Does It Matter….

Sock puppets and paid reviews.

In Buying Your Way Into Libraries, I wondered about authors buying their way into libraries: specifically, if bought reviews influence others to buy a book, and that book then goes up the sales rank charts, then libraries who may purchase solely on sales rank (as detailed and sourced in my post) are being bought.

Something new has been brought up: sock puppets, or authors pretending to be other people and either praising their own work or being negative about another person’s work. Again, impact on sales rank, etc. Some articles at The Guardian go into much more depth: Sock Puppetry and Fake Reviews: Publish and Be Damned; What Does the Sock Puppet Scandal Mean for Online Reviewing; and So much more than sock puppetry: in defence of reader reviews.

I thought it was pretty simple. Online reviews are about integrity, about knowing who is reviewing, and trust. Paid reviews and sock puppets that are undisclosed (and, really, who discloses that?) impact that. I’ve seen some say, “oh, it doesn’t matter to me as a reader….”

I’m going on record here as saying as a reader, and as a librarian, the integrity of online reviews matter.

“Oh, I don’t read reviews, I just go into a bookstore/library and see a cover, flip through a book, read the blurb, and buy it.” Not to channel my heroine Miranda Priestly, but you think this has nothing to do with you? The book is on that shelf (real or virtual) because a person selected it. How did they select it? A review; and increasingly, while booksellers and librarians still read and use professional journals, they also pay attention to online reviews. That book is on that shelf because of a review. As for online booksellers that go by computer programs deciding what to show in search results or other lists, that is impacted by sales and, as we’ve seen, sales can be manipulated by paid reviews and sock puppets, so, again, yes, even if you don’t read an online review it has an impact.

In regards to ebooks, I’ve read another argument: instead of reviews, read the sample chapter! Read the book! If you don’t like it, get your money back and add a one star review.

Who gives me back the ten hours I spent reading that book? And can I be the only one who has seen promising starts fizzle or slow builds not explode until beyond what would be a sample chapter? And now you’ve taken my precious time to read the book instead of a trusted review (which even a long one is not ten hours) and… you want me to write a review. When, if trustworthy reviews had been around to start with, I’d never have wasted my time. And trust me: my reading time is precious.

I review two to three books a week, or roughly 100 to 150 books a year. I read another 50, which either don’t fit with what I do in this blog, I don’t like, I don’t finish, etc. I read sometimes for “me” but I also read for this blog and I read for my patrons so that I can do a better job of readers’ advisory. A trustworthy online review matters very much. It’s important.

So, what do you think? Do online reviews matter? Do you care about sock puppets and undisclosed paid reviews?


Readers’ Advisory Chat

I’m a big fan of Readers’ Advisory (see past posts like Readers’ Advisory? and Reading and Libraries).

It sounds simple (match a book to a reader!) but is actually quite complex: what does the reader want? what would the reader like? which book fits that need? how does one go about “matching”? with all the books out there, how to know enough about individual titles?

So many questions! So many discussion possibilities!

I know I’m not the only one, so Kelly Jensen, Sophie Brookover and myself have started a Readers’ Advisory chat on Twitter. Kelly has a detailed post up about Readers’ Advisory and the chat at Why Good Readers’ Advisory Matters.

The Readers’ Advisory chat uses the hashtag #ReadAdv; it takes place on Thursdays, at 8 PM EST and lasts about an hour.

We’ve had four chats so far; we wanted to try it out, see how it went, what the response was, before formally announcing it with blogposts and such. If you want to look at the chats that have taken place so far, Sophie has used Storify to record them. You can also search Twitter using the #ReadAdv tag.

If you have any suggestions for future topics for ReadAdv, let us know!

Review: Blackwood

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond. Strange Chemistry. 2012. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Roanoke, North Carolina. Miranda Blackwood is going into her senior year. She’s the daughter of the town drunk, and an outcast. Her escape is her involvement in the local summer production of the Lost Colony, that honors (and profits from) what Roanoke is best known for, the colony of 114 English men, women, and children that went missing in the late sixteenth century. The members of the cast and crew are usually out of towners who don’t care that Miranda is a Blackwood.

They do care when Miranda interrupts and almost ruins the play. Miranda sees something that no one else saw, just fueling the rumors about her and her family. People quickly have something new to worry about: people in Roanoke have disappeared.

