Tag Archives: writing

Interview with Jonathan R. Rose, author of the new horror novel Carrion

My Video Skype interview with Jonathan R. Rose, author of the grimmest book I’ve read in a while, Carrion, a post-apocalyptic zombie scenario told from the perspective of the zombie.

He talks at length about the aspects of his home in Mexico that made their way into the book and his deeper message in the book about what it really means to be human…

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An Amazon Reviewer’s Advice to Self Published Authors

Last night I was harangued by an author who vehemently disliked the fact that I gave him a negative review on his book.  Let’s go over the basics of how Amazon reviewing works in the publishing world, shall we?

 

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Request for an Interview from an Academic Researcher

Rank48Recently I was approached by a university researcher who wanted to do an interview with me on the topic of writing in social media. He approached me as an Amazon reviewer so I agreed to answer his questions. Below find my responses to his first volley of inquiry.

Can you tell me a little about what got you started writing Amazon reviews?
I’ve always been of a mind to bore people with my online drivel so in 2011 I first stumbled across the GoodReads site. There you can sign up for book giveaways in exchange for an honest review of the book. I reviewed several dozen books and cross-posted these on Amazon and within a year I had offers for other items to review that were much less literary. I started, as I suspect everyone does, with small electronics: chargers, cords, electronic gizmos. It has been my observation that anyone in the top 10,000 reviewers or so that posts an email will be graced with at least one offer for a free product. As time goes on like begets like and whatever sorts of products you’ve reviewed before will find their way to your mailbox.

How would you characterize your writing style when you write Amazon reviews?
Terse. It has been my impression that customers don’t have time for a lot of protracted blathering on so I try to make things as short and sweet as possible, condensing my points to a few bullets that sum up things as succinctly and completely as possible. For those who want a bit more detail, I have tended as of late towards video-based reviews that demonstrate the product in some way or illuminate its shortfalls.

What are your goals when writing Amazon reviews?
This is a tricky and multi-headed question. The prime mover of all things in Amazon land is, of course, the helpful vote. Customers give us direct feedback by voting helpful or unhelpful on reviews as they read or watch them. So the ultimate goal in this game (and, let’s be honest, it is a game) is to garner as many helpful votes as possible. The more helpful votes, the higher your ranking and the higher your ranking the more free crap rolls in the door. At a very fundamental level, this is the most basic and visceral goal of the whole thing.

Attached to this is the idea that you’re helping others to make a buying decision. When I receive a product that’s just downright terrible my number one goal is to do everything I can to make sure nobody actually pays money for it. If I can find some redeeming quality in a product I’ll point it out but above all the goal is to make sure nobody gets taken for a proverbial ride and that when customers actually do buy something that they get what they expected based on the reviews. The vote system drives one to to write reviews but the injustice of the system is what really keeps a reviewer up at night.

Can you ever remember a time when you didn’t achieve your goals when writing Amazon reviews? Why or why not?
As I’ve said previously, the goal that keeps me up at night most is trying to make sure customers get what they expect. When a product arrives at my door it’s my duty to make sure it’s at least a serviceable product. I cannot even hope to tell consumers everything about a product but I can at least point out obvious fatal flaws and do everything in my power to ensure customers get a reasonable quality product. The problem with that, however, comes in two forms. Firstly, many, many reviewers hate to say anything negative about a product. They received it free so they feel they should say something nice or say nothing at all. So even if a product isn’t worthwhile, the ‘yes man’ crowd can drown out even the most circumspect naysayer. Additionally, the power of the vote works in both directions. Often manufacturers will hire services to suppress unflattering reviews with down votes and vote up the positive reviews that cast their product in the best light. As might be imagined, this battle is extremely difficult to win.

How do you decide what to review and why?
This answer varies wildly depending on my mood at the time I’m looking at an offer. In general, rather selfishly, I tend to offer to review products that I want to have or that I imagine others around me would want. Secondarily I will sometimes choose products that seem like they’d merely be diverting or interesting to try out. In summary, this is almost completely selfish. I review things that I have a use for.

Do you model your method of reviewing on anything? Do you read other professional or Amazon reviews before hand?
Typically, no. I don’t read other reviews for the same product because that tends to have a bias impact on the results. I don’t tend to read professional reviewers because, frankly, I think the more plebeian viewpoint is probably more helpful in some cases.

How do you decide which reviews to update and why?
I update any review on which I receive new information. Sometimes the manufacturer will contact me with updates or sometimes a friend to whom I’ve given an item will provide additional feedback on it. In general, however, I don’t go back to proactively update reviews without reason. Just slogging through new reviews is enough of a chore.

Do you have a particular process for writing reviews? Any steps you take before or while writing?
This varies wildly depending on the product. If the product makes claims that it’s “durable” or “shatterproof” then I put those claims specifically to the test. I’ve taken electronic equipment out into the parking lot and hurled into the air based on certain claims by the manufacturer. Admittedly at least part of the reason for that is because it’s entertaining but again, I want to make sure that manufacturers at least live up to their packaging.

How would you say your style of writing reviews has changed over the course of time (if they have)?
If anything it’s become even more terse than it was in the beginning. As time goes on you begin to get a very firm sense of what the identifying points are for any one sort of product so the whole process becomes rather formulaic. You test the 45th selfie stick in must the same way as the 44th selfie stick so it’s much less like writing than it is simply checking off a list of things to check.

Do you ever respond to comments about your reviews? How do you adjust your reviews in response to those comments?
I do, but not all the time. If the commenter requests information and I can actually provide it, I will do what I can to help out but often I don’t have the product any longer. If I kept every miscellaneous gewgaw that came across my desk I’d have little room for anything else. I have, at times, found myself apologizing to a commenter for missing some nuance of the product that I completely failed to pick up on. Those are exceptionally helpful for the next review but don’t make me feel any less guilty if someone bought a product that didn’t work for them because I gave it high marks. Luckily this doesn’t happen particularly often.

