Grifting Away: The Big Con

Fascinated by swindlers? I’ll have to confess I am, probably because it is such an alien concept to me. Not only does it require snappy thinking on your feet to steer a mark the way you want, it requires faking empathy and, of course, a complete disregard for others. Myself, I’m more like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: “Check your email, because when I think of a retort, I’ll send it to you!” (Or something to that effect.) I could never be a con-man because I’m not quick enough in conversation, not a good actor and, hopefully this is a more positive trait, constitutionally not able to screw someone like a con man does. But I don’t think I’d make a good soldier either and I do love reading about war, so why not cons?

The grandfather of all books on cons is The Big Con, by David Maurer, first published in 1940, available now as a high quality e-book. Professor Maurer was a linguist who, apparently, knew a lot of con men. He seems to have first approached the subject of confidence games from the argot but the book, while it does have an extensive glossary, is first a story of the confidence games and the con men themselves.

It distinguishes short cons, like the old shell games or rigged card games, where the mark is fleeced for his cash on hand, to big cons, which played out over hours or weeks, and involve putting the mark on the send for more money. We learn of what a store is and how they came to be: they are false gambling, brokerage, or other establishments that are completely stocked with con men and exist only for the purpose of duping the mark.

The stages of a con are also elaborated from the roper’s identification of a mark and directing him to the store to the blow-off where the mark, once fleeced is sent on his way in a manner least likely to cause problems for the con man. Sometimes that is no more than sending him to another city to “square accounts,” the con man never arriving, of course. Other times it has to be more dramatic, as with a fake murder that causes the mark to run and hide. Such a murder might involve a packet of chicken’s blood hidden in the mouth, a cackle-bladder.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like the 70’s movie, The Sting, it should: Maurer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the studio and received an out-of-court settlement in his favor. I love that movie but always figured it was just Hollywood make-believe. It isn’t and The Big Con will show you the ins and outs of this scam and many others.

The book even goes into the bit players, how people become big con players, what happens to old con men, even what type of personal lives they tended to keep or whether any of them ever cashed out while still on top. I can’t say it has given me any immediate story ideas but as an illustration of one aspect of human nature and just a fascinating read in itself, I recommend it.

Be warned, like anything, it is a child of its times. There is some overt and ugly racism in a few places. It is also sexist, although not as much as I expected given the racism. The style is a little slow. Some of the reviews on Amazon claim it is repetitive and you only need to read the first quarter or so. Personally, I did not find it very repetitive chapter to chapter, but rather found a lot of the prose a bit more wordy and repetitive at the paragraph level. The other annoyance is that argot is used throughout, usually with no definition aside from the glossary in the back. In a hard-copy, this would not be too much of an issue but in an e-book I found it somewhat annoying (a better e-book edition would have had a link to the glossary at first use). There are a handful of transcription errors but overall editing was good.

If you liked The Sting, and some of the later movies on cons, like The Grifters, or just like a fascinating true-crime read, and can tolerate its unfortunate bigotry, I definitely recommend it.

Reading Novels Aloud

English: Created by modifying this image Itali...
English: Created by modifying this image Italiano: Creata modificando quest’immagine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.

After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.

Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.

As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.

I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?

Genealogy and the Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I couldn’t resist posting on genealogy as it impacts one of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade (give or take, guess it’s coming up on 10 years old). Some of you may have noticed a recent article about some research on inter-relatedness of Europeans which suggests that anyone in Europe living within 2,000 miles of each other is related within a horizon of no more than 1,000 years and everyone in all of Europe is related if you go back 2,000 years. Hmmm…. 2,000 years puts us back at the time of Christ, and if  you believe the Da Vinci Code, the time when Jesus’ first descendants moved to France. So… unless Jesus had a near-perfectly lineal line of descent (i.e., each generation had one and only one descendant), it would pretty much follow that if Jesus did have descendants who moved to Europe in the first century CE, everybody in Europe would be related to him.

I suppose for the sake of a good story, you good posit a lineal genealogy but that would come pretty close to proof of the divine (or some sort of advanced agency- maybe space aliens had a hand in this!): linear trees are almost impossible over so many generations. As one data point, some studies have shown that the average noble line died out after only three generations due to the failure to provide a male heir. On the one hand, that excludes female descendants but on the other hand, few of those families had just a single off-spring. Suffice it to say if a noble line can’t last 3 generations, how long could a lineal descent from Jesus last, at least not without some outside force ensuring it happened?

