Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Evolution of a Book Blogger


wave of nostalgia


This week, book bloggers all over the interwebs are participating in #BloggerBlackout to protest not just the actions of Kathleen Hale, but the tacit approval of her trip to crazy town by her publisher and The Guardian after she published her "article," Am I Being Catfished? (the answer to this question, which people have been treating as rhetorical for some reason, is: NO. YOU'RE NOT BEING CATFISHED. Catfishing is where people pretend to be someone/thing they're not in an **online relationship**. The book blogger you stalked was pursuing neither a personal nor a professional relationship with you. She was simply reading your book and offering an opinion about it online to people in general, not even you in particular).

I'm not necessarily participating in #BloggerBlackout (cuz... what exactly am I going to black out around here), but I decided to brave the perils of carpal tunnel syndrome and write about a topic that's been on my mind lately, namely how I got to this place where I spend a major portion of my life blogging about books and other things. I've been thinking about it not just because of Hale, but because in order to know where you're going you need to know where you've been. And it feels as if both this blog and book blogging in general is at a turning point right now. How we move forward will dictate how our community forms in the future.

So, if you can forgive a bit of navel gazing, here's the story of a book blogger (me).

understanding star ratings by xkcd


It all started with Amazon.com reviews, which I began writing in high school. They were ungrammatical and only a few hundred words each, but I was personally quite proud of them. I was obsessed with my Amazon reviewer ranking and would check it on a daily basis (this is where my antipathy for Harriet Klausner started—her reviews were all four or five stars, and sometimes it was obvious she hadn't even read the book. Yet she's Amazon's number one book reviewer?? Enraging).

Anyway, my Amazon review phase didn't last very long. For some reason I lost interest in late 2002. My posted reviews gradually become fewer and far between, until my last Amazon review for a book I read for my thesis.

After 2002, years passed without much online activity on my end. I'd answer e-mail and check my Amazon book recommendations once a day, and that was about it. Then, in 2006, my friend convinced me to join the pretty-much-obsolete site Xanga.com. She told me I would love it, and I did. At Xanga I mainly blogged about personal stuff, but also talked about books and movies off and on. I was frustrated by some aspects of Xanga: I really wanted to blog more about art and books, but the interest in those subjects was sparse. However, I did make several very good friends there, some of whom are still blogging today, like Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads, Anaraug from Adventures in Thing Making, and Ruth from Booktalk and More.

My other major activity online during this time was checking Amazon.com and authors' websites for information about new releases. Yes, it's strange but true: I used to be obsessed with new releases and cover reveals. I even had an elaborate calendar that I kept updated of what books were coming out when, and I'd usually read a book within a week of its release date. I say this was strange not because I consider it odd behavior, but because now I couldn't care less and read maybe one or two new releases a year. It could happen to you!

Anyway, it was through an author's website (I forget whose, but I think it was Anne Stuart's) that I came across the now-defunct Romance Novel TV in early 2008. I loved it. Romance! And TV! The site combined two of my favoritest things. After devouring all the videos, I went to the message boards, where I found something I didn't even realize existed: a community of people who loved discussing, making fun of, and rhapsodizing over romance novels as much as I did. Many of the people I met on the message boards at Romance Novel TV later started their own romance blogs, including Katiebabs from Babbling About Books and More, Kati D (who now writes for Dear Author), Kristie J from Ramblings on Romance, Etc., and Orannia from Walkabout.

One of the stars of Romance Novel TV, Sarah, had her own blog before anyone else. It was a small review site you might still be familiar with called Smart Bitches Trashy Books. SBTB is not a site I frequent a lot anymore, but when I first came across it, it seemed like the most amazing thing since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

See, before the internet, the only critical discourse you could find about romance novels was published in more or less industry controlled magazines. Basically, the reviews were just four or five star pablum—much like Harriet Klausner's—that were NOT TO BE TRUSTED. I mean, there's differences in taste and then there's, "Were you high when you read this novel? Because there's NO WAY someone with an IQ above 90 and a middle school diploma would think this was a good book." My point being, Sarah and Candy at SBTB told it like it was. If something was crap, they mocked the shit out of it. If something was amazing, they cheered for it. And if something was problematic, they discussed it. This was NOT available before the internet, at least not to me.

