Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


A lot of authors, including myself, fret over bad reviews. The usual advice for such things is to try to learn what you can from them and otherwise grow a thicker skin, but to that I can add something new: sometimes your bad reviews are the sign of a good thing, if they are Amazon reader reviews that is.

Even Excellent Books Are Read By Morons
Take a look at the reader reviews for a book that inspired my own in some ways, Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. The book was a bestseller, and in my opinion the trilogy of which it is a part are the best alternate history novels of the last quarter century, and they are among the best Civil War novels for the same period. Yet the overall star rating is only 4.1, less than that of my own novel.

Gettysburg has a merely four-star rating precisely because it is a bestselling novel. The simple fact that it reached a large audience guaranteed that it would get bad reader reviews, because reaching a large audience means reaching idiots who can read.

I know that sounds harsh, but look at the bad reviews for Gettysburg. A big chunk of them came from people who complain that they didn’t know the book was an alternate history, and were expecting straight historical fiction. In other words, they were from readers who were too stupid to read and understand the plot synopsis posted front and center on the Amazon page and printed on the back of the book!

Look up any great book you would care to name on Amazon, and it will have reviews written by trolls, cretinous wannabe critics and dimwits. The simple truth is that having a healthy number of stupid reader reviews is part and parcel of reaching a larger audience. It is a sign of success.

Sales, Fakes And Hitting The Target
One of the things I have done since Stonewall Goes West came out a year and a half ago is keep a casual eye on authors who publish books in my genre. Based on that, I have a fair idea of how well those books have sold, and one thing I have gleaned from that is more evidence that stupid reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience, because most of them didn’t sell well and don’t have several stupid reviews.

This is not to say that a book without a decent helping of stupid reviews hasn’t sold well. I can think of one good example where that is not the case, that being a sign of an author who really managed to hit the nail on the head and satisfy everyone, the discriminating and the lame-brained alike. I believe that because my observation suggests the book sold better than my own, and yet it doesn’t have that many dumb reviews.

On the other hand, I know of a dozen books that sold much, much worse than my own, yet have 4 1/2 star ratings with dozens of reader reviews, almost all of them positive. My guess is that most of those reviews are fakes written by family, friends, and members of the author’s writers club. In fact, in once instance I’ve had the author of one of those books contact me and then boast about doing that very thing. I have previously discussed this problem of fake reviews here.

But What About Bad Books?
The obvious problem with this theory is using it as a tool to evaluate books you want to buy, as opposed to drawing comfort from it as an author. Tons of bad reviews aren’t a paradox that points to a good book, or even a book with good sales.

That points to a caveat in the theory: bad reviews are a sign of reaching a larger audience only up to a certain point, and the reviews in question need to be stupid to count. Don’t discount all criticism by saying “it’s just a sign that I reached dumb asses too.”

In my own reader reviews, the one consistent criticism that rings true is that my books don’t have maps in them. That was due to budget constraints, and frankly there is nothing I could or can do about that for this trilogy. Still, it’s a valid complaint and one I understood from the very beginning, which is why I attempted to bridge the gap with maps I made myself and published on the internet.

So the maps complaint is basically sound, because it’s true and for some readers it hampers or even spoils their enjoyment of the book. Sometimes I think the complaint is taken to an unfair degree, but that makes it harsh rather than stupid. I would be a fool not to listen to it and try to incorporate maps into my next project, and you would be a fool to assess all bad criticism as stupid merely because it’s bad.

 

With Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott carved herself a niche as the “sizzle historian,” spinning entertaining non-fiction tales of the seedier side of America’s past. She ably continues mining this rich vein of material for her third book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells four concurrent stories of women engaged in espionage on both sides of the Civil War.

Abbott delivers a piping hot helping of material, and most Civil War buffs should find at least some of it new. Take Belle Boyd, one of the four. Most Civil War fans know her name, a fact that must give Boyd’s ghost a great deal of satisfaction, yet usually references to her focus on whether she actually did anything useful as a spy. Her character as a saucy firebrand and all-around bad girl who swigged whiskey with the best of them often goes unremarked, and the extent of her hijinks certainly came as news to me.

The thing I found most interesting in Abbott’s book was how the choice of the four women, two Confederate and two Union, illustrated the stereotype personalities of the two regions. Boyd and Rose Greenhow were both arrogant, vain women whose character flaws severely compromised their espionage careers. Both were caught, both courted notoriety, and the only reason either escaped the noose was that women generally weren’t hung for treason in the early 1860s (just a couple years later, however, they were: witness Mary Surratt). By and large, Boyd’s and Greenhow’s style of conceit died out after the Victorian era, but Abbott ably translates it into the modern era.

