caught up now.

Before I get into the review, though, I want to make something clear: I don't believe in reviewing or rating a book that I didn't actually read. I don't mean tried to read, either; I mean completely read. It's fine to state that you couldn't get into a book and, therefore, didn't read it, but I think it's wrong to place a value judgement on something that you didn't actually experience. Why, yes, I do have an example! I'm going to go back, once again, to my son reading Treasure Island (yes, yes, I know! I've been stuck on Stevenson big time, lately! I was even telling my wife the other night that I'm somewhat fascinated with him, but that's a discussion for another time (and not soon since I just posted about him (this is not, after all, a blog devoted to RLS))).

Anyway, my (younger) son has been (mostly) receptive to reading the books I've suggested to him. But we had an issue when it came to Treasure Island, and, since I've talked about this before, we'll just say that I really had to prod him through the first couple of chapters and had to say (more than once), "Have I ever suggested anything bad to you?" The answer to that is "no," by the way. Long story short, he ended up loving the book and (unprompted) thanked me for "making" him read it (which I didn't actually do, I just strongly suggested that he give it a chance). The point, though, is that his initial impression was that he didn't like it and, if I had just allowed him to not read it, any "review" of it would have run somewhat along the lines of "this book was so bad that I couldn't read it." Of course, that was not reality.

So I don't believe in reviews or ratings based off of an incomplete experience of the product. And that story is not meant to imply anything about the quality of the work I'm about to talk about; I just want to make it clear that I read the whole thing, so the following review is not based off of the first chapter of something I decided I "couldn't" read.

Which brings us to The Last of the Venitars by Matthew Irvine.

Matthew is sort of the perfect example of why I wanted to do this whole unexpected applause thing. He doesn't have any internet presence to speak of, but he's written and self-published this book, and I thought, "hey, it would be neat to help this guy out and point people at his book."

The problem came when I started reading it. He's also a good example of why people think that self-publishing is for people that can't make it in "real" (traditional) publishing.

So I started reading his book and realized pretty much right away that it wasn't ready for public consumption. I contacted the author and gave him my thoughts, the main one being that he should pull the book and get some real editing assistance before making it available. I went on to say that I was fairly confident that I would not be able to give the book any kind of positive review if I took it in the state that it was in. Yes, I know: I hadn't gotten any of the story, yet, but the grammar issues were that bad. Bad enough that the first paragraph needs to be completely rewritten.

I do have to admire Mr. Irvine for his response, though:
"Please review it as it is and be as objective, open and critical as you would if you were describing the work privately to a friend. I know there's little point putting your work out there if you're not looking for honesty."

So... That is what I'm going to do. Not that it's an easy thing to do, but it is by request. I even re-made the offer after I finished the book, and he stuck by his first response. At this point, even though I'm going to be giving a review that holds nothing positive about the work in question, I feel it would be wrong not to give the review.

As usual, let's start with the technicals. If I was an English teacher (and I've been that upon occasion), and Matthew Irvine was one of my students, I wouldn't even accept this. I'd hand it back and tell him it's not finished and to get back to work on it. [That's kind of what I did with the offer I made.] However, being a work that's been turned in, it would get an "F" on all of the writing aspects of writing.

The author, evidently, doesn't have even a decent grasp of punctuation and how it works. I'll use the first sentence as an example:
"Once more it stood before him; this ancient beast."
Leaving the sentence itself aside, let's just look at the punctuation. A semi-colon is for separating independent clauses from other independent clauses, not from dependent clauses, so the first correction is to get rid of that semi-colon. Also, you need a comma to set off the adverbial phrase that the sentence opens with, so you'd have:
"Once more, it stood before him, this ancient beast." 
And that's... well, it's just not a strong sentence. Heavy on the melodrama, light on substance. I'd re-write it, but I'm not personally into telling people how they should actually write, but, well, if he was a student in my class, I'd make suggestions about rewording that would give the sentence more clarity.
Let's just leave it at "the work is rife with punctuation errors." And not in a good way. These are the kinds of errors that inhibit understanding. It's not style, it's just a lack of knowledge.