In the meantime, Ruth on Xanga was linking to these new things called "book blogs," such as Bookish Ruth, and I personally was itching for a place where I could indulge my desire to write about books more in-depth (and get more readers who would care about such a thing) than I could on Xanga. So in late 2008 I bit the bullet, signed up for a blogger account, and started a book blog called Heidenkind's Hideaway, which eventually I retitled Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books. My first post was a five star review of My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne. My second post was about my favorite scary books (in November—timely as always), and I was off and running. Soon I was participating in Twitter hashtag discussions like #RRTheater and blogging events like the 24 Hour Readathon and Bloggiesta.

I take you through this narrative to demonstrate two things: one, book blogging *is* a community. We didn't just pop up out of nowhere. We have a long history with each other, with books, and with critical discourse. At the same time, the community is diverse. We pull from different sources but come together, not just in our love books (because plenty of people who love books don't become book bloggers), but in our desire to talk about them.

Secondly, I wanted to show how my history with book blogging informs my reviews. I grew up out of the romance blogging community, which  in the early years was antagonistic toward the traditional romance review outlets. People may say reviews are for readers and whatnot, but for a long time that wasn't strictly true. I'm guessing more industry professionals than readers subscribed to Romantic Times, so is it any wonder their reviews were more of a feel-good gesture than an accurate representation of what the books were about and how people engaged with them? Sure, your book is a bestseller, but you remain blissfully unaware it's because people think it's a hilarious pile of shit until Goodreads or Twitter status updates come along and rip your illusions to shreds (and not coincidentally, it was actually Harris' GR status updates that set off Hale off, not any review. She didn't write a review of Hale's book, unless you consider a two-word "fuck this" a review... which I guess it is). Reviews are one thing, but the way people engage with your product on a critical or emotional level isn't "for" anyone, whether they be readers or writers.

And that's what book blogging was in the early days. Think of #RRTheater again (which eventually became #romfail), where Jane from Dear Author would download the Friday freebie from Ravenous Romance and then live tweet it. That was critical engagement! And it was freaking hilarious! Reviews on SBTB were fun!

That's why I started writing reviews and why this blog is *still* mainly reviews, despite the fact that popular wisdom says reviews don't get a lot of clicks. My blog isn't about clicks, or getting free books (although that's always nice), or even writing reviews "for readers," for that matter. It's about engaging with books, having fun, and sharing that with other readers. When I stop having fun, when it stops being about something, I'll stop blogging. Until then, I'm not going to let the fuckers bring me down. No one should.


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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Readathon Wrap Up


The touching story of an apparently homeless and car-less woman with a proclivity for waking up in bathtubs.

This song seemed very appropriate around 8 o'clock last night. I also think I have more believable street cred than Ke$ha does in this video, which makes me feel better about myself.

Moving on...

The Readathon is over! Predictably, I didn't get much reading done once I sat down in front of the TV after dinner. But I did cheer for a few hours, so it wasn't a total waste.

Here are a few pics from my adventures in Readathoning yesterday:


The t-shirt I wore to remind myself what I was supposed to do for the day. I have no idea why it's flipped around. Dang phone.


Sofie keeping me company while I read Full Dark House and drank tea on the porch.


Cheering on the other Readathon-ers with a little martini.



And now for the end of event meme:


1) Which hour was most daunting for you?

Probably hour 11 or so, after I'd finished my first book and was feeling really tired.

2) Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?

From this Readathon, no. I think anything by Laura Florand would be good, though.

3) Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

Things seemed to go pretty smoothly this year. I can't think of a thing y'all could have done better!

4) What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?

The Instagram feed was fun. I didn't participate in any minichallenges, so I can't speak to that.

5) How many books did you read?

I finished two books and started three books.

6) What were the names of the books you read?

Finished: The Genius and the Muse and It Happened in Egypt
Started: The Hundred Foot Journey, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Full Dark House


7) Which book did you enjoy most?

Probably Full Dark House, although I'm not even 10% into it yet, so still reserving judgment.

8) Which did you enjoy least?

The Genius and the Muse. It was so stupid and boring. There was a good book in there somewhere, it just wasn't *that* book.

9) If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?

I guess just have fun with it and don't get overwhelmed. When I saw all the people I had to cheer for, I was like, "This is going to take FOREVER!" But actually it took less than two hours and I still had time to comment on a few of my friends' blogs, too.

10) How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?

I would love to participate again! I'll definitely do a mix of cheering and reading, and I'd like to focus more on minichallenges next time. I completely neglected them this time around.



