Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Rat's Derriere

Stuart W. Mirsky at the Amazon Discussion Board, Adventure Genre, POD Books Department, asked me a few questions about the operations at iUBR. After composing a somewhat detailed reply on that board, I thought I should post a variant here. The subjects of Stuart's questions should be obvious from these statements.

From its inception in July 2006 until about a year later, I don't think I refused to review a single book. (I cannot be sure my memory is correct on this issue.) As the second half of 2007 brought more and more attention to iUBR, this situation had to rapidly change, much as I had always known it would. At some point, any venture has to either grow or die, and I was soon swamped in the morass of too many books to read and review. I began keeping more accurate records of the whole procedure and made plans to slowly expand the operation. Once the announcement arrived of the impending merger with AuthorHouse, I planned to glow with the flow and expand iUBR at least to all the AH publications. The addition of many of the smaller POD firms to the submissions list was not much of a stretch once I had corralled a cadre of reviewers.

If you look at my own books and scan through the whole package of iUBR, you will see that I am not your typical genre fiction author, but the great majority of POD authors are in that group. The point of the reviews at iUBR is not to please individual genre obsessors with the rating of plotlines, but to separate the quality POD books from the junk. This idea is based more on presentation, grammar, editing, niche marketing, and, the bane of POD, proofreading, than it is storyline satisfaction for readers of particular genres. The Amazon review system is actually more foe than friend in this scenario, since most Amazon reviews are posted either by non-legitimate sources or for non-legitimate reasons; i.e., paid reviewers, authors' acquaintances, or particular genre obsessors raving about the doo-dahs they love. Few of these charlatans give a rat's derriere about editing, proofreading, or any other such boring, technical issues.

Unfortunately, most POD authors only want to be rich and famous, and they don't care how or why. That's where I come in, and yes, I have made a few authors mad at me. It's a dirty job, and somebody's got to do it, or else POD will never shake the stigma of publishing bad books by not-real authors. There are mainly two reasons why I have always in the past reviewed only iU books. The first is to write what you know and the second is that the submission pool has to be limited somehow. The number of submissions refused at iUBR has been gradually increasing, and I expect that trend to continue. When a request has been received, I have a pattern of criteria I look for in my research of the author and his or her book. I take into account the following issues, as well as many more: the age and experience of the author, many variables within the scope of the present reviews at Amazon, B&N, and other sites, the genre of the book (unusual is better), and the sales rankings (good is a demerit and bad is a plus). By encouraging all prospective submitters to read some of the more critical posts at iUBR, I feel that many of the get-famous-quick monkeys are discouraged from submitting to iUBR in the first place.

Once an author has passed the submissions screening, they are given the most personal service on the web. All authors receive an e-mail message from me at the conclusion of the review process, stating that they may use any part of the reviews in any manner they wish, allowing even a scathing review to be excerpted to the author's best advantage, making any trip to the dunking tank at least survivable. Those few authors who snap back at me like smart-mouth teenagers are the ones who ultimately prove to be butts. The ones who have professional attitudes and act like adults can at least expect to be treated with respect at iUBR in a manner they will never receive anywhere else. I don't claim to be perfect, and yes, I do tend to be harder on those who have achieved more success in the rich-and-famous manner than those who have not. I consider myself to be like a grumpy old college professor who is harder on his smart students than on his average ones. As a book critic, I want all my authors to do their very best work and be appreciated for it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Latest News

Big changes are on the way at iUBR! As I am sure you are aware, iUniverse officially merges with AuthorHouse on April Fool's Day of 2008. On that date, iUBR will be opening its submissions to most POD imprints, including of course, AuthorHouse. Obviously this will mean much stiffer competition for books to be accepted for review; therefore, iU authors are being offered one last call for submissions prior to the opening of the floodgates of what Dr. Al Past has so eloquently named the dunking tank. Whether you call it an impromptu bath or a thorough strip-search, we at iUBR read and review POD books as if they were simply books. The object of our game is to read and review those POD books that can hold their own while sitting next to books published by big names the old fashioned way. The only powder puff pieces found near this joint purr and meow. You won't get a glowing review from us because we know you, or we traded reviews with you, or we are offering marketing blurbs for free, or even because you paid us! The only way to receive a glowing review at iUBR is to earn it. Our reputation is at stake.

