Tim Farrington reviews “The Awful Mess” … and I freak out

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryI recently received an email with a lovely review of “The Awful Mess” from one of my favorite authors, Tim Farrington, who wrote the “The Monk Downstairs” — a book I love so much that I’ve gifted and loaned it repeatedly and put it on my short list of books I recommend to anyone.

And I’ve just been holding onto this review and reading it now and then — hoarding it, really. Not only because it is from Tim, taking my novel seriously, but also because he compares my writing to the work of my favorite author of all time, Jane Austen.

(Insert happy girly scream here.)

See, I was just really hoping he’d like it. I was really hoping for a nice blurb I could use to sell the book. Instead, I got more validation than I’d ever dreamed of. I feel as if I’ve had hands laid on me and I’ve been welcomed into the abbey.

But that’s also a little freaky. As a self-published author, I expected to skulk around the outside of the abbey completely unnoticed for years. Part of me is not sure I really want to take the work that seriously. Except that, of course, I do, or I wouldn’t have published it in the first place.

So I feel incredibly grateful and blessed to have received this gift. This validation.

I’m still strangely reluctant to share it, though, even as I work on this blog post. I shared it with my parents before I drafted this, just to try to loosen up. (Dad congratulated me and told me it made a nice distraction to read it on his iPad during the painful work being done on his ingrown toenails. Thanks for grounding me, Dad.)

Is this because of the whole women-shouldn’t-brag thing? A little fear of genuine sheer hubris? Or am I afraid that this will somehow happen to it:

But taking the work seriously means I have to try to sell these books rather than just write them, the idea being to get people to actually read them, so… here is Tim’s review:

I finished “The Awful Mess” with that wonderful/melancholy sense you get finishing a good book, of a kind joy mixed with sadness that it was over. It is such a lovely novel, in the classic way, with interesting, exquisitely human characters deftly drawn and fascinating in all their particularity, and a story that keeps the pages turning. Despite the comic recurrent note from the characters, that “This isn’t The Scarlet Letter, after all!” this is in fact a book in lovely dialogue with Hawthorne’s story, a New England story of a fiercely independent heroine struggling for a life worthy of aspirations, and her entwinement, in a small town, with a minister of the Lord, among others; and so a story of conscience, passion, and hypocrisy, of souls tested not only the fire of moral truths but in the glaring but often unilluminating light of a tiny community’s gossip, prejudices, and presumptions.

Mary Bellamy is wonderfully contemporary, and utterly sympathetic character, and her growth in both knowledge and self-knowledge throughout the book gives us some of the novel’s most satisfying substance. As a self-described “heathen” with a sharp mind, a good heart, and a wicked sense of humor, she also acts as a sort of acid test for the varieties of faith she encounters, and when she falls by the wayside to a violent catastrophe, it is through her eyes that we see the parable of the Good Samaritan enacted in fresh contemporary garb, with vivid and specific contemporary characters. And Mary herself, through her struggles, comes to see the real difference between the sheep and the goats: there is bathwater aplenty in this unsparing look at human piety and human self-delusion, but there is a baby as well, and a lovely awareness of that real heart of humanity is one of the many things that make the novel so completely satisfying.

It puts me in mind of Jane Austen, the moral mathematics here, that almost algebraic Austenesque precision in the characters ultimately reaping what they sow, and paying to the last farthing, is so strong and rings so exquisitely true in every case.

It’s wonderful, in short! It renews me as a reader, to enjoy a book so much; and as a writer, see it done so well.

What more could a writer ask for, right? A glowing review of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”? (He did that too!!!) Maybe this is all just more writing-happiness than I can handle in short order. But it’s also wonderful.

Today I’m off to Florida. I hope to check out a locale or two from the next book as well as see Mom and Dad and his toes. I’ll probably be back in two weeks to share my thoughts about that — well, not the toes. I don’t write horror.

The importance of reviews and feedback … even in a climate of fear

As if it wasn’t already hard enough for indie authors to get reviews, things appear to getting scary out there. Amazon is allegedly coming down hard on authors and friends and apparent friends who review each other’s books.

The thing is, authors often, as part of normal, professional networking, befriend people who review us or write in our genres or share our challenges. Or we may discover that some of the people we already count as friends turn out to be great readers and reviewers.