Thanks to everyone who made the Readathon happen this fall—you guys are amazing and I had such a good time! See you in April.


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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Readathon Mid-Event Survey

Benedict Cumberbatch reading

Oh hai. Did you know there's an entire Tumblr devoted to Benedict Cumberbatch reading things? You're welcome.

Anyway. I've been informed we're midway through the Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon! I am, like, SO TIRED YOU GUYS. I need tea or something.

Here's what I've been up to since my last update:

  • A lot of Instagramming.
  • Skimming through that boring book I mentioned last time.
  • Playing "Who wants the stick?!" with the dogs. Surprisingly enough, EVERYONE wants the stick.
  • Listening to playlists on Amazon Prime. I started off listening to the reading playlists (they have them for different genres like romance, crime fiction, etc.), but I found them really literal and unimaginative. So I switched to Ke$ha and More, and now I'm on Foster the People and More.
  • Burned all of the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban audio CDs to my computer. I may listen to them later.



There's a mid-event meme for these types of things, or so I've heard. Let's get to it!

1. What are you reading right now?

The Hundred Foot Journey, but I think I'm going to switch to something else for a bit. The battery in my iPad is dying.

2. How many books have you read so far?

I finished The Genius and the Muse and It Happened In Egypt. I was currently reading both before the Readathon started, however.

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?

I really don't know. I think I'm going to give Full Dark House a shot.

4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?

Not really. It's nice to have a day to oneself once in a while.

5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?

I think how tired I am right now, considering I slept in! I really have to drink that tea.



That's all for now. I'll return for updates in a few hours. Hope your Readathon is going well!



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Readathon Start Post

readathon

Hey, everyone! As promised, here I am, up at the crack of noon (technically 11:30) and rarin' to go.

Let's get started with the opening meme for today's Readathon:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

Colorado, USA

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

Hmm, maybe The 100 Foot Journey?

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

I didn't prep any snacks. :( I guess the leftover sandwich I was going to eat for lunch? I wish I'd made something ahead for breakfast, like this baked omelet in bread from Full Fork Ahead, but I didn't. Oh well. Next time.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

As of last night I'm one of the new digital editors for my local indie mag! Hooray! It's very part-time—20 hours a week at most; I'll probably work more like 10—but I'm happy to get some newsroom and editing experience under my belt.

Also, back to having 3 jobs! Yayyyyyyyy?

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

Well, I hope to actually finish a book this time around, if not 2! I'm debating whether to try to finish my current read, The Genius and the Muse, before moving on to one of my Readathon books. It's kind of boring and I was actually just using it as a placeholder until I could start a new book for the Readathon, but last night it got marginally interesting. Idk. Maybe I'll just skim through it.


And now I'm off to read for awhile, barring distractions from Twitter and Facebook. See you all in a few!


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Friday, October 17, 2014

Readathon Readathon Readathon!

readathon

Hello! Is anyone still out there? I hope so. I know it's been really quiet here lately, but working 3 jobs will do that to a person. Fortunately, my "square" job (which was actually seasonal) ended Tuesday.

I say fortunately not because I was glad it was over--I was actually a little sad--but because that means I can participate in the Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon! For some reason I thought the Readathon was last weekend (when I was working) and that I wouldn't be able to participate, so I was doubly excited when I realized I'd actually be off! With zero obligations to anyone! Yeehaw!

Anyway, my plans for the Readathon are to wake up late (I'm super tired--strangely I've been busier since my job ended than when I had it), read until about 7pm or so, then watch Doctor Who and cheer until bed time.

I don't have any snacks prepared this time around, because time. I haz none. I'll probably go for leftovers and take out and alcohol. But I have been putting thoughts into my Readathon stack!

Here's what I've been thinking of reading:

the shadowy horses susanna kearsley

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads gave me this for my birthday. It sounds really good!

the hundred foot journey by richard c morais

The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais
Bridget from Portable Pieces of Thoughts gave me this one for my birthday. Its sounds like a fun, fast read that's perfect for the Readathon.

as the crow flies craig johnson

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson
I'm kinda in the mood to read Craig Johnson right now, and this is the next book in the series I have yet to read.


I know that's not a lot of books, but realistically I never finish books during the Readathon anyway. So I'm looking at it more as a great book to start reading for the week. If I manage to finish it in one day I will be really proud of myself!

