Friday Fragments

Wait, is that some kind of meme title? Then consider this Long-Weekend Laziness or Back-to-School BS, instead. Or just Second-Glass-of-Wine Rambling.

Observed

There’s a local used/new bookstore called Pulp Fiction. It’s OK with me that they don’t take Harlequins. They don’t take kids’ series like Goosebumps either. There are tons of both types of books. Still, despite their name, they aren’t exactly romance friendly. Their list of “Books we’re always interested in seeing” includes sci fi, fantasy and mysteries. Not romance. Ohhhh, so you only like the “cool” genres. Gotcha. The paragraph on books they want ends, “Our customers are well-read, unconventional, and bright.” I find the implications of all this just a titch annoying.

Anyhoo, fifty guesses what I saw in the window when I walked by today. I’d call that at least a few shades of hypocrisy. I’m not saying readers of said book are stupid or not well-read. But it’s hardly an unconventional choice these days. And I’d argue that it is romance. Whatever, Pulp Fiction. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble selling it.

My Favorite New Blog + Grade Inflation

I keep meaning to update my blog roll, but until then, here’s my favorite new discovery (thanks to Cecilia Grant): Mean Fat Old Bat. I’ve hesitated to mention her blog to people. It’s like telling them about your favorite unknown neighborhood bistro or watering hole, where you never have to wait for a table. What if the crowds come and ruin it? MFOB doesn’t tweet, and as far as I’ve seen she doesn’t comment around Romancelandia, at least not under a name that links back to her blog. And that seems like a strength to me.

Here’s how she describes herself:

I read about 300 books a year in a wide range of subjects and genres. I’m new to romance, though, so every old trope is new to me. . . . I’m very stingy with grades. Most books, good books, rate a C. There aren’t a lot of A books in my life.

Reading her blog, it seems like being fairly new to romance and not enmeshed in the “community” frees her from any allegiance to Sacred Cows. She doesn’t feel any need to apologize for not loving a classic romance favorite, nor is she gentle on popular writers she doesn’t care for. Her reviews are smart and critical and funny. She can say some pretty harsh things about a book I liked, and I read her review thinking, “You know, that’s fair. I can totally see that. Even though I loved the book.” Go enjoy her. But leave me a table!

Her blog makes me think about grade inflation. Where does a C mean “pretty good” these days? Not in a lot of reviewland. I noticed that one of my Goodreads friends recently got a “thank-you” from another reader on a review, because she’d gotten an ARC and given the book 2 stars. The commenter said something like “I usually assume 3-star ARC reviews are really 2 and really most people won’t give lower than 4.” I think that’s true a lot of places, and it’s why early give-aways are good promo. It’s one reason I don’t accept books for review, even when offered them by authors I really like. It keeps me honest, I hope.

Grade inflation is a concern for me at work, too, as it is in all of academia. We spend time every year doing grade norming within our department (just did it again this week!), and we track transfer students to help ensure our grades are pretty much within the norm of the places our students go after they leave us. Still, sometimes I feel like I’m being far too generous to semi-competent student writing.

One offshoot of this thinking, and of my recent posts, is a resolve to talk more about and quote more of the writing in the books I review. Yes, “good” writing style is partly a matter of taste, but there are objective elements too–or at least widely-agreed upon ones. In any case, style is a big part of my enjoyment of a book, so I’d like to discuss it more rather than giving it a pass.

Slumpish Reading

I have been waiting months for my library hold on Madeline Miller’s much-praised, Orange-Prize-winning Song of Achilles to come in. Finally it did. Over the past couple of weeks, I managed to get about 100 pages in. It was due back next Tuesday, and I realized I didn’t want to force myself through the rest over the long weekend. So I took it back today.

It’s hard to DNF a book a lot of people love. What am I missing? On the other hand, it’s freeing to give yourself permission not to read it and accept that your taste differs. It might just be my mood. I quite liked the descriptive writing, with its occasional echoes of Homeric style. But I found both Patroclus, who narrated, and Achilles totally uninteresting characters. I have a feeling I quit just when things were heating up, but I didn’t care enough to find out.

With this DNF, I have accepted that I just don’t seem to have the attention span for longer and/or more complex books right now and I’m going to feel free to enjoy short, “easy” ones. Here are a few recent successes:

Marion Lennox, Misty and the Single Dad and Nikki and the Lone Wolf. Seriously, could Harlequin repel new readers any better than by choosing titles like that? Ughitty ugh ugh. These are from the Harlequin Romance line, part of her four-book series set in the small Australian coastal town of Banksia Bay. They are very category-romance in that they take narrative short-cuts; Lennox is good at the form and blends angst, romance, and a bit of humor well. There are dogs, but they aren’t too cutesy. Nikki had a couple of high-drama action scenes on a fishing boat that are the most gripping things I’ve read lately. (That’s my mood, again–but at last something worked and I had a “can’t put it down!” moment. They have been much too few and far between.)

Theresa Weir, The Girl With the Cat Tattoo. Self-published novella from a romance veteran. Again pretty trope-tastical and with a pet. A pet who is a point of view character, no less. Yet it came off whimsical and fun instead of gooey and stupid to me. I think that will totally depend on your taste in humor.