We now have six reviewers at iUBR, and all six are especially well qualified for the job. The worst level of education we have is my own. I have a BA in Psychology, but all the others have Masters and Doctorates in Education, Journalism, and other language arts. All of us have published POD books and at least something traditionally. The satellite reviewers and their professional biographies will continue to be featured in posts here at iUBR. Each of us is somewhat distinguished from the others in certain ways. We always try to post a review at iUBR, Amazon, and B&N, but other sites are often included as well. No, there may not be a lot of readers who will see your review at iUBR, but the numbers are most certainly higher at the other sites where iUBR reviewers post your reviews. iUBR will continue to be mostly a site for POD authors and future authors to learn about marketing techniques and avenues open to them, and to read true, legitimate critiques of their own works, as well as those by other novice writers. We shall continue to expand our reach into other websites open to reviews and networking options for POD authors. The more widespread our reach, the stronger our reputation grows. We want to be the premiere website for reviews of quality POD books and the most trusted source of information on marketing for POD books. We don't blow smoke up your tushy at iUBR.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

High Spirits

High Spirits:  
A Tale of Ghostly Rapping and Romance by Dianne K. Salerni
(iUniverse / 0-595-42350-7 / May 2007 / 366 pages / $20.95)

Sometimes I wonder why I have spent so much time developing this stupid blog that so few people actually read! Then along comes a book like Dianne Salerni's High Spirits and I remember why: no matter what the fatheaded, disparaging naysayers say about iUniverse books, there are some iU books out there that cannot be discerned from traditionally published books. There are dedicated POD authors who have produced quality, professional products, and Ms. Salerni is certainly one of them. Although not her first book, this is her first novel. Dianne has previously published three short, academic books pertinent to the elementary school teaching profession, and both her previously, traditionally published books and her current profession have obviously influenced the professionalism of High Spirits.

The story is based on the real lives of the three young ladies known in Nineteenth Century spiritualism circles as The Fox Sisters. Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox found themselves embroiled in controversy after they began running a small business affair in the years prior to The Civil War. The problem was that their little business of holding spirit circles for profit had become a publicly acclaimed entertainment act, and the whole idea had been borne from the two younger, teenaged sisters doing nothing more than trying to frighten a superstitious cousin by holding what later became known as a seance. This historical fiction novel traces the girls' adventure from its dubious inception until its entanglement in the love life of Maggie, the middle sister, with a celebrity Arctic explorer threatens to bring the house down.

Dianne Salerni's writing style is very fluid and polished. The minimal typos do little to diminish the power of the author's compositional and editing qualities. This is a book most readers will enjoy from the first page to the last. Who says an iUniverse author is not a real author? Get real.

See Also: Floyd M. Orr's B&N Review
Dianne K. Salerni's website
The Fox Sisters at Wikipedia

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Protected Will Never Know

The Protected Will Never Know
by Don Meyer

(iUniverse / 0-595-30406-0 / November 2003 / 174 pages / $15.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

At first I thought the title of this book was strange, but the more pages I read the more I realized it was perfect. The author was a “grunt” during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam. No disrespect is intended by that term: the kids who did the fighting (and they were kids) had few illusions about what they were doing and precious little knowledge of why. Yet they did what they were told to do for the most part, risked their lives, all too often lost their lives or were wounded, and received little or no thanks for it from a “grateful” nation, irony intended, to this day. The protected indeed did not know much about their valor, still do not know, and, we now know, were probably not even protected, nor needed protecting. It's time for that nation to look back on the event and ponder it, high time.
The author, prompted by a post-service GI Bill English class, compiled the material from a journal he had kept at the time and letters to folks back home and created a narrative of his experiences in Vietnam. Uncertain what to do with it, he set it aside for more than 20 years. He credits his daughter for motivating him to do something with it. He published it, and we should all be thankful.