And I know that I have gone back to some of those readers who most seem to “get” what I’m doing for beta reading.

But now that means the people who wrote our favorite reviews the first time around and then give us initial reads on new books can’t safely leave a review when the new book is published. Amazon says they helped with the book, so they’re disqualified. These people can be quoted in a blurb —  a blurb that means absolutely nothing if the reader is not an author or some other public figure. A blurb that is also, by definition, hardly going to be a full, meaty review.

Frankly, these rules are really tough on indies. We often gain our first readers solely by virtue of knowing them. It’s not as if people are going to find our books in a bookstore or the New York Times Book Review, nor do we generally get the advertising support or the favored positioning that some traditional books do (and all of Amazon’s own imprints do).

I do believe it’s more ethical to mention how I know a person when I review a book, at least when a person is being him or herself. The only time I’ve held back is when it feels tantamount to ‘outing’ them — generally, when they seem to be trying to fly under the radar with a nom de plume. Which Amazon would seem to be encouraging, actually, with this crackdown, unless they also have some secret algorithm for figuring out who’s pulling that off. Which is possible.

And of course there are plenty of reviews I don’t leave because that would be kinder than giving my honest opinion, or because I’m not sure my honest opinion would be welcome — God knows I’ve occasionally discovered that it isn’t — though the great bulk of the reviews I haven’t left can be blamed on me not having read the book yet.

But now… do I dare review anyone ever again, even with a disclosure? Anywhere but on Amazon, apparently. Which is the only place where reviews really matter, or have, up to now.

It’s all another argument for not depending too much on one monolithic retailer.

And please remember … even if you are a friend, or colleague, even if you fear crossing into dangerous territory by reviewing, most authors desperately want to hear from you. Did you read it? Did you finish it? Did you like it? So please … at least send an email, or put up a Facebook post, or tweet, or send a letter via snail mail, or resort to Goodreads, or try to post on Amazon’s competitors, or say something in the grocery store.

This brings me to the great compliment an old fanfic pal of mine paid me, recently, by sending me thoughtful answers to ALL the questions I’d put in the discussion guide for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

I loved this so much I’ve put it on my web site. If you’re interested in it — and it does contain major spoilers, so keep that in mind — you can find it here. I’m sure she and I would both be fascinated to hear further discussion of any of these points.

 

Update: Brenda Perlin has an interesting post on this issue in Indies Unlimited this week, and includes a link to a petition to Amazon, should you be so inclined.

 

The writing life: Should we risk offending people, or not?

Last month, an article in the Romance Writers of America newsletter Romance Writers Report by Jennifer Fusco caused quite a bit of controversy by recommending that authors avoid controversy. It gave specific examples in telling authors what to avoid comment on: “…religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Politics.”

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

And thus, ironically, Fusco did exactly what she was advising authors not to do.

The response apparently began with Racheline Maltese, who writes LGBTQ romances and was understandably offended by the idea that she should shut up about a matter of basic civil rights.

Sean Munger took it a step further, noting that the kind of author who would avoid any comment on matters like this is just plain boring. I think it’s a brilliant analysis.

Then again, it’s convenient for me to think that, because I find I just can’t shut up about this stuff. I did try. One of the first things I did before starting out into social media was read M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyer’s What to Do Before Your Book Launch (which is quite useful, yet oddly costs at minimum $115 new at Amazon right now — and, I’m sorry, but it’s not THAT useful — the first link up above is the ebook for Nook at $5.99). It essentially offered the same advice, without the specifics to rile people up.

It was advice that resonated for me at that point, because at the time I had just taken my son’s computer for fixing to a local guy whose shop turned out to be full of rabidly anti-Obama stuff. While this was still arguably better than going to get some high school kid to work on it at the national chain where I’d bought the machine, I swore that I was never going back to that guy again. (Incidentally, his web site gave me no clue of what I was getting into.)

It’s not that I boycott businesses owned by Republicans — I have a number of Republican friends. I occasionally even vote Republican in local elections. But I felt practically assaulted by all the vitriol in his shop — and I couldn’t help but conclude that anyone THAT rudely in-my-face about his politics didn’t really deserve my business.