The next huge problem is misplaced modifiers, and these can be difficult for an author to spot in his/her own work, because, of course, the author knows what he means. The key here is, if you can't do it yourself, get some help from someone who can, which means, again, an editor. Here is the third sentence:
"Just to look upon its evil again made his fearful pounding heart feel as though it held it in a vicelike grip with its fingers." 
There are so many "it"s scattered through, it's difficult to tell what's being referred to at any given point. Not to mention that "vicelike" should be "vice like."

Along with the modifiers, there are just poorly constructed sentences, so we get things like:
"Her eyes fell to the floor."
"He threw his arms off of him."
"Her eyes were absorbed by his face."


Every time. Just ouch.

These aren't direct quotes (because I'm not going to go back and find them), but they are some of the ones that stood out the most, and I've given you the essences. Sentences like these can be used for effect but only if they are used sparingly. This work is full of them. Again, not style, lack of knowledge.

To compound everything else, the entire work is written in a very passive manner. I would imagine the author finding at the end of the day that his hands and fingers had managed to type out some words that he would need to go back and read causing his emotions to fluctuate madly and without reason. Sometimes, he would smile at the words he found on the page; sometimes, he would frown, finding that someone actually did something, because he'd find that he would need to go back and change it so that the action happened to the character as opposed to the character actually doing something as simple as walking across a room. Yes, walking across a room is rarely something you will find one of the characters doing, because they have legs that just get up and carry them across the room, and they are somewhat surprised by these actions on a regular basis.

Yes, I'm being facetious, but, again, having a character doing something without realizing it, like crossing a room, can be effective occasionally, it's tedious to read when all of the action happens in that manner.

And I'm not even going to start on the dialogue tags. Not to mention that the author was rarely satisfied with a simple "said," he frequently used words that didn't apply to the emotions being described, especially "teasingly."

Of course, none of this touches on the story.

And the story is where the real issues are, because, honestly, I can put up with some bad grammar for a good story. Well, except for the issue of it being told so passively. That's a real issue for me. But beyond that, things happen for no good reason, and that, from the beginning, was where the problems came in and why I contacted the author to begin with. Again, a good editor could really  have helped with these issues by asking one simple question, "Why?"

In the first chapter, there is a prisoner interrogation happening. The author makes it very clear that this interrogation happens every day in almost exact detail. They have the same conversations, go through all the same arguments, everything. However, on this day, the interrogator decides he's had enough and tries to kill the prisoner. Why? Well, of course, it's because the author needs something to happen to start the story up, but that's not good enough within the context of the story. Why that day? If everything was the same as it had been every other day, a fact, as I said, the author makes painstakingly clear, why would the interrogator do this? There is no inciting event, and it doesn't make any sense.

And the book is full of these moments. And continuity issues. And logical inconsistencies. And characters that serve no real purpose. Well, I think two of them are supposed to serve as some kind of comic relief, but, if that is their purpose, they fail at it by not being funny. The author also goes off on philosophical tangents that don't serve the story at all; they're just there so that the author can debate things like the existence of God in front of an audience. However, he never draws any conclusions from these things and they don't impact anything that's happening, so they come off as "listen to me talk about God."

There is one conclusion, the point of the whole thing, human greed and lust for power is bad and will destroy the world. I don't disagree with his moral, but very few people are ever going to hear it.

I really wish I had something good to say about the book. I kept hoping that a story would emerge that I could be interested in, but it never happened. That there would be some character worth caring about, but that never happened either. Even if all of the grammar issues were fixed, I'm not sure the remaining story is interesting enough to have compelled me to read it. The book is a noble grasp at... something, I'm just not sure what. And it's a good starting point, but, in the end, that's what this book is, a starting point.

There are glimmers of what this book could become if the author looked at it as a starting point instead of an ending point. From that perspective, I think, it's too bad that he's decided to release it before its wings are strong enough to carry it anywhere other than down. I also find it unfortunate in that it makes self-publishing that much more difficult for the rest of us; although, that might not be quite fair to say, because Mr. Irvine is far from the only writer to throw something out into the world before it was done. Put it back in, and let it bake some more! Gooey grammar isn't something anyone wants to taste.