One hundred and fourteen people. The same number as those who disappeared over 400 years ago.

Something is happening. Something bad. And it has something to do with Miranda and her family.

The Good: I’ll be honest: Bond had me at Roanoke. I’ve been intrigued by the Lost Colony since first hearing about it as a teen, and have read tons of fiction and non-fiction about it. What delighted me about Blackwood was not only that it’s about the Lost Colony, but also that it’s a supernatural approach to the disappearance.

Bond quickly establishes that Blackwood will be fantastical, when Miranda sees the shadow of an ominous black ship in the air. It’s grounded in gritty reality, though: Miranda as the outsider, living with her alcoholic father, trying to make ends meet, being the town and school joke, dreaming of leaving the island. One hundred and fourteen people disappear; the headlines scream, “Mass Disappearance In Outer Banks: Colonists Lost Again.”

Phillips Rawling, the bad-boy son of the police chief, returns from his boarding school because of the disappearance and looks up Miranda. Miranda remembers him as a bad kid who made her life at school even worse, before he was sent off island. What she doesn’t know is that Phillips can hear the dead. When he called her a liar, a traitor, a carrier, and a snake in front of the whole school, it was because of the voices he heard all the time. The only thing silencing the voices was going off island.

Miranda and Phillips team up; she to find her father, who is one of the disappeared. He, because the voices are now gone but he still suspects something supernatural is happening. He is also sorry about what he inadvertently did to Miranda all those years ago. Their investigation — one, of course, that the police or FBI would never understand or get — has them researching the Lost Colony and crackpot theories and odd links. I don’t want to give away too much about what they find, about the disappearances in the past and present. I will say: it’s original; there’s enough historical fact to make one say “oh, goodie!”; and Miranda and Phillips are just the right mix of smart and adventurous to get things done without talking stupid risks.

Other things I can say I love without being the spoiler queen: Miranda sewing and making her own clothes, and how that’s important to her as a character. The Blackwood family history. The small town feel. The way Blackwood captures a shore tourist town. (I grew up and live at the Jersey Shore, so loved her town / tourists bits.) The historical/supernatural mash up. The romantic element between Miranda and Phillips that is organic to the story and never overpowers it. The examination of free will, of being cursed, of fate. Of whether something is a curse or a gift. The action adventure. All the TV shows and films that are referenced that I know (and, chances are, watching those programs and shows helped Miranda and Phillips!) And, finally — and most importantly — a strong female main character.

Final words: Stand alone. I know! Much as I love being able to revisit worlds and people in series and companion books, there is something very satisfying about getting to the end of a story and knowing it’s the end.

Final, final words: A Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Weirdmage’s Reviews; The Book Smugglers; Thoughts From the Hearthfire; The Tattooed Book.

Disclosure: I am on a listserv that organizes things like the Summer & Winter Blog Blast Tours, and so is Gwenda.

Flashback: September 2010

I’m flashing back to reviews from years past. Here is what I was reviewing in September 2010.

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter. 2010. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. My review: “How best to describe the humor? It is dark, delicious, biting, sarcastic, arch, and smart. The story itself is smart — almost deceptively so — and with the many layers, I can easily see this appealing to middle school kids , who are about the age of Otto and Lucia. Oh, the language — “All in all they were in that gorgeous state of mind in which they felt free and unafraid and sharply aware of how large and exciting the world was. In other words, it hadn’t gotten dark outside yet.” Here is a bit on Max “knowing better” about the definition of the word “restive,” showing also how the unknown narrator adds asides to the reader: “”Restive doesn’t mean tired,” Max said finally. “It means nervous.” It does actually. I looked it up later. However, I wouldn’t advise using that word because it will only annoy people, and they will think you are a giant-size prat.””

Firelight by Sophie Jordan. HarperCollins. 2010. My review: “The book begins with Jacinda wanting to fly as a draki [i.e., dragon] on her terms, not her pride; in other words, wanting to experience sexuality on her own terms. Repercussions include the pride wanting to control her further, by forcing her into a “bonding” relationship with another draki to pass along her genetics and to produce more fire dragons. They literally want to control who she has sex with. Meanwhile, the hunters are seeking to destroy that which they don’t understand and they fear — the draki / female sexuality. Will falling for Jacinda is, on the surface, a star-crossed lovers romance. He is the hunter, she is the hunted. That doesn’t mean she is a victim; far from it. The drakis are so powerful that she is the stronger of the two. The hunters need weapons to take on the draki. Since the metaphor is sexuality, this is also about Will realizing that Jacinda / female sexuality is not something to be feared, not something to destroy.”

