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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-02-02 16:53
To die upon The Summer Tree
The Summer Tree - Guy Gavriel Kay

Starting with a reiteration:


Full disclosure here, which may also be on the original 10-page update:


I purchased the Kindle edition of this book at full retail price.  I follow the author on Twitter, but he does not follow me. We have had a few brief exchanges, but not many. I was introduced to this writer via the now-defunct Rave Reviews magazine back in 1987 or so, when I was given the third volume of this trilogy, The Darkest Road, to review.  I fudged it, because I never did read the book.  I felt it was unfair to read the third and final volume without having read the first two.  And our schedule with Rave Reviews didn't provide enough time for me to find them.  So I fudged.  I have not revealed that information to the author on Twitter, nor do I have any intention of doing so.


And of course, I am an author of historical romances, contemporary gothic romances, and assorted non-fiction.




I finished reading The Summer Tree last night in bed on the Kindle, so there was no question about writing a full review on its tiny keyboard.  Besides, I needed to think about how I was going to frame it.


To say I was disappointed is the least of it.  I was shockingly disappointed, and in more ways than one.


But the biggest disappointment, I finally decided, came from the constant feeling of being outside the story.


There's a reason why movie theaters are dark: The objective is to have you, the viewer, shut out all external influences and ultimately be in the movie.  The sound is loud so you can't talk to anyone else over it.  The screen is huge so the sights fill your entire vision.    The aisles are narrow so you are less inclined to bother your neighbors in the audience to get up for another tub of popcorn.


Good writers, and especially good writers of fantasy, know how to create this same sense with nothing more than words on a page.  They don't have surround-sound and Cinerama projection and Smell-o-vision.  They just have words on paper or electronic page.  (If they're lucky, they have a dramatic narrator to read the audio version, but that's only after the words have been written.)


Guy Gavriel Kay never once achieved that level of atmospheric immersion.  At least not for me.


The premise is simple:  Loren Silvercloak, the mage from the magical world of Fionavar, comes to Toronto and selects five university students to take with him to Fionavar for . . . well, I'm not sure what for.  Something about the celebration for the 50th anniversary of King Ailell's coronation or some such.


And they go.


But they'll be back within hours, Toronto time, Loren promises.


I think the guys, Kevin, Dave, and Paul, made some sort of farewell visit to their fathers.  Were mothers involved?  I don't remember.  None of the visits were particularly memorable.  None of the characters were particularly deep.


The girls, Kimberly and Jennifer, were on their own, I think.


At the time of their transportation to Fionavar, I had no clue what any of the five looked like.  I got the impression that Loren looked like Gandalf and he had a companion who was a Dwarf, but beyond that I had no impression of any of the characters at all.  Not what they looked like, not what their relationships were, none of their histories, NOTHING.


So they get to Fionavar and there are more and more and more and more people dragged onto the stage, and they are just as poorly portrayed as the five Torontans.  (Is that a word?)  Ailell the King, Diarmuid his son and heir, some guards and courtiers. 


I felt as if Kay were trying to write Lord of the Rings in a modern Earth setting but with magic and another world.  But he did it badly.


Tolkien started with Bilbo and Frodo, so the reader got to know them and know them well before other main characters were brought onto the scene.  We learned about the Shire, about the houses that were holes in the ground and the peacefulness.  There were petty squabbles and jealousies, there were good Hobbits and spiteful Hobbits.  We learned about them as individuals, and Bilbo and Frodo as being somehow set apart.


Then we meet Gandalf.  And later we meet Merry and Pippin.  We meet them and know them because we already know what Hobbits are and how they're different from ordinary humans.


But we also know that there is more to this whole birthday party thing than just cake and ice cream.  There is The Ring.


The ring makes clear several important facts about the world of Middle Earth.  First and foremost is that magic works here.  Second is that there are different languages.  The runes on the inside of the ring might be Elvish, but the words are Black Speech.


Tolkien brings in his different races of semi-humans -- elves, half-elves, dwarves, etc. -- at the Council of Elrond.  The objective of the quest is laid out and the reader knows that everything will ultimately focus on the Quest to Destroy The One Ring.


I've reached the end of The Summer Tree and I have no idea what the point of the story is.