Unfortunately, all of this combines into a final grade of an F. This isn't a book I could ever feel good about recommending to anyone in its current state, and, actually, I'd feel guilty if I let someone buy it unawares, so to speak. This is certainly a book where any potential buyer needs to use that preview function that Amazon has before making a purchase. 


  1. I always get a bad feeling when I'm not enjoying what I'm reading. I know the author probably put a lot of work into it and I want to see that work rewarded with some praise from me.

    But I've read many ebooks that I never reviewed anywhere because I thought I could say nothing good about them to anyone. I used to to not review any Indie books because I figured the time would come when I would meet someone I know online, and I wouldn't in good conscious be able to support their work.

    It was with House on the Corner that I broke my vow of silence. I still tend to not review Indie books I really don't like, but I've had many, many reading experiences like you had with this one. I think Indie publishing has become a bit of a slush pile for the public to peruse. There are gems in there, but you have to sift through some icky stuff to get there.

  2. I've read a couple books by authors I know here online that just weren't up to par. Rather, I tried to read. Since it's unfair to review a book I didn't finish and I certainly wouldn't want to give a really bad review to someone I know, I've just quietly marked these books as 'read' on Goodreads with no review.
    Hopefully this author will go back and fix the problems. He did ask for an honest assessment.

  3. I think we've all been there. So excited to have finished our first book we want to send it out into the world for the masses to enjoy. But ... no. We must resist this urge. Writing novels is serious business, and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Let's try to make sure we all put our best work forward.

    And props to you, Andrew, for putting up this honest post. It's hard to tell the truth when you know it's going to be difficult for someone to hear.

  4. Actually vice like should be vise like if you're referring to the clamping thing, unless you're using some kind of Olde English in which case it would probably be the same. Or maybe British English would also use a c.

    Anyway, those in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones.

  5. Been there. Only once did I tell the author his book was so terribly bad I couldn't finish it. He had to know. It was constructive criticism and not a hostile feedback. But yeah,, the book was so bad.

    Like Alex, if a book is bad I'll mark 'read' on Goodreads.

  6. This sounds like a difficult situation. But if someone really wants the feedback even if it is bad, I guess the moral thing to do is to provide it.

    It's a problem that is certainly larger in the Indie publishing world, but it's not nonexistent in the publishing industry either. I still have a book on my bookshelf that I bought at Barnes & Noble six years ago that was so bad I almost couldn't finish it. And I don't just mean the story was bad -- the *writing* was bad. Self-contradictory. Too much telling. Unconvincing. So it's not just an ebook problem, although it's definitely more prevalent among ebooks. Makes me very hesitant to ever consider self-pub.

  7. So everyone else pretty much summed up what I would say in most respects, except two.

    First, on editing: I think you hit a good sweet spot between "You've got to fix this really problematic grammar" and "You could have said this better." Word choice and order and the like are what writing is about, so some editing is really rewriting:

    "The dragon looked down at the Prince and snarled" could be rewritten as

    "Snarling, the dragon glared down at the Prince"

    but that's a value choice: is the dragon "glaring" or simply looking. Was he looking and then snarled? Was he snarling as he looked?

    Editors can suggest spicing things up, I suppose.

    So I thought your comments there were helpful.

    I agree with Alex, and with you: If I read a book by a struggling author and it's terrible, I don't review it, period. I won't put a bad review on someone's lifelong work, but I won't lie in my reviews, either. Making behind the scenes suggestions is a nice thing to do.

    Professional writers -- writers with big swaggy contracts-- are fair game. As I always say about Aaron Rodgers: "He's making $20,000,000 a year and has a Super Bowl ring. He can handle it if I don't like him."

    Where I differ from others and you is that if a book is boring me and I can't get into it, I'll say so. I won't struggle through a book that's terrible and for pro writers, I'll feel free to say "I tried to read this book and it was awful."