The Aristobrats by Jennifer Solow. Sourcebooks. 2010. My review: “A perfect middle school read: fun and breezy with depth. The fun comes from the friendship and antics of “Aristobrats” Parker, Ikea, Plum and Kiki. In The Aristobrats, the two girls we learn the most about Parker and Ikea. Parker is likable, but also oddly arrogant — I can see why others would call her an “Aristobrat.” She assumes that Tribb will be her E[igth] G[rade] B[oyfriend] even when they haven’t really spoken for weeks. She prepares her first day of school outfit with a ton of care, and having gone to schools that require uniforms, yes, it’s not that simple! Anyway, Parker thinks, “Altogether, the look said confident but not stuck up, pretty but not self-obsessed, excited but not super-anxious about it.” She immediately realizes, “although wouldn’t staring at myself in the mirror for twenty minutes technically be considered stuck up or merely a commitment to excellence?” When a new girl starts school, Parker generously tells her that if she Friends her on Facebook, she’ll accept it. Parker considers asking Allegra (an overachiever and so not popular) to sit at the Good Table at lunch, Parker decides that “maybe Allegra doesn’t want to sit here. [It] can be a really intimidating place for most people.” But here’s the thing — Parker and friends are never mean or nasty. They don’t pick on kids or ridicule them. Parker and the Aristobrats have many rules about what is in and what isn’t acceptable. Friendship rings? In. Macrame bracelets? Out. One of the subtle points about the book is how the girls outside begin to ignore these rules because a new girl in school is slowly rising up the popularity ladder. Parker notices the other girls wearing headbands like the new girl, realizes that Kiki’s latest haircut isn’t being copied by others, sees some girls wearing macrame bracelets, and doesn’t realize that the Aristobrats’s influence isn’t what it used to be. Parker’s expectations about Tribb are also not quite realistic or realized.”

7 Souls by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando. Random House. 2010. My review: “Mary Shayne’s seventeenth birthday begins with her lying naked in a strange bed with the worst hangover she’s ever had. Turns out, that strange bed is in the display window of Crate & Barrel in Greenwich Village. Looking back, that just may be the highpoint of her day, since it’s the day Mary Shayne is killed. Once she dies, she comes back, again and again, reliving parts of her last day as seen through the eyes of other people. If Mary begins thinking, “who would want to kill me,” she ends up thinking, “who wouldn’t” as she discovers she’s not as well-loved as she thought. The Good: Love, love, love. I was so deliciously creeped out by this book.”

Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund. Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2010. My review: “[Unicorn hunter] Astrid cares for unicorns yet is helping those who see them as an ingredient in medicine. She connects with unicorns on a deep level yet also has to battle them. Astrid’s new position serves to isolate her even further than before — at least in Rome, there was her cousin Phil and the other hunters! Being the only unicorn hunter amongst several unicorns allows Astrid to work on her ability to connect with unicorns and to realize that “unicorn magic” can mean more than destruction. Life isn’t as simple as killing unicorns; unicorns may be capable of monstrous acts, but are they monsters? Abraham Maslow said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.” Have the hunters been treating their gifts as a hammer?”

From Cover to Cover (revised edition): Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T. Horning. HarperCollins. 2010. My review: “If you are reading and reviewing children’s books — or reading reviews of children’s books — Horning’s book is a valuable, must-own reference book. It breaks down terms and terminology, pointing out what to look at and what to evaluate, using many examples of books and reviews. I’ve seen the posts or tweets asking “what is so and so in a book called”? The answer is here. Horning also addresses the purposes of a review, particularly those found in review journals. So people who wonder “why does a review have x y or z but not a,” the answer is here. As a blogger, I found Horning’s book invaluable. Most bloggers aren’t professionally trained; we don’t go to a class or school. This type of guidebook, with structure, suggestions, examples, is a great tool to add to one’s professional reference collection. Plus, it’s that great combination of “easy read” and “tremendous depth.” This is not a scary university classroom book, all dense and footnoted with small type. It’s cleanly and simply written — well, the way a review should be. It includes a ton of information, to the point where if you were highlighting or post-it noting the book, it would be covered with yellow and tabs of paper.”