Right now I’m enjoying Ruth Diaz’s The Superheroes Union: Dynama after seeing several good reviews from readers I trust. It features a single-mom superhero and a lesbian romance. It reminds me a bit of the movie The Incredibles, which was a favorite in our family (we still say “No capes!” a lot).

What all these books have in common: they are short, fairly undemanding, and light, with some humor. But also with real emotion and some serious underlying issues. Luckily, I have a lot of those in my TBR to keep me occupied until I’m ready for some heavier lifting.

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20 Responses to Friday Fragments

  1. willaful says:

    Some fragmented responses to your fragments:

    — I also thought of the Incredibles, partially because the mom in that is so incredibly awesome. I liked seeing another superhero mom.

    — My local indie bookstore used to be very snobbish about romances. Somewhere along the line they got some employees who enjoy them and now they do these awesome cover recreations featuring staff members — generally two women. Love it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    — I remember browsing in a used bookstore and not finding a romance section. Then I discovered an Anne Stuart book in mysteries. I felt weirdly triumphant.

    — I wanted to write a long, thoughtful reply to that thank you but it was hard to put my thoughts together. I think it is hard to stay honest when you review ARCs, harder than most people are willing to admit. Actually, come to think of it, I already wrote a post on that subject: http://karenknowsbest.com/2012/05/11/slightly-fevered-thoughts-on-reviewing/

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I remember that post and loved it! Thanks. I think being conscious of these issues is the best way to stay as honest as possible with ourselves and other readers.

      Your bookstore sounds awesome (or the employees do).

  2. willaful says:

    P.S. Wow, the ending of my post is considerably more relevant now than when I wrote it… :-\

  3. mezzak says:

    Hmm….. I gave a book 3 stars publicly that might well have been 2 stars in the heart of my desktop because I like what I have seen of the author online. I gave another 4 stars when the book is probably a 3 on my rating scale because I like the language and voice and world even when the things that should make the story work feel that they are off. So is that a pass because I like things about that author’s writing and want to support it? As a feelings based reader I do judge books on a complex ratio of things not only what is the pages. How a book feels and what it means passes through a filter. I used to think I was a bad reader for this but now it is a case of I am what I am.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Like Sunita, I think this is different from give-away grade inflation. I do it too. It’s an inevitable response to loving an author’s voice, or earlier books, or just enjoying interacting with them on Twitter. I try to be honest about that, with myself and my readers. But it all becomes part of our response to a book.

      This happens at work, too. Should I admit this publicly? If a student is well-prepared for class, participates, has smart ideas, but falters when it comes to the mechanics of writing … all that other stuff outside of the paper gives them a boost, though not an A. And if a student has been doing really well all semester, it creates positive expectations for the work that influence our grades, however objective we try to be.

  4. Phyl says:

    I saw you mention MFOB on Twitter, browsed her blog and immediately added it to my reader. I appreciate that she makes it clear that just because something is a “C” it was still worth her time. Average is not bad, and average can provide many enjoyable hours of reading.

    Your mention of the Marion Lennox series sent me searching. I’ve read some of her other books in the past and really enjoyed them. I’d like to give a shout-out to HQ for their openness in providing ebooks to libraries. All 4 books in that series are available through my library for my Kindle. I can’t afford to buy every book I want to read. Granted, I have a great library system, but the big NY publishers are still so stingy about ebooks and libraries.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes to libraries! I feel like I’ve been sniping at Harlequin lately, but they do a lot to reach readers. I wouldn’t claim any of the Banksia Bay books are *great* or the best Lennox I’ve read but they are all solid, enjoyable reads for me. I love her voice.

  5. VacuousMinx says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about the grade inflation of ARCs. Merrian, I don’t think boosting a grade because of a personal reaction is the same thing at all. I do that too, and I don’t think it makes us bad readers. What I find frustrating on GR is that the giveaways (and to a lesser extent, Netgalley) create a cycle of behavior among a somewhat self-selected group. People who want free books sign up for giveaways and then feel lucky and happy when they win. Then they review the book more favorably, because they’re happy they received it. Maybe these are people who 4- and 5-star all books, but I do think there is a skew. Netgalley ARC reviews may not be quite as bad, but I’ve seen the “oh thank you for giving me an ARC!” comment in those reviews as well.

    Yay MFOB! I think she picked up a few followers in the last couple of days. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There are very few ARC reviews I take seriously. Only from readers I trust to be honest. At that comment on willaful’s review shows we are not alone!

  6. Ros says:

    I can’t remember where but I’ve seen scathing and meh reviews for the Song of Achilles. So you’re not the only one.

    Grade inflation is a hot topic in the UK at the moment because for the first time in forever, the number of top grades awarded in GCSE’s and A-levels has gone down. Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but teachers (who care because of school league tables) and students are up in arms about it. But you can’t go on inflating grades for ever. Not every student is an A student. Not every book is a 5* book. A few years ago, they had to invent an A* grade to separate out the top students. Maybe what we need is a 10* scale for books. That would give a more accurate representation of 3* reviews.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Grade inflation is so complex. And you know, the more I think about it, the more there is a parallel between review and academic grades here.

