Phil Rickman’s The Wine of Angels has planted the seed for my next obsession. I need to read this series. The main character, Merrily Watkins, is a single mother and a stress-induced chain smoker, who occasionally gives in to swearing when provoked. She is also the vicar of a small English village who is on a path to becoming an exorcist, dispelling dark influences and cleansing the residue of acts that leave a mark upon the present. The author does a wonderful job building elements of local folklore into the story, presenting it as almost a half-forgotten generational memory in those village families whose roots reach deep. The supernatural steadily and insidiously creeps into the story, allowing the reader to gradually suspend disbelief as the author deftly intertwines the disappearance of a difficult and rebellious teenage girl with the suspicious suicide of a 17th-century clergyman, hounded by the village and accused of witchcraft. Rickman skillfully weaves threads of the past and the present with the sacred and the commonplace, creating a story that leaves the reader satisfied, but with a sense that deep mysteries exist just out of reach, on the periphery of the mundane.
In addition to being a thumping good read, this book has also proven to be a study in strange reviews that readers post. Frankly, it makes me worry. The Wine of Angels has just shy of one hundred reviews on Amazon, a number that I would dearly like to see for the Zackie Stories. One reader awarded the novel only two stars because the Merrily character named her daughter Jane, yet called her by a pet name throughout the story. I admit this review left me slack-jawed. A 1-star review complains that Merrily is not the type of clergyperson she is interested in because the character smokes, swears and has trouble relating to her teenaged daughter. This review brought tears to my eyes because, um, that’s what makes the character believable. There are other 1-star reviews posted that criticize the work as being too slow-moving for their tastes. Here, I can only blame Twitter, but each to their own. This, at least, is a reasonable reason to dislike a book.
Maybe it’s an introvert thing or maybe it’s a writer thing, but my personal approach to reviews is not to poo all over someone else’s work. If I like something, I’ll leave a rating at the very least, writing a little something for the stories that proved enjoyable, and writing deeper reviews for the one’s that allowed me to live through the events with the characters. To give fellow authors additional exposure, I’ve also blogged about some books (here, here and here, to name a few) when I found areas of overlap with my experiences. If I don’t like a book, it’s entirely possible that I simply wasn’t in the mood for the story or it shaped up to be something that elicited an emotional response, but not one I found pleasing. That’s still an accomplishment, being able to use words to engage other people’s emotions. Someone else might find the story to be exactly what they were looking for and I wouldn’t want them to turn away because an author’s work wasn’t my thing.
I’ll especially make a point to write a review if an author offered her work as a giveaway and reading it gave me some moments of respite from my news feed. It’s the least I can do after an author spent months to years creating a work and all he wants in return for a free read is a review. It’s just good manners to reciprocate.
For books that really need additional work (e.g. poor editing that prevents a reader from engaging in the story, problems of continuity, or plot holes)… I’ll be honest here: I revert to laziness. I usually just stop reading and move on, never rousing myself to warn an unsuspecting reader not to pay their hard-earned money for a poor product. Mea culpa. But given that there are many, many people on the internet who desperately want to spew venom, I figure one or more of these folks will eagerly take on this burden.
Brutal reviews, deserved or not, are part and parcel of the writing life. I don’t look forward to it, but I accept it and I’m perfectly willing to consider thoughtful criticism. While it’s hard to accept the posts that just leave poor ratings with no justification, what I fear most are the nonsensical reviews that will inevitably be posted. Nonsensical reviews and empty ratings contribute to the average star rating associated with a book on Amazon and Goodreads, and many people use this metric to decide if a book is worth reading. Because they never delve into the content of the reviews to determine if the star rating is justified, the author is unfairly penalized by this system. John Eidswick, author of The Language of Bears, wrote a blog post detailing the toxic effects of nonsensical reviews on book sales. After receiving a number of glowing reviews, his sales took a cliff dive after two people posted 1-star reviews, pretty much admitting that they didn’t even read the book! Authors work on very slim margins, so this outcome can be financially devastating.
The moral of the story is that if you want to continue to read books that appeal to you, if you want the authors you like to survive, write a review to swamp out the crazies. Much appreciated.
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