The Five arrive in Fionavar for this celebration, or at least four of them do.  For three fourths of the book the fifth student is just lost in space, and no one seems too worried about it.  Even Loren, whose magic made them transition to his world, doesn't spare much thought for the missing.  Or maybe he does, and that's why he goes off searching for him?  I don't know for sure.  Again, nothing seemed focused.


Kevin, one of the five, gets drunk right away, and I think he cavorts with some Fionavarian wenches.  He becomes pals with Prince Diarmuid, who is drunk most of the time and is always after one wench or another.


The celebration festival happens right in the middle of a terrible drought that has fallen over the land of Brennin, where Ailell is High King.  There doesn't seem to be much concern over what caused the drought or what should be done about it.  It just is.


For one reason or another, Diarmuid and some of his crew, including Kevin and maybe Paul, another of the Torontans, head off to the kingdom of Cathal, which is on the other side of a river from Brennin.  There's no way to cross the river, and apparently there's little to no communication between the two kingdoms, but I'm not sure about that.  Diarmuid figures out a sneaky way to get across the river and into Cathal without alerting anyone, and then he seduces/rapes the king of Cathal's daughter.  I'm not sure why.  Because he can?  Because he wants to?  Because because?


More or less at the same time, Kimberly gets taken off by Ysanne, the Seer of Brennin, to her little cottage by the lake.  I'm not sure why this happens either, because so many things are going on with no explanation or context.  Ysanne conjures up some creature/spirit from the lake, and he makes Kim the new Seer and erases Ysanne. It's not like Ysanne dies.  She's gone entirely.  She doesn't even get any kind of afterlife or anything.  So Kim is now the Seer, the lake spirit imparted all knowledge to her, and she has a couple of magic talismans.  One is a ring, I think it's called the Baelrath (but not the Balrog), and then I think there's also a bracelet but maybe not.  Oh, and then there's a dagger, too, that she uses to kill Ysanne.  Maybe.  I'm not sure about that either.  Things happen very quickly in this book, so it's not as if anything has time to sink in.  There's more text devoted to the lake spirit imparting all this knowledge than there is to why.


Now, we know that Diarmuid is the king's younger son, that there was an older son but he got exiled and His Name Must Not Be Spoken.


There's something to do with the Summer Tree, which is in some forbidden forest or something.  The older prince offered to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree in place of his father, but this was some kind of insult, so the older prince got banished.  I think it has something to do with ending the drought but I'm not sure.  That part wasn't made too clear.


There doesn't seem to be any drought in Cathal, where Diarmuid is boinking Sharra, the king's daughter.  I don't know why Cathal is spared -- it's called the Garden Country, I think -- but it is.


For some reason or other, Paul Schaefer, one of the Canadians, volunteers to die on the Summer Tree in place of Ailell, in place of The Unnamed Prince, in place of Diarmuid.  I'm not sure what he hopes to accomplish by doing this.  Will it end the drought?  Is that the whole point of it?  Is that why they were brought to Fionavar by Loren? 


So Paul gets "bound" to the Summer Tree, I think by Matt Soren, who is the Dwarf who gives Loren all his magic power.  Loren is off somewhere else, and without his Dwarf as source for his magic, Loren is sort of helpless.  Why would he do this?  I don't know.


It was about at this point that I started feeling really icky about the whole book.  I saw the Tree as a metaphor for the Christian cross, and Paul, with his saintly name, standing in as the heroic sacrifice.  Especially since he has to be "bound" to the Tree for three days.  I'm not sure what was supposed to happen at the end of those three days, but that's the way the story goes.


The whole religious aspect is very muddled.  There's a Goddess, Dana, and there's a God, Mornir.  I think that's right.  They're sort of in competition with each other, but sort of not.  And then there's a Weaver who's above all that.  And there are lesser gods, too?  I don't know.  It's all very confusing.


Because there's also Rakoth Maugrim, the evil Sauron-like thing.  He's also called Sathain, and he's been bound under a mountain for a thousand years (which really isn't very long at all) and there are five wardstones that will let everyone know if Rakoth is going to get out.  So, are these wardstones like Silmaril or Palantir stones?  Or like the Seals in Wheel of Time, which are like the Biblical seals?


So then all of a sudden, after all this has been going on for several days in Fionavar, the third of the male Canadians suddenly shows up.  But he's in a different place from the others, apparently because he tried to break free when Loren was transporting them.  He lands (literally) in a different place and is rescued (?) by some people who herd eltor.  There's a whole lot of discussion about the sacredness of the eltor and so on, but no clue as to what they actually are.