      Grade inflation is often blamed in part on the pressure on schools themselves to “make the grade” in a world where they’re being evaluated on ridiculously narrow measures, and at the university level on the rising costs of education and the view that a “good” degree is vital to life success. There becomes this sense that you are ruining someone’s life if you do not give them a good grade.

      Now that reader-reviews, rightly or wrongly, are seen as more crucial to an author’s success–even a traditionally-published author–there’s a similar sense that a low grade will DESTROY SOMEONE’S CAREER that makes people hesitate to give them. The question of whether some people are destroying their own careers with bad books is one some people are more hesitant to ask.

      Also, pretty sure I read a takedown of Song of Achilles’ Orange Prize win as a triumph of flashy story-telling over substance (in the Guardian, maybe?) so I know I’m not quite alone. I wouldn’t even go that far!

      • Ros says:

        Yes, exactly. Just as I know that marking a student down might damage her future career, I know that giving a poor review might damage an author’s career. That’s one reason why when I reviewed books, which I’ve more or less stopped, I didn’t give grades at all. Just my comments on the book, which make it clear what I think. I think grades are pretty hopeless anyway – one person’s C standard is another person’s A. The actual review is much more useful in deciding whether I might like a book.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes. Though in both cases, I think the potential damage is over-rated. And, as I remind my students, the grade is something they *earn*. It’s their responsibility, not mine. If you want a successful career, you do have to work to be good at something.

      • Ros says:

        Oh, absolutely. If they don’t deserve the grade, they don’t get it. And that’s on them, not on me.

  7. Las says:

    Why have I never heard of MFOB before? What a great blog.

    I don’t get ARC’s so I can’t speak about grade inflation there, but I know I can be pretty inconsistent with how I rate books. I’m trying to establish some rules for myself, but it’s difficult when trying to balance my emotional response to a book with what I think of the quality. A 3 star rating can mean anything from “pretty good overall” to “I loved this book even though it’s not well written at all” to “this didn’t work for me but there’s nothing really wrong with it so I feel bad about rating it lower.” Sometimes I wish we could give two ratings…like the technical v. artistic score in ice skating.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is why I don’t grade on the blog. Too much work! On GR, I just go with my gut, emotional reaction and don’t worry too much about consistency. I save obsessing over “C+ or B-?” and “how to compare this badly-written one with good ideas to this grammatical one with not much to say” for the day job, where I get paid for it.

      I love the technical + artistic scoring idea. “Objectively, this book is a 2, but it felt like a 4 to me!”

    • LVLMLeah says:

      When I was reviewing regularly I sometimes gave two ratings for a book. Sometimes a book made me feel good, had a lot of heart but the writing wasn’t that great so I’d give two ratings.

      I’ll admit that I tend to rate higher for a author I’m fond of but they do have to deliver. I’ve not reviewed a book here and there of an author I like because of a book they wrote that I thought sucked. so instead of having to be nasty I just don’t bother.

      Also, I never review books I don’t buy or obtain myself due to the fact that it is hard not want to be nice and give a higher grade if it was given to me. However, I will totally slam a book I got for free if the author sent a copy to me unsolicited and I have no knowledge of who they are really.

      In the meantime, I’ve stopped giving grades except on GR. I just talk about what I felt about the book and state I loved it, liked it, it was OK, it sucked.

  8. kaetrin says:

    I don’t *think* I am more likely to grade an ARC more positively than a book I bought, but if there is an author whose social media presence I like, I do sometimes find myself wondering if I’m kinder in my reviews than I would be if I didn’t feel any connection to the author. I try to edit any of that out before the post goes live but it’s all subjective anyway. Regardless, I hope that people can tell from reading the review what I thought of the book and why, and I’d like to think that readers would call me out if they felt the grade didn’t match the text. But, I don’t have tons of traffic, so that’s possibly unrealistic. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I suspect that most of my reviews fall into the B range – mainly because whether I’ve received a free copy of the book for review or whether I paid for it, I only read (and review) what I think I will like. Still, it’s good to take stock every now and then, just to be sure.

  9. Hello. I am coming in late to this thread, but I have just learned that this post is responsible for the jump in pageviews on my blog recently, and I thank you! What pleasant things you said, my goodness. You’re quite kind, because I absolutely haven’t a clue as to what I’m talking about, managed to get through college with exactly 3 hours of Am Lit, and couldn’t construct an analysis of a novel if you held a gun to my head.

    I dislike grading books but it was the only way I knew how to rank them. I do like the idea of technical and artistic scoring. I read a book awhile back that was absolute hash, but it made me laugh so hard I scared the cat off the bed. How much more precise to have given it a D for the writing and a B for making me laugh.

    So much to learn. You’ve been very gracious to me and I appreciate it more than you know.

    Marilyn, the Mean Fat Old Bat

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hi Marilyn, I think the word of mouth goes well beyond me and my own small number of pageviews. I know a lot of people who are enjoying your blog–a reader who calls them as she sees them will always find an audience. I hope you’ll come by again!

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