And in social media there’s often no mediating personal relationship. I may not know that you are at heart a kindly fellow who will go out of his way to help the poor at the local food pantry. I only know that you are spreading what I consider racist propaganda. CLICK! You’re unfollowed.

This works both ways, of course. I notice that if I get specifically down on, say, the GOP’s attitude towards what they call “entitlement” programs, I immediately lose some Twitter followers.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too fast in our judgments, especially in an age of irony. Is this guy joking or is he serious?

The thing is that while I do indeed try to employ what Mary Maddox describes as “a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions,” anyone who reads my books with a keen eye may notice a strong point of view about feeding the hungry and marriage equality (and other aspects of inclusiveness in the Episcopal Church) in The Awful Mess, and about women’s rights and justice issues surrounding rape in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

So if I’m going to anger people who disagree with me on those issues anyway, why should I hold back before they buy the book? Is it my job to try to fool people into thinking they’re going to read something else?

Of course, after teaching college English for some years, I have also noticed that people will read pretty much whatever they want to believe into any given book. Seriously. So … yeah, if I didn’t want to chase away any potential readers, I suppose I could keep my views hidden and they might never even notice that I disagree with them.

But I still can’t do it. These views matter, or I wouldn’t have written in the books in the first place! I didn’t write the books to be able to say, “Hey, look, I wrote some books! Aren’t they shiny?” I wrote them to say something. It’s all working towards the same end. It’s all living out loud.

So I’m just going to be as obnoxiously opinionated as I feel called to be by my concept of the truth. Yours may well vary from mine. We can still respect each other’s right to speak. You never know, the world might even benefit from our discussion.

The old standbys — books I will recommend to anyone

Choosing books for people can be a lot like choosing art for people. It’s fairly hit-or-miss trying to find something that is exactly to their taste.

But I get asked for book recommendations fairly often, and I have a few standbys that I’ll mention to just about anyone because I am almost certain they will be enjoyed.

I’m sure you have some, too, including some I’ll miss here, so feel free to share them in a comment! (For example, I still haven’t yet read Lonesome Dove or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both are on my shelf, waiting in my loooooong queue of Books Not Read Yet.)

But the books I have read — and recommend even to people I don’t know well — are these:

Cover of I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle 

Young Cassandra wants to be a writer and thus can see the romance of living in a derelict castle because her father’s writing block is impoverishing them all. Then new neighbors move in, and life gets even more romantically interesting.

The summary may not sound like much, but this is simply one of the most charming books I’ve ever read. It will make you smile and it will make you laugh, and you will just hate to get to the end of it and have to let these characters go.


GuernseyCoverThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The only problem with always wanting to recommend this book is that I can never remember the title correctly. It’s an epistolary novel (i.e. told in letters) that gives us a peek at a close-knit community on the island of Guernsey (off the coast of the UK) during German occupation in World War II.

There’s slow-building romance, hunger, danger, comedy, and lots and lots of charm. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t enjoy this book.


Cover of The Monk DownstairsThe Monk Downstairs

Okay, I’ll admit that this one may annoy people who are committed atheists OR people who are really piously Christian, but most others should enjoy the slow romance of tired single mom Rebecca, working hard to keep her life together, and runaway monk Michael, who’s flipping burgers at a McDonalds and living in her downstairs apartment.

I include it because if you’re here I assume you found some enjoyment in The Awful Mess, and because I just love this combination of romance, theology, and comedy.


And that’s it for this week. It’s actually harder to pick out books I’d expect everyone to love than I thought. Of course, there are many others I might recommend to someone who enjoys romance and can cope with science fiction elements (The Time Traveler’s Wife) or can handle a sad ending (Little Bee) or doesn’t mind literary prose (Housekeeping), or is already familiar enough with British classics to appreciate a spoof (Cold Comfort Farm).

In fact, as I wrote this, I kept coming up with subcategories:

  • Books for people who love Jane Austen
  • Books for Episcopalians, or at least progressive Christians
  • Books for people who appreciate literary prose
  • Books for people who appreciate a tragic ending
  • Wonderful memoirs
  • Books about writers and writing
  • Books for people who enjoy British comedy
  • Books for people who enjoy American comedy
  • Books that will introduce you to Southern literature

So, I have plenty to write about in the future, if I go in that direction. Feel free to let me know what categories you’d be most interested in. (And if nobody’s interested, I guess that’s good to know, too. Ha!)