So, if you think Jesus had offspring but was not divine, either those offspring died within a few generations of his lifetime or they must have ‘hooked’ into the vast web of interrelations that we all are a part of and therefore anyone with a remote connection to the holy land (or France if you buy the Da Vinci Code theory), is related to Jesus. If you do accept the role of the divine, and are also one of the few who allow Jesus off-spring, than anything goes on how broad his tree is since an omnipotent God can do anything he likes with genealogy but in the end after 60-80 generations or so since Jesus lived, it sure seems like it would be difficult to keep his genes in a tiny branch of a really big, interwoven tree.

When Da Vinci Code first came out I observed that Jesus was either directly related to no one (because his line quickly died out or he never had children) or he was directly related to just about everyone with European or near eastern roots. It’s good to see the science to back it up. In the article, they say this was first posited about ten years ago… pretty good chance it was posited as a response to the Da Vinci Code. As for my own thoughts on it, it wasn’t a completely wild guess: when my mother-in-law and a genealogist on my mother’s side showed both families were related to Eleanor of Aquitaine by the time-honored method of finding a “hook” into one of the existing, researched lines, and only having to go back to the 1600s to do so, it made me realize most Europeans were probably related to Eleanor. Of course, she lived 800 years ago and did have quite the large brood which was scattered across Europe thanks to noble marriages, thus giving her a good head start in the inter-relatedness game.

I’ve read a number of different books debunking some of the stuff that Dan Brown presents as fact (of course, in the end he is a novelist, and one should take the preface as just another trick of the trade) but I’ve yet to come across the “plentiful offspring” refutation of the book’s main thesis, unless this study was spawned as a response to the Da Vinci Code.

Da Vinci Code was certainly a fun read but I never did buy the limited decent from Jesus part and as a lover of history, some of the other liberties in the narrative always rubbed me wrong. As a writer, I couldn’t go with a premise like that; for one thing, I’d have to have more explicit reasons for the lineal decent. But then again I’m an engineer who cares about often pointless details and more importantly, I didn’t write an 80 million book blockbuster. So go, Dan, go!

Niggling Characters

This isn’t really about niggling characters, it’s about the two main aspects of the writing craft I learned in the last year. One is “don’t ignore niggling doubts” and the other is the importance of strong characters. Well, the second one is more something that I (think) has really, finally, truly clicked, after all, you can hardly read a writing blog or craft book without the author mentioning it (but what do they know?)

Cover of "Shrek (Full Screen Single Disc ...
Dreamworks made me love an ogre and a donkey…

Niggling doubts are one area that’s a little different for me. There’s always a sentence or a scene or an opening that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Typically, I’m not quite sure if it’s a problem and, more often, I may not be sure what to do about it. So I leave it in, thinking, “Let’s see what the readers think. Maybe they’ll like it.” Bad idea. They never like. Sure, some may not comment on it but someone always will and after they do, it’s time to kick myself, thinking “Why didn’t I just fix it before I sent it out?”

It happened most recently in a revised chapter 1 for SOTA that I put through critters. I wasn’t sure if the exposition was too much in chapter 1. It was. And thing is, before queuing it, I knew it. I should have fixed it but in the end I wasn’t really sure what to replace it with. (Although queuing it wasn’t a total loss, some of the feedback did point me in the right direction.) So, new resolution, never ignore the niggling doubts. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year but I’m done with letting the niggling prose slip through. If something doesn’t feel quite right to me, it won’t feel any better for someone else. Afterall, I’m the author of said prose; if someone as biased as me isn’t sure about it, who will it work for?

Hotel Transylvania
Hotel Transylvania: even a silly movie can hook you with good characterization.

The other thing that finally clicked has to do with characters: characters that appeal to the reader from the first scene but still are changed by the story. Here, I’m sure I’ve got a lot of work to get it right but what has changed for me is the realization that my stories aren’t going to go anywhere without solving that part of the puzzle. Interesting settings and clever plots are nice, and there’s always some author who can get away mostly with that (techno thrillers can sometimes survive with cardboard characters) but I don’t like stories where the characters don’t engage me so why should I write them?