If you're participating in the Readathon, good luck and happy Readathoning! I'll be back to check in later on Saturday.


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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: SIX OF HEARTS by LH Cosway

six of hearts cover

When street magician and illuuuuuuuusionist Jay Fields walks into the law offices of Matilda’s father, little does she know Jay will change her and her father’s lives. Although her father refuses to represent Jay against a newspaper in a libel case, it just so happens he has a room to let in their home, and Jay is in need of a place to live. As Matilda and Jay spend more time together, their mutual attraction becomes undeniable, but Matilda senses there’s more to Jay’s libel case than meets the eye. Will Matilda still want him once Jay pulls the curtain on his final trick?

I do enjoy LH Cosway’s novels, but Six of Hearts just didn’t come together for me. It’s a good thing this novel was obviously a revenge story (I’m a sucker for revenge stories), or I might have drifted off to another novel before I finished it.

My biggest problem with Six of Hearts was plausibility. I had a very difficult time buying into some of the things that happened early in the book—for example, the third bedroom that Matilda’s dad was trying to rent. It was way too convenient, not to mention weird. Or like when Jay easily convinced Matilda to go to a casino to “make money” for a sewing machine she’d been saving up for—one doesn’t gamble to “make money,” unless one is planning on cheating. That’s just common sense, and I found it difficult to believe that Matilda, who was clearly a planner and conservative spender, would so easily agree to risk her savings that way.

And then there was Matilda’s refusal to recognize Jay’s attraction to her, which was INSANELY obvious. I mean, I get that she’s shy and not very confident, but 200 pages was way too long to drag that shit out, especially when the guy in question was taking her out on dates, spooning with her in bed, acting all jealous when she saw other guys, etc. etc. Newsflash: HE LIKE-LIKES YOU, GIRL. YOU’RE JUST BEING STUPID NOW.

I also didn’t find the main characters to be as well-drawn as in previous Cosway novels like Still Life with Strings and Painted Faces. For an illuuuuuuusionist, Jay didn’t seem to do many tricks. I did like that Matilda had a hobby—dressmaking—but the sewing machine was the only prop to support it. There were no dress forms or mention of fabrics and where she stored them, and her descriptions of fashion and clothing was cursory at best. Niggling little details, definitely, but they bothered me.

That’s not to say the book is bad—I adored the basic concept of Six of Hearts and Cosway kept me engaged through the whole novel, even when I thought it was being a bit ridiculous. But I also suspect that, in the hands of a more skilled writer, this story could have been amazeballs instead of just okay. For example, if Arthur Conan Doyle had written this novel, he’d have had me convinced one thing was going on when it was actually a completely different thing. If Alexandre Dumas had written Six of Hearts, the plot would have unfolded with the precision of ticking clock and I’d have been blindsided by how Jay set it all up.

Neither of those scenarios happened here, and I feel like EXPECTING those things to have happened is reasonable because Cosway references the work of both those authors in the book. It was like she was aware of how she could have played with the similarities between magic and great storytelling, but instead of actually trying to do that she focused most of her energies on the relationship between Jay and Matilda. And while I did like them together and thought they had great chemistry, I didn’t think that alone was enough to support the entire novel.

So, somewhat of a mixed bag for me on this one. But Six of Hearts is still a better and more interesting read than 80% of contemporary romances out there, so worth the buy I’d say.



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Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Gabriel Allon Novels by Daniel Silva: THE HEIST and PRINCE OF FIRE

As most of you probably know by now, I'm a big fan of Daniel Silva's work. It all started with 2013's The English Girl, one of the best thrillers I've ever read. After finishing that novel, I decided to dig into Silva's backlist and, unintentionally, started reading the Gabriel Allon series backward. But recently I broke with that trend and skipped both ahead and backward, reading Silva's latest—The Heist—and 2006's Prince of Fire practically back-to-back.

Unfortunately I wasn't terribly impressed with either of them.

For those of you who aren't familiar, Silva's series follows the adventures and misadventures of Gabriel Allon, the greatest spy of all the times. Born to a Holocaust survivor, Allon was recruited by the Mossad after the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. His job: hunt down the members of Black September and assassinate them. Allon, who originally wanted to be an artist, couldn't paint original pieces afterward and instead became an art restorer—an art restorer frequently called in by the Mossad to take care of shit-head terrorists because HE'S THE ONLY SPY IN ISRAEL. Or something.

prince of fire cover


In Prince of Fire, Allon is restoring an important altarpiece in Venice, when he's called back to Israel. His information has been leaked, possibly to the son of one of the Black September men he assassinated. Even worse, the man gunning for Gabriel has figured out where his wife, Leah, is hidden.