When Dave, the last student, shows up, he admits to expecting the eltor were something like American bison.  I never thought that, but it made sense, especially when one of the guys where he lands is described as


He never wore a shirt, or moccasins; only his eltor skin leggings, dyed black to be unseen at night.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 245). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Moccasins?  Really?  In Fionavar?


I had thought maybe deer or cattle, or whatever, but in fact they're kind of like antelope.  Eland?  And then the Dalrei -- that's the name of the people who herd the eltor -- go on a bloody massacre of their sacred eland, er, eltor and Dave participates.  Or, at least I think he does.


The problem here was that I didn't know if Dave came through the transporter magic at the same time as the others but just was in a different part of Fionavar, or if there had been some kind of time warp.  Rakoth had already escaped from his mountain fortress of Starkadh before Dave showed up, but when Dave arrived, Rakoth hadn't escaped yet.  It wasn't until much later in the text that a time frame is hinted at, and it's implied that Dave came through at the same time.  So Rakoth Maugrim, aka Sathain, aka Sauron, gets to explode again.


And Paul completes his sacrifice and learns he wasn't responsible for the death (in Toronto) of the young woman he loved who was going to marry someone else.  And it starts to rain.  (One whole book of this book is titled "The Song of Rachel," even though Rachel isn't a character in the book; she's the one who died.)


In the meantime, something happens to Jennifer and she gets carried off by some bad guys and strapped to the back of an evil black swan who flies her to Starkadh where she's going to be raped and tortured by Rakoth and then killed.


While all this is going on, King Ailell dies.  So Diarmuid should be the new king, but it turns out that Ysanne the Seer had a loyal servant with a limp who then becomes Kim's servant because she's the new Seer.  But he doesn't really have a limp, and he's really the exiled older son of Ailell.  His name is Aileron.


That's when I laughed out loud.



a movable airfoil at the trailing edge of an airplane wing that is used for imparting a rolling motion especially in banking for turns



So the king is dead, Prince Drink-and-Diddle is supposed to get crowned, but Prince Propeller shows up and claims the thrown.  Er, throne.  At the coronation, there's a scuffle, threats are made to kill one or the other or both of the princes, someone throws a dagger that lands in Diarmuid's shoulder instead of his heart, but only because the dagger thrower's aim is thrown off because someone threw the actual crown at her.  Yes, her.  The dagger thrower is none other than Sharra, daughter of the king of Cathal.


I'm not sure why she wanted to kill Diarmuid, other than because he loved her and left her?  The sex stuff in this book isn't done very well.


So then at the tail end of the book, we learn that Rakoth escaped because Matt Soren -- remember, he's the Dwarf who gives all the power to Loren Silvercloak who started all this -- used to be the King of the Dwarves but he stepped down because some of the dwarves were doing bad magic things and he wasn't going to be part of that shit, but now the bad magic they did has led to allowing Rakoth to escape.  It has something to do with a Cauldron.


Oh, yeah, and even though I haven't read any of The Chronicles of Prydain, the very mention of a cauldron would have set my eyes to rolling.  You just can't have a serious background in high fantasy or children's literature of the later 20th century without having at least encountered Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron by title and/or reputation. (I own it and one other of the five books of the series; maybe now I'll be motivated to get the other three and read them.)  The books were published in the late 1960s, roughly the same time as LOTR was coming out in (authorized) paperback from Ballantine.  And well before Kay was writing The Fionavar Tapestry.


So, where does this book end?  Well, Kim the Seer has powers, so she's gathering everything she has and I think she just transported everyone back to Toronto, but I'm not sure. 


But there was also a spar of light. A dying spar, so nearly gone, but it was there, and Kim reached with everything she had, with all she was, to the lost island of that light and she found Jennifer.


“Oh, love,” she said, inside and aloud. “Oh, love, I’m here. Come!”


The Baelrath was unleashed, it was so bright they had to close their eyes against the blazing of that wildest magic as Kimberly pulled them out, and out, all the way out, with Jennifer held to the circle only by her mind, the spar, pride, last dying light, and love.


Then as the shimmering grew in the Great Hall, and the humming before the crossing time, as they started to go, and the cold of the space between worlds entered the five of them, Kim drew one breath again and cried the last desperate warning, not knowing, oh not, if she was heard:


“Aileron, don’t attack! He’s waiting in Starkadh!”