    I nearly gave up on a John Banville book ("The infinities") that I should have quit on about 1/3 of the way through but I had heard good things, and it was a colossal waste of time.

    I DID give up on "Dragon Tattoo" and "Infinite Jest," the latter being my pick for worst book I've ever read, and I only read about 100 pages of its insipid, deliberately obfuscating drivel.

    If you can't, as a pro writer, get me to want to read your book after 100 pages, you deserve to know that your book sucked.

  8. Rusty: Yeah, this was really a book I would have chosen not to read based on the preview, but he wanted the review, and I can understand wanting the review. Closing your ears to technical issues, though, is not the way to go. I've not been the only one to point out to him that he needs considerable editing help, and some of the other people were not so nice.

    Alex: You know, I don't think he's going to. He seems perfectly satisfied to leave the work as it is.

    Matthew: Well, I don't have an issue with being honest with someone in private; it's the fact that, inevitably, there are going to be -other- people that get upset about this review just for the fact that I posted something negative that is going to be the problem.

    Grumpy: He's Australian, so I don't know if the spelling is different, and I didn't try to find out. I'm just pretending that that part of the spelling is correct. There were a lot of spelling issues that I wasn't sure were spelling issues because of the Australian-ness.

    Stephen: If I'm going to have an issue reading it, I just try to avoid reading it. My wife doesn't like to listen to me complain about bad books, so I've kind of learned to avoid them.

    Callie: Oh, I've read some bad books from traditional publishers as well. Some even from authors that I like, like Joel Rosenberg and his Keepers series.

  9. Hmmm. I don't know if I can support you posting all of this in a public forum like that. A negative review does nothing but remove money from an author's pocket. You should know this (as a writer). I can appreciate you wanting to help out a friend, but if it were me, I would have preferred this review to be sent in a private email to the email box and then never spoken of again.

  10. Briane: Editing is tricky stuff. I firmly believe in having your grammar correct unless you have some deliberate reason to have it some other way. Not knowing any better is not a deliberate reason, and, if that's the case, you need to seek help with it. Beyond that, I firmly believe that the author needs to write in a way that is good for him/her and how to write a sentence is certainly something that an editor shouldn't be dictating. However, writing an entire book from a predominantly passive standpoint goes back to "not knowing any better" in my mind unless the author can then say "no, I chose that style deliberately."

    I don't finish every book I start anymore, and I certainly don't finish every series I start. I don't have a problem judging a series on a few of its books, like with Jordan's Wheel of Time (just don't read it), but I'm also not going to judge a book -I- couldn't finish beyond saying that I couldn't finish it. I think that's all the implication needed in those circumstances.

  11. Michael: I did try that. He told me he wanted me to post the review. I made the offer twice, before reading it after I'd only looked at the preview and after I finished reading it. Both times, he told me to post it. I didn't know what else to do at that point.

  12. IF a man says, push me off this cliff, you wouldn't do that right? I know I wouldn't. Just walk away.

  13. Michael: Well, that is a point; although, I don't think this is quite at that level.
    It was a hard thing to do, but there is a point where a negative review is better than no review at all. His book has gotten absolutely no attention, no reviews, and, I expect, no sales (although, I don't know that, because I didn't ask). Maybe he wants the attention? I expect that there will be some people that will, at least, go over and look at the preview, now, which is more than was going on before.

  14. I think what bothers me most about this is the man's unwillingness to improve the work after being given some rather blunt feedback. I suppose he may just assume you have no credibility, but if someone critiques your work and points out legitimate weaknesses, it's only in your best interest to make the changes. Sheesh. That's how we learn and improve.

  15. L.G.: If it had just been me, I could probably understand it, but all of the people who responded initially told him the same thing, "you need an editor." I was the only one that would agree to take a look at the whole thing.

  16. If you had a kind bone in your body you would have kept this in email, period.

    Imagine if someone had said this to your child about their work when they grew up. What if someone young and inspired to write quit writing because of your need to be "honest"? Would you want that responsibility? I sure wouldn't want that on my conscience.