Bridget from Portable Pieces of Thoughts told me I should read Prince of Fire next, and I can kind of see why. This is the book where Allon's core team is formed, and so far the only one I've read where Leah plays a big role in the action. Honestly, the way Leah is treated in this book infuriated me. See, Leah keeps reliving the same day—the day her and Gabriel's son died in a car bomb explosion—over and over. Why? Maybe it's because she's hopped up on meds and doesn't do anything but stare out an asylum window all day, who knows! Meanwhile, Gabriel is cavorting with his nubile young lover, Chiara, half a continent away in Venice. Channeling Mr. Rochester much there, buddy?

That's bad enough, but then Leah actually leaves the asylum for a while. And she actually starts getting better! Imagine that. Like, she starts interacting with her world some more and pulling herself out of her fugue states. At least until Gabriel gets ahold of her and sticks her back in another asylum. This is one kidnapping where I was rooting for the bad guys to get away with it.

And don't even get me started on Chiara, who is beyond annoying in this book. If the guy you're in love with is 1. married, 2. promised to marry you, and yet still 3. isn't divorcing his first wife, then there's a problem. The fact that Gabriel pulled the "Leah needs me right now," card quite frankly boggles my mind. At least Chiara left him, although I could have done without the tearful goodbye and Gabriel's attitude of self-sacrificing nobility.

grumpy clint eastwood
Uhg. Get off my lawn.


After finishing Prince of Fire, I resolved to not dig into Silva's backlist any farther, except maybe to read the first Gabriel Allon novel. The books are just getting to be too annoying.

I was, however, still really looking forward to reading Silva's latest release, The Heist. Silva's novels have gotten progressively better over time, so if the trend continued The Heist was shaping up to be completely amazeballs.

Obviously my expectations were really high. Too high.

the heist cover


In The Heist, Gabriel is back in Venice, once again restoring something. Art restorers gonna restore. He's waiting for Chiara to give birth and for Uzi's term as Boss Guy of Israeli Intelligence (I don't know the official name) to end so that he can take over. It's like a mini-vacation, if you will. And then the Boss Guy of the Carabinieri Art Squad (again, don't know the official name, but you get the idea) shows up and "asks" Gabriel to look into the mysterious death of an art collector. Gabriel can't get one moment to himself, I tell ye, NOT ONE MOMENT.

Anywho, after walking around the crime scene for, like, thirty seconds, Gabriel figures out Fancy Art Collector Guy (again, not the official title) was actually and very unsurprisingly Stolen Art Smuggler Guy. And the game is afoot. Will this all tie into a Middle-East terrorist plot to blow something up? This is a Gabriel Allon novel, soooooooo: probably, yes.

The Heist wasn't a bad novel by any means, but so much of it felt like a retread. The use-an-art-smuggling-ring-to-find-terrorists element was extremely reminiscent of the same device Silva employed in The Fallen Angel. Gabriel uses a Muslim woman to gain access to terrorist bank accounts, just like he did in Portrait of a Spy, and said woman is kidnapped, just like she was in Portrait of a Spy (running tally of women kidnapped in this series so far: 4). Even minor characters from The English Girl make a reappearance. And yes, I did like those characters in The English Girl, but there's no reason for them to be in The Heist. Like Christopher Keller literally has nothing to do; I kind of even forgot he was there.

To be fair, I thought Silva executed all these elements more skillfully in The Heist than he did in his previous novels, but it felt a tad phoned in. The Heist had no anima, no oomph. Bridget told me that Silva had trouble finishing the book and only did so because of pressure from his publisher, which if true would explain a lot. Even with the lack of inspiration, however, Silva is still on top of current politics in the region, and what he has to say is still extraordinarily relevant. It's just not terribly new.

The Heist is a novel where the main character is waiting—waiting for his new life as a father and Intelligence Director Guy (I should really look these titles up) to begin and his old life as Broody Super Secret Agent Man to end. Accordingly, it feels like the author is waiting, too. Hopefully whatever Silva is waiting for will happen between now and his next book.





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