I’m also opening this spot to occasional guest posts from other writers who would like to write a “Showing some love to ____________” blog post about a favorite (preferably not already incredibly popular) writer’s work, or something else you love that would be of interest to the kind of readers and writers who are likely to be found here. (And yes, of course, you can plug your own book at the same time.) So if you’d like to take part in that, just let me know through the contact form or below.

Happy reading!

P.S. I’d still love your vote for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire for 2015 Readers’ Choice Award in contemporary/literary/general fiction at BigAl’s Books and Pals. Voting closes March 28, US Mountain Time. While you’re there, check out the fine nominated indie fiction and nonfiction across a whole bunch of categories.

 

 

 

 

 

A fun interview, a BigAl review, and a shameless bribe

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

This week I was fortunate enough to enjoy two big events in the life of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, my second novel.

First, BigAl of BigAl and Pals reviewed it very positively. Of course, like most reviewers he also notes that it may force you to ponder things you never wanted to. That may make this book harder to sell than The Awful Mess, which is easier sailing once you get past that pesky committing-adultery-with-a-married-priest thing.

Later in the week I had an interview on The Indie View, which asked some great questions. I enjoyed answering them — though it was something I did a while ago, so it was a little funny to see that some of my ideas (for example, about how to market the book) have already changed.

They decided to highlight the one bit of name dropping I did, so I’m going to assume that was clever somehow, and keep going. Yes, I used to sit in Marilynne Robinson’s living room while her husband Fred Miller Robinson, then a professor at UMass/Amherst, taught the undergraduate creative writing workshop I was taking. I remember being impressed that they were so hospitable with a bunch of scraggly undergrads. (I was of course even more impressed later, when I read her first novel, Housekeeping. Amazing book for those of you who appreciate beautifully-crafted literary fiction.)

That shameless bribe I mentioned

I’m trying to grow my subscriber list, so in order to entice you to join it, I offer the following:

  • As I’ve noted before, this year I’m going to award a $20 online bookstore gift certificate (Amazon or whatever you prefer) to a random person drawn from the subscriber list each quarter. So at the end of March, somebody’s getting one. The list is still pretty small, so your odds are way higher here than they are in other lotteries. (Sorry, family members, you are disqualified.)
  • cover for Motivated Sellers

    “Motivated Sellers” – a prequel to The Awful Mess

    I’ve finished the short prequel to The Awful Mess that began with “After that Slap.” (Those of you already on the list may remember this.) It’s in production at the moment. It’s now called “Motivated Sellers” and I will soon make it available free to all members of my reading list. You get to spend some time with Winslow and Bert and watch Mary’s real estate agent dodge that issue of how the house smells. And then I’d love it if you’d let me know whether you think I should make it available to the general public or not.

Those of you already on the list know I don’t send a lot of email. Right now if you want blog posts, that’s a separate subscription. I may combine the two lists, just so the update people don’t forget who I am. Blog posts only come every two weeks unless something exciting is going on. (I tried doing it weekly again recently and while I enjoy it, I find it takes a major amount of time that really ought to be going to fiction writing.)

And yes, spring WILL come

forced blossoms and primroses

Some flowers to help us survive winter!

I want to end on a cheery note for those of us suffering through the worst winter in decades in the American Northeast (as I write this, it is snowing AGAIN.) I forced these branches from a sick tree in front of the house into blossom this week. It’s a reminder that those buds out there really will swell and break into flower and leaf someday.

Want to try it yourself? Cut some branches, put them in water — maybe with a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide to discourage bacteria — and be patient. It took about three weeks, and I had just been about to dump it all as a failed experiment when I noticed the buds swelling. Forsythia and willows are the easiest to do this with, if you have those. But fruit trees can work. I used to do it with ninebark, too. If you hammer the ends of the branches flat that is supposed to help them take up water, but I didn’t bother with that.

Those are primroses underneath the branches. I picked them up at the grocery store on sale this week. (They are often on sale about now.) If I keep the spent blossoms pinched and keep them moist, they should continue to bloom for quite some time.

Stay warm and think spring thoughts!