The book is a fresh and riveting account of what it was like to actually be on the front lines of that sad episode in our history, told by one who was there and in the style of one who was there at the time. This is not polished prose but it is highly readable prose. I actually hated to put it down when I had to. There is no plot. Instead, the events flow in the random, chaotic order of someone caught up in a perplexing war: periods of seemingly endless boredom interrupted abruptly by terror, mortal danger, agony and slaughter, to be followed in turn by more tedium and all that over again. That grunt, or front line soldier, had little knowledge of the historical context, the strategic situation, or the winds of politics and diplomacy. His world was right around him. His job was to do what he was told and survive, if he possibly could. That's the picture this book conveys.

We follow him from his arrival in the country, a green, just-out-of-bootcamp “cherry,” the rawest of raw recruits, to a battle-hardened bemedaled veteran soldier in less than a year. His progress is conveyed in wonderful detail, with the earthy, profane, frank cynicism characteristic of those who must inure themselves to the incomprehensible and unspeakable or go insane. We follow him on patrols with his platoon. We learn their tactics and procedures, we learn their weapons, we see their courage and that of the helicopter pilots who brought them supplies and provided fire support and evacuation when necessary. We share their endless problems, their clever adaptations, and their forms of relaxation and restoration. Nothing seems omitted. I found myself chuckling in sympathy as the all-too-common observation popped up time after time: “Will the real enemy please stand up?”

In many ways the book reminds me of other unforgettable memoirs of young men on their own for the first time, of people caught up in events over which they have no control. For that reason alone it is worth buying. But stir in the fact that the action happens in our own time and it resonates today and you not only have a fine, entertaining reading experience in your hands: you have something that could change the way you think about current events.

See Also: Don Meyer's Website
Other Books by Don Meyer - And More
Dr. Past's B&N Review - Note the special low price!
Review of Don Meyer's Winter Ghost
Review of Don Meyer's McKenzie Affair

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird

Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird by Suellen Zima
(iUniverse / 0-595-39460-4 / June 2006 / 436 pages / $27.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for iUBR

In 1983 a middle-aged divorced social worker emigrated to Israel, and began a twenty-year eccentric odyssey of travel and work; first in Israel, and then into the Far East – China mostly, with frequent ventures into Bali, South Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia. She taught English, mostly – and traveled widely to all sorts of obscure corners, usually on the economy and accompanied by an assortment of friends. Throughout all this, she kept a diary and wrote letters to her family, telling them of the people and the cultures she met, and of her mostly affectionate but occasionally complicated reactions to them. She made close and dear friends among her co-workers and her students in Israel and China; so close and so dear that she regards and writes of many of them as her children, and their children as her grandchildren… and yet, as she admitted and described herself as a hummingbird; “we plant our feet firmly in mid-air, hover, drink deeply and then flit away…if someone tries to hold us, we will die. But we can fly backwards as well as forwards at will.” And so, during two tumultuous decades, she hovered in mid-air, sucking up the nectar of a particular place; never staying long enough to be firmly, finally and exclusively committed to any of them, but loving them all and being tormented by various catastrophic events which changed them and affected her friends.

This book is described as a memoir, but it is not quite that: it is her diary, letters to family, and as such, it would have value to anyone writing a social history of any of the places where Ms. Zima lit down for a brief interlude. She has a discerning eye and a gift for describing the passing scene: funky small apartments, the beauty (or lack of same) in places as far apart as Iceland and Bali, the taste in the air, oddities in methods of transportation, and interesting people such as the toothless woman working her away around the far corners of the world as a ship’s engineer. There are also heartbreaking accounts of the Israeli boarding-school director who ‘disappeared’ her pet dog, of accompanying a Chinese friend to an abortion clinic, and of the experience of walking into an American mall or grocery store after a long time living in a foreign country with rather more limited options available to the shopper and being totally freaked by the sheer lavish variety of goods and choices available. There is a wealth of observations and experiences in this book, as well as some curious omissions, notably an entry mentioning her sons’ presumably terminal illness, about which there is never another word. Since much of it is a personal diary, these entries are a day-to-day notation of experiences, of names and places with no need for explanation or background, but some of those cry out for expansion, or at least a fuller explanation. A number of long essays sprinkled in among the comparatively terse diary entries hint at the memoir that this book could have been, with a little editing of some parts and a disciplined expansion of others; something along the lines of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Very little in this account explains why the author embarked upon this odyssey, the qualifications and other qualities she possessed which enabled her to travel so far a-field. As a memoir it is disconcertingly opaque in some aspects, while being perfectly transparent concerning others, especially the ways in which China has changed and developed over the last thirty years, and in one American woman’s reaction to those changes.
See Also: Suellen Zima's Website
Celia's Review at Blogger News Network