And then it was cold, cold, and completely dark, as she took them through alone.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (pp. 382-383). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

(Italics in the original.)


I haven't decided yet if I want to read on.  Curiosity about how they figure out what to do about Rakoth Maugrim Sauron Satan is a motive, because I think I have more curiosity about their story than they do.  But this book was a monstrous frustration.  I've read the whole thing and I still don't know what's really going on.  Do I want to read two more books of this malarkey?


I don't know.


With a good editor, maybe it would have been better.  I can't believe that any editor worth two nickels wouldn't recognize aileron as a real word in the 1980s.  I think I learned it from Mickey Mouse Club when Darlene Gillespie was training to be an airline stewardess (sic) and had to learn about planes.  That was in the 1950s, for crying out loud!


Using Celtic mythology as a base isn't necessarily bad, but Kay's is so clumsy.  The god with horns is Cernan, which seems an obvious play on Cernunnos, the Horned God of the Celts.  (Of course, it's also the last name of the last human to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan.)  There's also an animal called a cerne, which maybe is a deer? Or maybe its a priapic giant human?


Kay has a nasty habit of dropping things into the story without letting the reader know what they are.  As I wrote in another status update, he did this with the eltor/antelope that the Dalrei people herd.  What happens is that the reader -- unless she happens to be just mindlessly reading and not paying any attention at all -- feels as if she's missed something.  She backs up, looking for missed clues.  She's completely pulled out of the story, and when she discovers that she has not, in fact, missed anything, she feels cheated and less inclined to go back and pick up where she left off.


For instance, here's a passage from page 286:


With an effort, then, a very great effort, he stretched himself out, mind and soul, to the impossible creature that had come for him. It did not exist, this exquisite thing that stood gazing calmly back at him in the strangely hued night. It did not exist, but it would,

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 286). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


So what is this "impossible creature"? An angel?  A fairy?  A dragon?


We don't learn until page 315 the answer to that question!


Then she was there and he was there before her, waiting, a welcome in those eyes, and a final acceptance of what she was, all of her, both edges of the gift. She felt his mind in hers like a caress, and nudged him back as if with her horn.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 315). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Ah, so she's a unicorn!  And then she's a unicorn with wings!


Why couldn't we know that on page 286?  What's the sense in teasing readers?


I think that's what pissed me off the most, even more than Prince Propeller.  Author Kay treats me like a Reader, not like someone he really wants to join him and his characters on this quest.  If I'm not welcome, why should I go?

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text 2019-12-19 05:00
Why (some) writers fail, and fail spectacularly
The Walls of Jericho - Paul I. Wellman

I've been thinking about this blog post for some time, maybe months, maybe even years.  It might be the offspring of a workshop I gave at the St. Louis RWA conference in  1993.  Then it was called "Pulling the Trigger, or how to start your novel off with a bang and keep it on target."  I'm not sure I'd use the same imagery today, but you get the drift.


A strong opening won't save a badly written novel.  In other words (pun intended), you can't just fix the first chapter and leave the rest alone.  RWA discovered that some writers would polish their opening chapter nigh unto death so it would score well in contests, but the rest of the manuscript was garbage; a winning contest entry had to be strong throughout.


Likewise, a strong opening can't be tacked onto a badly written novel.  The elements that make a novel poorly written are there regardless, and the opening won't fix them.


Understanding what makes a strong opening and why it helps the writer to make the rest of the novel better is crucial, but it's very complicated.  It's not enough to say "Start with action" or "Open with dialogue" because neither of those tactics is enough. As a writer -- and perhaps as a reader -- you have to know why the elements are so essential.


When I was teaching creative writing at Estrella Mountain Community College back in the '90s, I had a hand-out that consisted of the opening paragraphs of several genre novels as illustrations of effective starts.  Through all the classes I taught, the one that was most determinative of the potential for success was how the students analyzed those first few lines.  Sometimes it wasn't more than a sentence or two, but because they couldn't grasp the concepts, I knew they weren't likely to go any further.


Here's the first paragraph of The Walls of Jericho, Paul I. Wellman's 1946 novel about small town life on the Kansas prairie in the early twentieth century.


    He paused momentarily at the front door before stepping out into the night, and took his pipe from his mouth while he felt in his coat pocket to make sure his keys were with him.