Against this we have the example of Elizabeth Van Lew, and with her story the book truly shines. Van Lew operated as an effective spy master for the Union in Richmond, the capital of her enemies, for the duration of the war. Abbott’s portrayal of Van Lew’s poise and caution stands in vivid contrast to Boyd and Greenhow, and her story provides the book’s continuing tension. She was never caught, although she came close to it on many occasions. It is in Elizabeth Van Lew that the narrative moves from action, farce and sex romp and into the territory of the hard-bitten espionage yarn promised by the John Le Carre-inspired title.

The history of the Civil War gives short space to women. When they do appear, it is as the wife of some important man, in connection with the U.S. Sanitary Commission or as a nameless member of an angry mob in the Southern bread riots. With the addition of Emma Edmonds, who played a double game by posing as a man, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and then serving as a scout and spy, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delivers an entertaining spread of stories about women who did their wartime service on their own terms. The book is ideal summer vacation reading, and it’s not too late to pick it up and take it on a September getaway.

I’ve adopted the rule of not responding to reviews of my work, either by readers or professionals. Most authors follow this line, and I think that is a wise policy. Even if an author produces a good work, taste is taste, not everyone will like it, and it’s better to grow a thicker skin that to descend into unseemly bickering.

Yet when a reviewer makes factual statements in a review that are inaccurate, well, that is an entirely different ball game. And when the reviewer in question has semi-professional status, it demands rebuttal.

So it is with Rea Andrew Redd, the “Civil War Librarian.” If this review had appeared in a newspaper or magazine, I would be on the phone with the editor demanding the kind of corrections that would likely ensure Prof. Redd would never write for that publication again. However, Redd is a blogger, so I must publish the correction myself.

Redd’s Factual Errors
In his review, Redd makes three factual errors:

1. “Jackson is a corps commander at Gettysburg”

While Jackson survived Chancellorsville and retained his rank and position, the story clearly states that Jackson was convalescing with his family in Lexington for the Gettysburg campaign. He was not “at” Gettysburg, and did not participate in the campaign, as implied here. This may be a merely a misstatement, but I doubt it in view of the more serious error Redd made just a few sentences later. In either case, it is still plain wrong.

2. & 3. “Within sixty days Jackson has the Army of Tennessee at Nashville and Sherman never enters Georgia.”

Mistakes two and three were more serious. In my story, Jackson assumed command just after New Years, and the fictional Battle of Lawrenceburg was not until early May. That is a space of four months, not two.

My guess is that Redd is dating his statement from where my story picks up with Jackson in Georgia, which is in March 1864. However, scenes in Richmond clearly describe him as intending to assume command after the Holidays. Furthermore, there are multiple scenes set in February which refer to Jackson as already in command: Jackson actually sends Cheatham’s Division to Polk to combat the Meridian campaign; Polk and Cheatham talk about having Jackson in charge; Sherman discusses Jackson with Banks in New Orleans after the Meridian Campaign is over.

So it is about 120 days, twice as long as the period Redd mistakenly describes. Since Redd accuses me of “not staying within historic parameters” and criticizes the plausibility of the story, the fact that he demonstrably missed so many references as to how long Jackson was in command before starting his campaign, and therefore how long he spent preparing, is damning of his opinion to say the least. How many other obvious details did he miss in a similar fashion?

The simple answer is “more,” which is proven by the last part of that statement. The novel ends on May 9, and the historical Atlanta Campaign’s opening moves were on May 5. Also in the novel, I have a conversation between Sherman and George H. Thomas which clearly indicated Thomas was to be left with a large army and charged with the task of invading Georgia. In saying “Sherman never enters Georgia,” Redd acts as if none of those things were in the book. Given that the subject is discussed at length and the timing of the issue, that part of the statement is also in error.

Fanciful, But Unprofessional, Opinions
Redd made three factual errors in a mere two-paragraph plot synopsis, getting almost as much wrong as he got right, and two of them couldn’t possibly be interpreted as careless misstatements. Plenty of other readers are on the record as having picked up on these details, so I can only speculate that he didn’t read the book very closely before writing his review.

Beyond that, the sloppiness of this review calls into question not just the merit of the review itself, but the merits of the blog Civil War Librarian as a whole. Having made such demonstrable errors in his review of my work, it is entirely plausible that some, most, or perhaps even all of Redd’s other reviews are just as inattentive to detail.