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Book Reviews: The Siege by James Hanna (*****)

Firstly, and as usual, I received this book free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I give my candid thoughts below despite the delightful privilege of receiving a free book.

From the standpoint of narrative form the book is comprised of two parts. In the first 100 pages the narrator is in the midst of a hostage recovery effort but through the use of well-organized flashbacks we see the days that lead up to the incident in meticulous detail. The second part deals with the aftermath in a more straightforward narrative flow.

On the positive side, the writer quite obviously knows what he’s talking about. This is NOT the parboiled Hollywood version of prison drama; this is the raw, gritty and complex reality of life in a prison and the best of its genre that I’ve ever come across. The author’s style is rich and engaging painting a vivid picture of his setting and his very believable characters. If you want the truth behind life in prison administration this is probably the book you’ll want to pick up first.

The only negative that I would note isn’t really a negative so much as a caution to readers who might be looking for a guns-blazing action novel. This isn’t that. As I said, this is real life and real life seldom lives up to the idiotic standard set by the movies. There are moments of what one would call “action” but for the most part the novel is one of psychology and tangled mental interactions between the varied cast of characters.

In summary, highly recommended if you like your novels with engaging ideas over fountains of blood and violence.

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Book Reviews: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne (***)

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As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. This time from LibraryThing. Also as usual I provide my scrupulously honest feedback below.

The story runs basically along the lines of the standard ne’er-do-well gambler who runs afoul of not only the law but also the laws of probability until one day… he doesn’t. That’s really all you need to know and probably exactly what you expected.

On the positive side of things, the setting for this novel is fascinating and that fact alone is what kept me reading. The multitude of cultural differences in the East and Macau specifically make for an entertaining backdrop if you’re a xenophile who just likes to see how other people live and think. It seems evident that the author has spent no small amount of time in this region and has gotten to know the natives as well as they know themselves. I believe this is what the more professional reviews tend to refer to as ‘atmospheric’. It was that and it’s a good thing because there wasn’t much else to keep me interested.

To the negative, there just isn’t … anything. To speak bluntly, things happen to this gent but at no point am I at all sure why I should care. He’s neither sympathetic nor sufficiently odious to inspire any real opinion one way or another. The description refers to this book as “suspenseful” and somehow a “ghost story” but don’t believe a word of it. Through the book there’s a passing reference to spirits in two sentences out of the entire text. Even then it’s just passed off as the superstition of the natives and quickly dropped. I just don’t see how this book lives up to its description.

In summary, normally I blast through a book this size in a night but in this case it stretched on for a week because I kept finding reasons not to go back to it. This one drags on abominably and resides on the fetid fringes of not even worth finishing. If you’re really into Eastern culture or love baccarat specifically, this will have some appeal. The rest of you should just move on to something else. An interesting cultural peepshow but not what the majority of the world is going to consider worthwhile.

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Book Reviews: Dancing in the Streets by Steven P. Unger (***)

As is usual I received this book free in exchange for a review. Despite the great kindness of the author I give my candid opinions below.

To start, I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to finish this book but I can imagine that for a certain sort of reader with more in common with the subject matter this would be a dizzying and unforgettable book.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it because of the almost endless detail. The author describes the times in which he lived with a clarity that few others can even begin to claim. His descriptions are almost Dickensian in their richness and if one has even a remote hook with which to relate to this content then they’ll be inexorably drawn into this cross section of history so wonderfully portrayed. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that hook so it left me with mind wandering and doing the math to find out how long it would be before I could move to something else.

So, is this book for you? I would posit that the optimal readers of this book are in their 60s, or devoted fans of life in the 60s and 70s. They have had some chance to travel, rather randomly and broadly and probably have some stories of their own to tell from the era. Readers of this sort will nod in recognition when they read this book while I was just nodding off.

In summary, this wasn’t the book for me and may not be the book for a lot of people but to some out there this will be THE book that crystallizes their own lifetimes and echoes their own adventures in a former world much different than our own. I appreciate it for its attention to detail and its rare literary craftsmanship but I just couldn’t force my eyes to finish it. Probably a pity but such are the random vicissitudes of literature.

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Book Reviews: The Wife of John the Baptist (*****)

As usual I received this book free in exchange for a review, this time from the author. Also as usual I will give my absolutely candid opinions below.

This novel is a rather unique blend of religion, history and the supernatural. Our protagonist is the daughter of a rich Greek merchant who can sense the history of people and objects merely by touching them. This by itself is a sufficiently unusual beginning to pique most interest and it only gets better from there.

On the positive side, this book is full of intricate historical details but doesn’t really assume that you know anything about the life of everyday people during the life of Christ. The author very patiently explains everything from wedding rituals and menstruation to bathing habits. If nothing else this book is a grand history lesson. If that’s not enough, the book is also a passionate story of love found and lost and found again. One could easily and happily take this whole book in in a single sitting.

To the negative, there’s not much to say but for the span of 10 pages or so there’s a prolonged recital of John’s history that made my eyes glaze over and I almost put away the book. It struck as a discordant note in the narrative and I had to flip ahead several pages to avoid it. Also, it should be noted that I don’t really know the true history of any of these events so I can’t speak to their accuracy but I will say that nothing in the book rang out as obviously contrived. It seems to keep very truly to its primitive historical roots.

In summary, a beautifully wrought and detailed fiction wrapped around one of the most noted names in all of history. If you’re religious or just love a good historical fiction then this is highly recommended as long as you’re not easily offended by a lot of sexual references because apparently they do that quite a bit in the first century A.D.

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