This realization has partly come through analyzing what appealed about movies and books I like. Why did I like Shrek so much? I remember hearing the premise and thinking “Donkey and ogre, that’s completely stupid.” It was the characters and, especially, watching Shrek change. Even something as silly and in the end forgettable as Hotel Transylvania was fun. It was predictable yet the characters still had me cheering for them. The Harry Potter series is another example. The setting is amusing and endearing although silly in many ways. The plots don’t always work for me although some of the twists are fun but it’s the characters that grab me, including Hogwarts: it’s more character than setting for me.

TMSO has a great series of posts on how Pixar handles this. I’ve also found Laura Barker’s Discovering Story Magic to be a great way to define the characters in a way that can help shape my stories and (hopefully) connect my plots to characters that engage the readers and have them cheering by the end.

Anyway, it’s off to the next false summit for me 🙂

Happy writing.

Amazon’s Reviews

Image representing Amazon as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase. Amazon & Reviews

A while back, I posted my thoughts on how to use reviews (as a reader, not a writer 🙂 ). Much of that post was devoted to how to tell if a review was honest. That is, how do you tell the honest review from a favorable one from the author or author’s friends? The New York Times has an article on their Sunday front page about Amazon’s attempts to deal with this. I’m heartened that they are taking the problem seriously although their efforts seem a bit clumsy. For one thing, if I ever put a book in Amazon will I no longer be able to review books? I guess there’s always Goodreads for my reviews, not that I post tons of reviews anyway.

But it is a real problem for Amazon. A few months ago they sent me one of their regular fliers with a list of Fantasy books worth a look. I was in the mood for some good fantasy and pulled up the first book recommended. The first one was 5-star rated: cool. Checked the reviews. Only four of them (bad sign). Read the reviews. They were all variations on the same theme. Clearly, every one of them was written by the same person, most likely the author. That was the last time I’ll pay attention to book recommendations from Amazon. One can only imagine that they had some tool automatically pull some high rated books from genres I like. If a human had read the reviews, it would have been obvious. So, for me, it’s back to more proven methods of finding good books (basically from friends and blogs I like, or as in my earlier post, from Amazon reviews when there are enough posted that it’s clear that many are from un-biased readers.)

But for Amazon, they just lost a way to market books to me, thus, their crack down on bogus reviews. While I don’t think their current method is the way to go about doing it (how are they really going to identify shill reviews?) I support their intent. I want to read useful reviews.

However, I think the real way to address it is, essentially, to let the community police it. Allow the community to quash bogus reviews, as many sites do now in their comment section, and just as important, allow the community to identify reviewers worth paying attention to. Here, I mean not just reviewers that aren’t shilling for an author but reviewers who have a decent critical sense. Reviews by people who give everything 5 stars aren’t much better than reviews from a friend. With this in place and the ability to filter so I only see the good reviews, or least the vetted ones come first, reviews would suddenly be worthwhile again.

I hope Amazon’s fumbling effort here starts a discussion that leads to some meaningful Amazon reviews. In addition to their ability to provide the desired goods, their real claim to fame is letting prospective buyers see what others think. So fixing this is at the heart of their business.

In the Fantasy Genre: What is Tolkien?

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark
Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a story Tolkien-esque?

I don’t think there is a single answer. His main published works go from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Ring (LOTR) to The Silmarillion. That’s a children’s adventure story, a fantasy epic, and a mythopoeic work (and yes, I had to look that up; it didn’t exactly roll off the fingers). They are all fantasy, the first heavily so with a lighter, more whimsical touch on setting, the last in some ways mostly setting. Any of these can serve as the model for a reader as to what is Tolkien.

For me, though, it’s the middle work that defines Tolkien-esque: a mix of characters, plot and, above-all, setting. It’s not setting couched as a story (which The Sillmarillion has always felt like to me) nor is it a fantasy story with some setting sprinkled on it (which is more The Hobbit for me, as well as many fantasy classics over the last 30 years).