The Twin’s Daughter by Lauren Baratz-Longsted. Bloomsbury. 2010. My review: “Oh. My. Goodness. What is not to love? Identical twins separated at birth! Jealousy! Murder! Mistaken identity! Love! Romance! Secrets that have secrets! Weddings! Funerals! Unexpected deaths! Even a secret tunnel!”

Reckless by Cornelia Funke. Little Brown. 2010. My review: “Gingerbread houses and children-eating witches? Real in the Mirrorworld. Jacob has spent years escaping into the mirror, away from his mother who mourns a lost husband and a brother with his own needs. In Mirrorworld, Jacob’s freedom has allowed him to be fearless. With no one to care for but himself, he becomes a treasure hunter, seeking out the magical and cursed objects of stories: glass slippers, spinning wheels, talking mirrors. “There was always something to hunt for in this world. And most of the time it helped him forget that he had never been able to find the one thing he really wanted.””

The Eternal Ones: What if love refused to die? by Kirsten Miller. 2010. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. My review:The first part of The Eternal Ones reads like something out of V.C. Andrews: mean grandmother, weak mother, extreme religion, possible mental illness, and did I mention the snake-handlers? Haven isn’t locked in an attic, but her grandmother does threaten to lock her up because of her visions. Haven briefly gets a “happy ever after” in the middle of the book after she connects with Iain/Evan. The final third is Haven trying to figure out the truth about herself, Iain, Constance, Ethan, and other reincarnated people (present and past) with additional complications from the Ouroboros Society. The society is dedicated to the study of reincarnation, but there is something more, something hidden, something dark about it.”

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Crown, a division of Random House. 2010. My review:As the title promises, the life of one Bezellia Louis Grove, starting with her birth announcement in 1951. Bezellia recounts her youth and teenage years as the daughter of one of the most prominent families in Nashville. Even though the Groves are slowly losing their social prestige, they still have the name, the house, the ancestry and the servants that marks them as part of a privileged class. Raised more by the family’s African American servants than her own parents, Bezellia tries to figure out what she wants out of life. Is life just about getting the right man? Is her mother right that “there were only three things of value to look for in a man. One, he wears cashmere. Two, he drives a convertible. And three, he glides across the dance floor.””

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group. October 2010. My review: “Into Lisa’s complex relationship with food, with hunger, with others, comes the Four Horsemen: Death (who looks like a certain dead rock star), War (a woman who relishes the mayhem she brings), Pestilence (who looks like he has every disease out there because he does) and Famine. Lisa is now Famine and can cause hunger wherever she goes, making others feel the way she does. The first time she travels on Famine’s horse and causes a riot she is in awe of her power, and the resulting chaos, and scared that War is so delighted. Pestilence offers a hint to Lisa that all is not what it seems and that the power of the Horsemen is not all destruction.”

Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Elliot North, 18, has spent the last four years trying to keep her family’s estate running. It means not just making sure there is enough for herself, her father, Baron North, and her sister; but also enough to feed and shelter their many servants. The main reason this year there will be enough food is the family is renting out some property to a bunch of successful explorers.

Four years ago, Elliot had a chance to escape her disapproving, controlling father, and to join her best friend and sweetheart, Kai, in running away. Elliot chose duty. Kai, a servant, left, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

Elliot meets the explorers – including Captain Malakai Wentforth. Kai. No longer a teenage servant; now a very successful man. One who doesn’t forget, or forgive, that four years ago Elliot chose her class and her family over him.

The man, Malakai, is different from the teen Elliot knew; still, Elliot sees the boy she once  loved, and wonders if they have a second chance.

The Good: Sound familiar? Yes, this is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I’ll be honest; I haven’t read the book, but I adored the film with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The world in For Darkness Shows the Stars is post-apocalyptic; generations ago, genetic re-engineering and other scientific experiences “went too far.” The result was wars and a general destruction of society. The primary survivors were the Luddites, the people who had traditionally rejected the scientific and technological experimentation they saw around them. They are now a ruling class of Barons and Baronesses, owning estates and controlling the land. The other survivors were “the Reduced,” people intellectually damaged by the genetic treatments and biological experimentation around them. The Luddites both took care of the Reduced because the Reduced could not care for themselves, but they also used the Reduced as a free work force. They are basically serfs, tied to the land.