    This is unnecessarily brutal and I hardly think anyone needs to be 'saved' from reading a book. It is not, as you portray it here, a risk of life and death proportions.

    Mean spirited and so beyond the rediculous I cannot believe I am dignifying it with an answer.

    You won't hear another word from me, period, no matter what "honest" review you might decide to give later about MY book.

    Oh, and great idea marketing your own work in a book meant to raise funds for kids. Real ethical. Congratulations on puttng the rest of us in our place, what would we do without you.

    And for the record I unfollowed you before this posted and I saw it, in case you wondered. Anyone else with a conscience will consider the same.

    PS I happen to know for a fact that you threatened the writer with a bad review before you read the whole book based upon the first chapter. Why did you do that? What was he supposed to say, that he would pull his book because YOU said you would review it badly before you even read it? Threats of bad reviews and we should all pull our books on your say so?

    How dare you.

  17. Whoa there, February. Not that you'll read this, since you're busy angrily unfollowing...but yikes. Andrew made it very clear that he did his best to give the author an out and the author simply insisted.

    And actually, that give some respect for the guy. Critique is critique. And Andrew didn't say "dude, your book totally sucked." He gave clear, detailed explanations of what wasn't working on an editorial level. He gave no critique that was unjustified or even personally biased; harsh feedback, sure, but really honest, and if the author is genuine in his desire for feedback, he will get a lot out of what Andrew said.

    You, as a reader or writer, may not want your book reviewed so sharply and/or publicly. But some people can take it, as it happens, and I have a lot of admiration for those who can. It says that he's willing to work on it if he genuinely wants to review. And Andrew makes it clear that he doesn't think the work should be THROWN AWAY FOREVER IN THE DARKNESS OF THE PIT ZOMG. He tells the author to "put it back in, and let it bake some more" - sound advice for any writer FROM any writer.

    On another topic, MY dad used to do the whole "I'll read you three pages and if you hate we'll stop" thing, and at least a dozen of my favorite books entered my life that way. Good for you.

  18. And this is probably where I should just not say anything, but I do want to make it clear that there was never any threat involved. I already stated the chain of events, and there was nothing in it for me if he pulled his book, so there's no motivation there for a threat.

    Jericha: Thanks for the support.

    I think by putting your work out there, you are implicitly agreeing to honest critiques. You can't get better at chess if your opponents always just let you win, and you will never be a better writer if you surround yourself with people who pat you on the back and tell you how great every piece of drivel you write is. One of the best things ever said to me (by a professor in college) was, "You write great prose, but you're a horrible poet." It was shocking to hear him just say that to me, but it made me think about how I was writing and what I was writing. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.

    On a completely (not) separate note: Books are not children, and books do not have feelings. So, yes, if someone said something mean -to my child-, I would be angry, and I would defend him/her. However, a piece of writing is like any other piece of work that we do, and, if it doesn't meet standards, it doesn't meet standards. It doesn't do us any favors to have someone telling us how great we're doing right up until they fire us for not doing quality work.

  19. Yikes. I sympathize. It couldn't have been easy to write this review :(

  20. Sam: No, not really. And, maybe, I should have just said "no, I won't review this" (meaning, "no, I won't read this"), but people need reviews if they want to get anywhere.

  21. I'm trying to absorb all this. Very interesting.

  22. Perhaps what surprises me most about this is the author's insistence that you review the book anyway, after you offered not to.

  23. Andrew, I think you should be singing a hearty round of "It's my blog and I'll review what I want to."

  24. Alleged: I'm still absorbing all of this.

    Golden: Yeah, I can understand the view before I read it, but after I read it? Honestly, if he'd said "I really wish you wouldn't post this review," I probably would have just pretended not to have read the book. But, then, that's what I would have done before I thought out today's post. At this point, I'd just review it.

    Elizabeth: Yeah, probably. I do think that once you put your work out there, you're offering it up to whatever comes, good or bad.