LOTR is a setting become story: the plot and characters capture and illustrate the setting, one that is deep and whose “bones” go back to the beginning of the world. But the story also illustrates the setting without being subservient to it. The setting is not lost nor inconsequential but neither does it submerge the story and characters. It is this harmonious blend that strikes me as Tolkien-esque and one that is so hard to find on the shelf (or achieve as a writer).

I’m sure many might find it curious that the length of LOTR nor its many sub-plots and locales are not critical to me in capturing a Tolkien-esque feel. I do like a long, healthy read but perhaps its all those, very, very long epics since the 70s that seem to end up focused more on a franchise and less on good plot and closure that cause me to omit that from my criteria. And again, it’s my just own opinion. There are many ways to view his works.

The title page, of the book "The Silmaril...In Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy, I commented on my desire as a fantasy reader to find strong fantasy elements in the fantasy stories. This, of course, carries over to what I write. So, too, does the desire to have a “big” setting with a long history that matters to the characters and plot but without becoming the end-all of the book. It’s a delicate balance, one that only time will tell if I’ve achieved.

It makes me nervous to share this because I’m sure it seems arrogant but it isn’t arrogance that drives me to post this so much as self-realization. As I read other blogs and authored my own over the last year, I’ve come to wonder, what makes me write? What do I want to contribute? Well, it’s this Tolkien-esque balance as I see it that motivates me. So there it is 🙂

Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy Fiction

Some contemporary fantasy fiction leaves me a bit cold. Dragons, hidden cities, exotic races, are for me. Maybe another way to look at it is, I look for the fantasy elements to be significant to the world setting and the characters. Fantasy books that are very much like a given time and place on Earth with perhaps a bit of magic don’t feel like fantasy.

The father of all fantasy for me is Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent The Hobbit. It doesn’t feel like “in your face magic” but from the start, you have wizards and exotic races, hints of ancient lore that matter to the story, and dwarves and/or hobbits. As both progress, you get Wraiths, Dragons, talking spiders, elves, lost cities, hidden realms. Every few scenes there is something fun, fantastic and not earth like.

Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson's The Lord of ...
Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Lost cities, former glories seen in the light of a wizard’s staff, goblins and a moving soundtrack. FANATASICAL fantasy.

Contrast with Game of Thrones. No question it is well written, at least the first few volumes, and captivates many but I remember setting it down a third of the way into the first book wondering if this was even really a fantasy series or whether it was more alternate reality. Guy Kavriel Kay looked interesting and I may yet go back to him but that was another case where I wondered if there would be anything fantastic about it. For both of these, I’ll confess an issue which is more a personal quirk: I read a lot of history and some historical fiction. So books like Game of Thrones‘ nod to War of the Roses or Kay’s near-Earth historical setting have two negatives for me. One, I know those periods very well and the near Earth analogies are a distraction more than anything else. Wondering if one of Kay’s towns is modeled on Hedeby (pretty sure it is) takes away immersion for me as does the more obvious modelings. The other problem is, well, if I wanted to read about Earth history there are plenty of good layman’s history books (A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman is a perennial favorite for me; my copy must be pushing 30 years old and is quite worn but I love it) and there are plenty of good historical novels. Why read something that is kinda, sorta Earth history?

For me, and again this is my personal view on it, by all means read and enjoy what you like, if I’m going to read fantasy I want to read about a world where the fantastic is tangible, present and matters. Earth Middle Ages + a dash of magic doesn’t do it.

As a long time fantasy world builder (for gaming and writing), I know the temptation of doing “Earth plus”: it simplifies creation plus you can work off player/reader stereotypes (actually a mixed bag since stereotypes vary widely among individuals so you the author/DM don’t actually know for sure what you are tapping into). I’ve done it for a few D&D campaigns, although usually ones intended to be short. But it feels like a cop-out when carried too far: if the setting is Medieval + a little magic, it doesn’t take that much imagination. And if it is Medieval + a lot of magic, it doesn’t feel right to me: lots of magic will surely change the course of events into something nothing like Earth Middle Ages (and same holds for any Earth historical period analog be it Bronze Age, Seven Kingdoms China, whatever.) That’s not to say a good understanding of history doesn’t help; it certainly does, especially if your take-aways are trying to understand the different customs and mindsets of other places and times.