What does that single sentence show the reader?


1. The character is male.

2.  He's not in a hurry.

3.  He's going from inside a building to the outside.

4.  It's night.

5.  He's an adult, old enough to smoke a pipe.

6.  He's wearing a coat, indicating that it's cool enough to require one or at least not so hot as to be unbearable.

7. He has keys at least to the house, if not something else, and he has reason to be concerned that he has them.


This last item raises a hint of curiosity in the reader.  Why is it so important that he make sure he has the keys?  Is there a chance he might be locked out? What are those keys for?  Just the house, or something else?  Another building?


That single sentence also serves to focus the reader's attention as sharply as if they were looking at a photograph or the opening shot of a movie.  We can mentally see this man standing outside the door in the dark, taking his pipe from his mouth, reaching into his pocket, touching the keys.


Once the reader's attention is thus focused, the writer absolutely must maintain that focus.  So when we move to the next paragraph, the attention is intensified, not broken or blurred.


A delicate pale thread of smoke rose from the bowl of the brier in his hand, pleasantly prickling in his nostrils.  As his fingers encountered them, the keys clinked dully on their ring.  At the same time Belle's voice came, lagging, from the sitting-room.

We're still focused on the man outside the door, smoking his pipe, fingering his keys.  When Belle speaks, we know he's hearing her.  We don't see her, and she doesn't enter the mental picture.  She's only a voice.  We're hearing her with him, still in his point of view even though we know her name but not his.  We don't know who she is -- his wife, his mother, his daughter, his sister, his lover.  But we know he is hearing her.  The focus is still on him and his experience.


The camera hasn't moved.


    "You're going ... to the station?"
    "Yes," he said.  "Tucker would be disappointed if I didn't show up on the reception committee."


Is there a hint of tension between the man with the pipe and Belle?  Is there a hint that she doesn't want him to go to the station? A hint that she doesn't want him to meet Tucker?  Is there a hint of tension between Belle and Tucker?


But the focus remains on the man.


In those few sentences, the entire plot of the novel has been put into motion.  Does the reader know that?  No, not consciously.  Having read the book several times, yes, I do know exactly what happens and how this tiny fragment foreshadows everything.  That's what good writers have to do.


As you read further into The Walls of Jericho, every tiny detail falls into place from that beginning.  Every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph builds on that foundation.  It's easy to say the narrative reads like a film script, because Wellman did work as a scriptwriter; the novel was turned into a movie in 1948.


Another thing that these opening lines establish is that this is a character-driven novel.  Does the reader care?  Does the reader even know the difference between a character driven and a plot driven novel? The answer is probably "No" to both questions, but for the writer who wants to learn to write better so they can actually sell books, this can be crucial.  It's not enough just to string a bunch of words together; they have to be the right words, in the right order.


Wellman puts the character front and center from the beginning. Description of setting is secondary and, at this point, totally unnecessary.  This is going to be the story of the man with the pipe, on his way to meet Tucker at the station.  Later, when the setting becomes important to the man's story, Wellman provides the description, but it will always be in the context of the characters.


I've done analyses of other books' openings before, and I can honestly say that if I'm turned off by the beginning, it's very very difficult for me to get through to the end, and almost impossible for me to enjoy the reading.  I'm careful to stress "for me," because many readers really pay no attention.


Several years ago, a friend recommended a novel to me, a self-published spy thriller that she felt was every bit as excellent as anything written by Robert Ludlum.  It happened to be free on Amazon at the time, so I downloaded it.  Though spy thrillers aren't my preferred genre, I've read enough of them to find some enjoyable.  This one, however, had a huge error of fact on the first or second page that made the entire premise of the novel not just implausible but impossible.  I told my friend about it and said it completely ruined the novel for me, but she laughed and replied that details like that didn't affect her.  "I just read; I don't care about whether it's believable or not."


And the truth is that most readers are like that, especially today in the age of Kindle freebies and Kindle Unlimited and Hoopla and Overdrive and digital library loans.  And badly written, author-published novels.


Paul I. Wellman didn't have to worry about setting the historical time frame for The Walls of Jericho on the first page because his readers had the book in their hands.  If it didn't still have the dust jacket --



they probably didn't have 6,000 digital editions stashed on a Kindle. 