Where, then, does Kai fit in? As years and years passed, children began being born to the Reduced who, well, were not reduced — smart, inquisitive children like Kai. The Luddites call them “COR”s, or Children of the Reduced; they prefer the label “Posts”, as in Post-Reductionists. A significant part of the class struggle shown in For Darkness Shows The Stars involves how the Luddites treat the Posts no differently from the Reduced. Posts like Kai illegally run away from their estates to make their way in the world. It’s not easy; Kai’s success is remarkable. While some Luddites are like Baron North in their view towards Posts, others (like Elliot and other numbers) view Posts and Luddites as equals. Because the Luddites avoid anything new or any type of progress or change, Posts such as Kai bring new thoughts, ideas, and even fashion into the Luddite world.

As for Kai’s name, most Posts rename themselves, abandoning their servant identity. Thus, Kai becomes Malakai. One of the many clever touches in the world-building? All the Reduced are given simple, one syllable names because, well, it’s believed that is all they can handle. So the Posts are not just rejecting their past, they are also asserting themselves as full members of society by taking on newer, multi-syllable names.

I go so much into Peterfreund’s world-building because Persuasion’s plot hinges on significant class issues; so, at least for me, where a retelling succeeds (or fails) is in believably creating a world with equal class issues. In many ways, Elliot’s world seems more pre-Industrial (i.e., Jane Austen’s world) than post-apocalyptic. What ups the ante, what makes Elliot’s decisions and thoughts that much more heartbreaking, are the reasons for the class distinctions: the fear of science and progress, the fear of things that are new or different. At various times, Elliot cannot help but revert to the basic Luddite philosophy that any change is wrong. She is not, however, a total Luddite; she sees the stagnation around her.

I said that Elliot stayed to “take care of” the servants on her father’s estate. That is not entirely accurate. Yes, some are the Reduced, but even those who are so impacted are shown to have talents and depth and to be more than child-like or helpless. As Kai has shown, the Posts can take care of themselves and the Posts on the North estate end up working with, rather than for, Elliot. Posts can and do leave their estates. However, that is neither simple nor easy, even though Kai returns triumphant. The stories of other Posts tells the risks faced by those who run away.

Excellent world building does not a plot make; For Darkness Shows the Stars is not just the Persuasion story (reunion of separated lovers) but also about Elliot’s own struggles to do what is best for everyone around her. What is best for running the estate? How can she manage her father, who doesn’t care what happens to the servants on his estate as long as his own wants are met? Is it better to stay on the estate or pursue her own dreams? Does she even know what her own dreams are, since four years ago running away was Kai’s dream?

Oh, and as for the Persuasion story line. Loved it. Full of romantic drama: Elliot wanting Kai, Kai thinking Elliot thought she was too good for him, misunderstandings and angst. Lovely!

While For Darkness Shows the Stars is a standalone, as you can tell, I love the complex world created in it and would love to see more stories set in it. At the moment, Peterfreund has a short story companion to the novel, telling more of Kai’s time away from Elliot: Among the Nameless Stars.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Stacked; YA Librarian Tales.

Huzzah and Welcome!

Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes has an article in the most recent School Library Journal about using ereaders in schools. It’s also available on line, at Travis’s Excellent (Ereader) Adventure. As Travis explains, “Last year, we rolled out an ereader lending program in my fifth and sixth grade school library, and I plan to share here the ups, downs, and what-to-look-out-fors we encountered along the way.”

And some exciting news is at the end of that article: “This article, modified from a series of posts on Travis Jonker’s blog 100 Scope Notes is just a glimpse of the smart thinking Jonker shares there. We’re pleased to announce that Jonker and 100 Scope Notes will be joining SLJ’s blog network, which includes A Fuse #8 Production by Elizabeth Bird and Joyce Valenza’s NeverEndingSearch. Coming soon!”

Yay!! Stay tuned to SLJ’s website and blog network to read 100 Scope Notes!!

And in the “all about me” (and Travis and Pam Coughlan of MotherReader) section, here is a blast from the past, when the three of us presented about blogging at ALA: ALA 2010 Children’s and Young Adult Book Blogs.