Where am I going with this? Well, just grousing really but also hoping maybe to tip other writers more into hard fantasy and not into following G. R. R. Martin’s foot steps. Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto on my own writing, for what it’s worth. Here, there will be dragons!

Happy reading and writing!

On my Shelf

As I mentioned in About Me, I read more non-fiction than fiction but I read a bit of both, usually several books at once. Here’s what’s on the shelf for now and what I pull from these books for my writing.

Empires and Barbarians by Peter Heather

Not as easy a read as his earlier The Fall of the Roman Empire, it is still quite fascinating. While targeted at the lay reader, it has more nods at the uncertainty and divergent views of professional historians than usual for a main stream history book. This slows down the narrative considerably (I must confess I’ve been digesting it in small chunks) but on the other hand, the evidence is murky and the author does do a great job of presenting the various views and then offering his own opinion. (I really hate those authors that just throw out the conflicting views without giving their opinion. They have one, let’s hear it.).

Writing link: I’ve always been fascinated by the fall of civilisations and use that trope frequently in my RPG games as well as stories. This book is quite the eye-opener for the careful reader on how invasions start: most often warbands scope out the opportunity before a “migration of peoples” happen and despite the shift in professional historians against the “migration of peoples” theories Heather presents a good case that it does happen at times. This book is, however more about the nations, peoples and mechanisms behind the invasions. For a history of the period itself, see his earlier book.

Harry Potter #5 (Order of the Phoenix) by J.K. Rowling

This one I’m reading to my son (after #1-4, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit over the last three years or so!). This is my second time through the series, third time for some books, and I still enjoy it.

Writing Link: It’s always good to study a blockbuster, especially one that I enjoy so much. There’s much to learn, both from the things that she does very well and in particular appeal to me, as well as the things that are best not mimicked. At the risk of seeming blasphemous, here are a few:

  • Engaging characters, those who love these stories probably enjoy the characters most of all. Too much for me to summarize because this is really the heart of the books but watch how she introduces Harry and immediately establishes sympathy from the start.
  • The character names: this is a plus and a minus for me. As a positive take-away names do matter and hints about personality in the name when subtle can be powerful. As in Professor Snape: short, sibillant, and of course snape->snake. Same for Hagrid. Some of her other names would be a bit silly for more “serious” fantasy novels.
  • A place that is its own character: Hogwarts.
  • Lots of magic: while some of the magic is, like the names, on the silly side and works for the target audience and setting it may not work in most fantasy novels. But for me most fantasy novels have too little magic, not too much. She at least had the courage to imagine what a world with a lot of magic might be like rather than the much more common “it’s European Middle Ages with such a small dash of magic that I don’t really need to re-imagine much”.
  • Speaker attributions that rely too much on said (or the equivalent, of which there is much too much). It could have used more “beats”, actions that identify the speaker: “Hermione twisted her hair. ‘I really don’t think…’ “
  • Attributions with adverbs. There was one place in book 4 where there were 6 “he saids” in a row, each with their own adverb. He said, archly. She said, snidely. He said angrily. It makes me feel like I’m watching a tennis ball go back and forth in a match. Many of these are unnecessary as the emotion is already clear in the dialogue. The rest would be improved with stronger dialogue rather than an adverb. But this doesn’t bother my wife so much so perhaps a pet peeve (although one frequently called out by writing coaches and a pet peeve of many agents and editors as well).
  • Uneven pacing with plot twists hidden by a lot of words. That is, the plot twists don’t tend to be too surprising they are just typically hinted at early on then drowned out by lots of other prose.
  • Know your genders: Rowling has Ron and Harry in a snit almost every book. Boys do get into snits but the constant and protracted falling-outs have two problems:
    1. You know they are going to be friends again so there is no drama here. You just endure it until it ends.
    2. Boys have falling outs but they don’t take the form of protracted snits. Ron and Harry seemed more like elementary school girls than boys when they acted like this. Boys are more likely to have a short falling out quickly forgotten or break the relationship forever without agonizing over it: “over, forgotten,” not “I hate yet but I still want to be friends.”

That’s not to say I don’t love the books. Just that as a writer, it’s good to have both positive and negative examples and frankly, it’s great to see an author can do so well without being perfect because otherwise, I give up now :).