To be sure, within the next few pages, as the man descends from the front porch of his house and begins to walk toward the station, details fill in the scenery and setting.  The reader quickly learns that Jericho is a small town on the Kansas prairie, that Tucker Wedge is returning to Jericho with a new wife no one in town has ever met, and that the man with the pipe is named David Constable.


If you're a reader with no aspirations to writing, The Walls of Jericho is a wonderful story.  (I've tried to read the sequels, The Chain and Daughters of Jericho, and haven't been nearly as impressed.)  But if you're trying to write popular fiction, The Walls of Jericho offers excellent study material. 


(As an aside, I have to strongly disagree with Wellman's biographer that he failed in his depictions of women characters. But that's for you to judge for yourself, I guess.)


Anyway, this examination of how one author opens a highly successful novel -- The Walls of Jericho was a best-seller in its day and the movie rights sold for $100,000 -- can offer the aspiring writer a kind of artistic template.


It can also offer a template for critique.


How well does the opening of your novel fit that template?  Is it focused on a character or on action?  Does it present a potential for tension or conflict that will carry through the rest of the novel?  Does each sentence lead seamlessly into the next, like a movie camera panning a scene and then pulling in for a close-up, or does the focus shift from close-up to distance, scenery to character? 


As you get more into the novel, a page or two, is the action level sustained, or does the scene fade to black for the introduction of backstory?  Is that backstory needed?  Is there another way to provide necessary backstory information?


Josh Olson is right, of course. Within a page or so, you know you've been pulled into a story by someone who knows how to write.  The page falls away and your imagination takes over so that you're into the story, into the action, into the mind of the character.  You know what's going on.  You hear the voices, the music, the clash of battle.  You feel the heat, the cold, the rage, the passion, the pain, the ecstasy.  Everything carries you forward into the conflict -- even flashbacks -- and builds toward an emotional crescendo.


Sometimes that building is slow and gradual, so that you as a reader hardly notice it.  But it's there and the evidence is your desire to keep reading, to keep turning pages, to find out what happens next.  The writer has to work consciously and deliberately to construct the escalation, whether subtle or obvious.


Small, even unrelated, details can ruin the imaginary reality, like the penny in a pocket in Bid Time Return.  Style and grammar and usage and spelling, even formatting for a digital edition can destroy the world the author is trying to construct.  Facts have to be reasonably accurate, or at least made believable within the context of the novel.  If you want to have flying vehicles in the 1850s, make them plausible; if you don't, readers will be more than a little upset. 


All these elements must come together smoothly, and it can take a great deal of effort to make them do so. 


What happens when this template is applied as an analytical tool to a book like Yvonthia Leland's The Wrythe and the Reckoning? Unfortunately, the project's multiple flaws become more obvious, and the writer's weaknesses are amplified.


The wagon traveled steadily along the country path. The bright sun was shining over the expansive terrain. The green grasses and wildflowers were swaying in the warm breeze. The leaves on the trees were swirling overhead above us. It was the mid-afternoon in early spring, and we were on a journey traveling to our new home, to the city of Boston in Massachusetts.

Leland, Yvonthia. The Wrythe and the Reckoning (The Wrythe and the Reckoning Saga Book 1) . Reverie Ardent. Kindle Edition.


The opening sentence turns the camera on the wagon.  It's moving, so we know it's not just sitting there, but the reader doesn't know what kind of wagon it is or anything else about this wagon.  It's on a country path, a word that normally suggests a narrow way for pedestrians, not vehicles.  So the first sentence has already put some confusion into the reader's mind rather than pulling them into a scene.


The next sentence, however, abruptly shifts the camera's focus.  Now it's a wide shot of  the sun and the surrounding landscape.  Wait, what about the wagon? Who's in it? What kind of a wagon is it?


Instead of going back to what the first sentence set in motion (pun of course intended), the third sentence zooms in for a close-up of grass and wildflowers!  Then it shifts yet again to the leaves in the trees!  Oh, there's a reference to "us" but the reader really can't be sure that "we" are in the wagon.  It's an easy assumption, but . . . .


It's also possible that "we" are sitting under a tree watching the wagon approach from a distance.  Or watching it roll off out of sight.  The reader has no context to be confident that "we" are in the wagon that is traveling down the country path.


Even before I taught creative writing at Estrella Mountain Community College, I was a member of several different critique groups.  Some of the other members were competent writers, and some went on to sell the novels they brought for critiques.  Others, however, lacked the skills to make their work publishable.  Invariably, the problems showed up on the first page. 