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Turquoise Dagger

The Turquoise Dagger
by Donald J. Carpenter

(iUniverse / 0-595-43735-1 / July 2007 / 181 pages/ $13.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for iUBR

I have always been a fan of books set in the American southwest. I grew up there, I live there, and the open skies and colorful history gracefully accommodate all types of stories. One of my favorite choices of diversion are the mysteries, police procedurals, and thrillers set in this area. For that reason alone I looked forward to reading The Turquoise Dagger, by Donald J. Carpenter.

It's a clever story, the basic village mystery transmogrified for our area's particular blend of cultures, architecture, and scenery. Derek and Camellia Collins own the mystery bookstore (of the title) in a small Arizona town, not a major city. This enables the protagonists to know personally many of their fellow citizens, law enforcement personnel, newspaper people, and so forth, and allows them to occasionally take part in their investigations and research. The "private eye against the world" that is a staple of big-city mysteries is not a factor here, and that lets the story to develop as it must. 

The story is a good one: a big-time television show that focuses on mysteries comes to town to investigate a cold case, a decade-old double homicide. A large reward is offered to help crack the case (and generate viewership) and the bookstore owner and his graphic designer wife find themselves drawn in as a publicity stunt. As those familiar with the genre would expect, fresh homicides begin piling up, everyone suspects everyone else, and only Derek, the redoubtable mystery bookstore owner, is able to sort out the confusing clues to head the case toward the solution. The story builds to a satisfying climax and concludes with the obligatory unraveling. References to existing authors and mysteries will gratify fans of the genre, though the story is not as densely textured as, for example, John Dunning's Bookman tales, which also are built around bookstores and books. Still, as an example of its type, The Turquoise Dagger is a nicely plotted tale.

It is also, unfortunately, an example of the results of relying on a spell-checker for one's editing. That's a guess, but many inappropriate homophones sneak into the text, and punctuation and stylistic stumbles abound, sometimes in bunches, on every page. Those derailed this reader time after time, making the pleasure of immersing oneself in a fine, puzzling yarn difficult at best. Other readers might sail over these, and if so, they should thoroughly enjoy The Turquoise Dagger.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Open for Submissions

iUBR (PODBRAM) is now Open for Submissions!
Recent events and changes at iUniverse Book Reviews have allowed us to reopen submissions, effective immediately. At least for now, we still only accept paper copies of iUniverse books. Note: All self-published POD imprints (except Lulu) are accepted as of 4/1/08. Most genres will be considered; however, we do have one particular restriction for the moment. Floyd (Tabitha) cannot accept any books personally for the standard, four-part, strip-search review mode probably until sometime in April. Dr. Al Past and Ms. Celia Hayes currently have a small number of openings available. We hope to be adding more reviewers soon, but for now, the queue is limited, so get your requests in early.

Dr. Past and Ms. Hayes have considerable qualifications, so I would not let that stop you from applying for a review. In fact, you may even get a better deal from one of them than you would with me. After all, I am the official curmudgeon and the Chief of the Proofreading Police! Any reviews composed by either of our new reviewers is quite likely to be posted at other websites, especially at Amazon, B&N, and others. They may not write four separate reviews of your book, but they aren't as likely to put you through the wringer over your error count, either. Give them a chance. You'll be glad you did!

As always, review requests can be made as a comment on any post or send a message to ice9 at e-tabitha dot com. All requests will be examined, probed, and researched before acceptance, but this is usually handled quite promptly.