Last Call, the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

Okay, this one is hard to tie closely to my fantasy writing. The best I can say is that it provides a lot of interesting character sketches and a “much more than gangsters” view of Prohibition. The really interesting parts are how Prohibition came to be and how it was repealed. I’d always assumed a majority of Americans thought it was a good idea. They didn’t. And the parallels to modern American politics are quite striking.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

A spoof of Star Trek and similar shows, this one isn’t really grabbing me and I probably won’t finish it. (But never say never; it might make a good read for a trans-oceanic flight). My wife loves this one but after the first few pages, it kind of gets repetitious.

Writing Link: the constructs it mocks aren’t limited to Star Trek episodes. In addition to a good laugh, it’s not a bad read for things to avoid as a writer.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I started this after enjoying Old Man’s War but it’s been a slow go and I’m not sure when I’ll pick it up again. Old Man’s War had some interesting concepts although the protagonist had it very easy and the fun was more about the setting and less about the plot and characters. By the second installment, the focus on concept over plot and character gets old for me but there are many people who like this. Might be worth a look.

Writing Link: interesting series that shows how you can be successful on a more concept-driven story. On a negative note, the thinly disguised survey of the author’s opinion on contemporary science fiction books and movies in The Ghost Brigades was very off-putting for me. Some folks like that but author intrusions like that really rub me wrong: I want to read about the characters not the author.

How to Use Reviews

I’ll confess I read more non-fiction than fiction, partly because it is so hard sometimes to find something I really enjoy on the fiction shelf. But from time to time, I’ll make a foray into the fiction world, usually in search of some good fantasy. Happily there is plenty to choose from with a little searching but my guide during these excursions are reviews. Yes, reviews are full of fake posts by authors, biased posts by friends, even annoying herd-think that can skew a rating up or down. So where to start on reviews?

As a first step, ignore reviews if there are only a handful. Buy it if you like the cover, the blurb, the author or what have you but with only a few reviews there is really no way to trust them. They might be the work of disinterested readers but more likely they are at best a well-meaning friend of the author. The only exception, and it is still somewhat risky, is if the book has been out for some years and the reviews are scattered over geogaphy and time, ideally from real-name reviewers if the site allows that. In such a case you might find a nice gem of a book that was simply not marketed well. However, aside from the danger that the handful of reviews are baised, there is the fact that for whatever reason, it seems to take a lot of reviews to get a balanced representation of the book. That is, the good reviews out weigh the bad which leads into my next suggestion: poor reviews are usually more useful to the critical reader.

Why are negative reviews more useful? For starters, they won’t be written by the author or a friend of the author’s. While there is the risk they are written by a competing author or someone who just likes to slam other people’s work, they are more likely to be an honest review. That doesn’t mean you need to accept the review as definitive but a poor review will generally call out some specific aspect of the book that might be useful in making a decision.  It’s here that you’ll learn about shallow charecterization, weak plotting, deus ex machina, etc. Next look for consistent themes. If no one else calls out something, the reviewer might be off-base. A gushing review or a slam on the ending that no one else seems to pick up should be discarded as an outlier. That person might not like the genre, might be a terrible reviewer or simply may have had other factors in their life intrude on their experience of the book. If your wife just left you and you lost your job, who knows how you might react to a book and what you might write about it.

Allow for “high score bias”, meaning most reviewers seem to score fairly generously. Part of this is that one site’s 3 out of 5 might mean “okay” and another’s might mean “liked it”. But regardless, as a whole I find reviewers tend to be pretty generous. Gives me warm fuzzies about hope for humanity but makes it a little harder to find a good book.

Even more skewing is the herd mentality. It usually skews positive but can skew negative. You typically find it when something is heavily marketed because marketing works. If people are told the book is good by a number of authors they have read, they will assume it is good. Heavily-marketed books tend to be better overall (after all the publisher is spending a lot of money to market it; they want to pick a winner) but hype does seem to affect reviewers and over-state the book. I’m sure there is a study on this behavior somewhere but I’m pretty sure it harkens back to that human desire to be part of the winning team, the in-crowd. So-and-so-said this book was good and he’s a big name author? Well, I liked it too! Isn’t it great my opinion is the same as this important person’s?

How about the professional reviews you can find on Amazon before the reader reviews? For me, they are surprisingly useless. They rarely tell me much about the book. They may not be a paid review but they are generally part of a cozy publishing world. At the very least, beware of a bland review that might indicate the reviewer was more interested in not offending a publisher than writing an honest review. I’d skip them entirely and focus on reader reviews.

Look at the overall review distribution. If the review count is over 40 or so, the distribution of reviews will tell you something. Does a book have 600 reviews with no 1s and 2s? That’s almost certainly a strong book. It’s possible you won’t like the genre or premise but it ought to be at least well written and engaging. Are there some 2s and 1s with a notable number of 3s? Read through the low reviews. This is almost certainly a sign that the book has some flaws or weaknesses. They may not be flaws you care about but then again, they might be. It’s here that you will learn that the author’s worldbuilding is weak or the protagonist flawless (a “Mary-Sue”).

How to assess individual reviews? An ideal review will be balanced and call out plusses and minuses without being overly negative or positive. Balance and even-handedness indicate a rationale appraisal. Gushing positives or harsh slams are more likely to indicate a partisan viewpoint or someone who just likes to put others down. If a few reviews are about to tip your decision (pro or con), check the “other reviews by this reviewer” link that most sites provide. If this is their only review and it is positive, it’s probably a friend of the author if not the author herself. Or if the reviewer gives almost everyone 2s and 1s, discount them; they just like writing nasty reviews. Similarly, if they consitently give 4s and 5s, they aren’t a critical reviewer and should also be ignored; they are not giving you any useful information.

A few specific things to look for in individual reviews:

  • “I don’t usually read this type of book but I loved it.” This is the author’s sister, friend, spouse, or what not. Ignore the review.
  • Short reviews with no specifics: there’s not enough information for critical analysis of the review. Therefore, ignore it.
  • A lot of positive reviews posted in a short time, especially if they all tend to have the same tone and use similar phrases. Don’t just ignore the review, ignore the book. This is almost always a bad book being pushed by the author. Fortunately, this seems to elicit a lot of pissed off negative reviews that can help point this out, which can be fun to read (the reviews, not the book). Usually there are no more than 3-8 of these sort of reviews but I did find one book with 26 of them. Fortunately, they were clumsily written: all about the same length, all starting with a variation of “Simply put, this is the best fanasy novel I’ve read in 10 years.”
  • Be aware of spoilers. Most reviewers will note the presence of a spoiler but if you are still seriously evaluating the book (and not just reading bad reviews for fun), don’t wreck your reading experience by reading the spoilers.
  • The counts of people who found the review useful aren’t all that valuable for a specific review (since you can see for yourself if the review is useful). But that reviewer’s overall “usefulness” rating can be quite handy. A strong or bad review from someone who writes a lot of reviews and whose opinion is generally respected is worth consideration.
  • Comments are a mixed bag. You might find someone knocking the reviewer for being mean to the author (a personal attack is one thing, a well written negative review is another thing: that’s not an attack). Sometimes the comments can add some color to the review. Often not.
  • Multi-volume novels: read the reviews for the sequels. These are very telling as only someone who liked the first book will read a second; therefore you are seeing the reviews of those who gave the first book good marks. If you see the rating fall off or lots of mediocre reviews, it means the sequel isn’t as good as the first book, or just as likely that there are flaws in the first book that were overlooked; in either case, you probably want to think twice about reading that first book. A classic case of this is a one-note book, one that strikes-a-chord with some readers: “The book has dragons? Cool! I love dragons. High marks to the first book.” But by the second or third book the fact that the characters are shallow, the world building is weak and the author can’t drive a plot will come out.

To put it all together, look for a large sample of reviews since it is hard to fake a large number of reviews, beware of biases, sample the negative reviews to get some idea of flaws. If a few reviews are especially telling for you, check out those reviewers to see if they are someone whose opinion you can respect.

What this means is that just because a book got 4.5 stars, it doesn’t mean it is good. It also means that a solid 4, even a 3.8 is not necessarily the mark of a book to skip. You need to sort out the fluff and find the reviewers who are telling you something about the book then base your decision on those reviews, ignoring the rest.

Happy reading…