Author Leland had no focus for her first paragraph, and she couldn't recover from the fragmented trajectory.  As the reader went further into the narrative, that fragmentation intensified. The ability to write a single coherent sentence isn't enough.  Most of Leland's sentences were individually competent.  Not sparkling or eloquent, but competent.  The problem was that they didn't cohere.  The narrative became disjointed beyond repair.


Having read more of the book, I suspect Leland's problems are far more extensive than just not being able to craft a fine opening paragraph.  But her failure in that paragraph is indicative of other weaknesses, and they are not likely to be overcome.





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review 2019-12-15 16:29
The Wrythe and the Reckoning - Everything wrong and nothing right
The Wrythe and the Reckoning - Yvonthia Leland

Preliminary assessment here:



Disclosure: I acquired the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free on 14 December 2019.  I have encountered the author on Twitter, where she has viciously attacked reviewers. (She has also attacked them on GoodReads, but I'm not there.)  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary gothic romance, and assorted nonfiction.


If you want to be a championship figure skater, you get out on the ice every day and practice.  You fall down a lot and the ice is cold and hard and it hurts.  You get back up and practice some more.  You listen to your coach.  You watch videos of your own performances and those of other skaters.  You analyze each move, each success, each failure.  Especially the failures.  You practice and you practice and you practice.  You understand and accept that you alone are responsible for your success or failure, while at the same time you acknowledge and appreciate the help you've received along the way from teachers and coaches and supporters and critics and competitors. 


Author Yvonthia Leland thought she could win Olympic gold before she knew how to skate backwards.  It's almost as if she didn't know skating backwards was a thing and that you had to be able to do that in order to win . . . anything.


Reviewing the book The Wrythe and the Reckoning outside the context of the author's behavior is impossible once you've been inside that behavior.  It colors the reading and colors the reviewing.  It's so pervasive that I couldn't read a single line without mentally seeing the GoodReads and Twitter pages projected on a huge screen behind the Kindle images. 


She sent an ARC to NetGalley without knowing reviews of NetGalley ARCs are supposed to be sent to sites like GoodReads.  She sent an ARC that consisted of a rough draft of only half the book, without knowing that ARCs are supposed to be virtually the finished product, complete, edited, ready for publication.  She didn't know the basics, and yet trumpeted her lack of knowledge on GoodReads, on Facebook, on Twitter.


No matter how much pushback she got on GoodReads and on Twitter, she persisted in her wrongheadedness regarding ARCs.  She made her ignorance clear in flashing neon lights.  And she took out her wrath on those who tried to at least inform her of her ignorance.


She's not the first.  She won't be the last.  But her combination of ignorance and arrogance transcends even the viciousness of a Melissa Douthit, the pomposity of a Maggie Spence, or the tearful whininess of a Raani York.  If authorial stupidity were an Olympic sport, Yvonthia would sweep gold, silver, and bronze all by herself.


So, how bad is the book itself?  It's terrible.


The cover, as I wrote on the previous post, is nice to look at, but the plain fonts scream amateur.  There's no teaser line, no description.  These things are helpful for the reader who downloads a book -- especially when it's free -- and goes back later to read.  They've probably forgotten the description from the Amazon listing and need a refresher.  "Braving life in the big city, she faced the twin challenges of love and danger!"  That sort of thing.  So on an ordinary grading scale, let's say the cover earns a C+.


The front matter -- everything from inside teaser to the actual start of the narrative -- is a mess.  The title page is another amateur effort, with a pretty border around almost useless information. What's the difference between "The Wrythe and the Reckoning" as a book and "The Wrythe and the Reckoning" as the saga?  "Reverie Ardent" isn't identified as the publisher, so it's just words without meaning.  "The Special Note" is just an ordinary dedication; the "Introduction" is more blathering not needed for the reader's enjoyment of the text.


And then there's "The Preface."


I quit after reading the first paragraph of the preface.  The usage error stopped me cold after all the other problems I'd encountered getting to this point.  The author's public online behavior was enough of a turn-off.  Her lack of knowledge of how publishing in the 21st century works was more than enough.  The unprofessional production standards further discouraged me from going further.  Why, faced with poor writing skills on the very first page, should I go to the next?  I didn't.  I stopped.  I wrote my preliminary review based on that one paragraph of the preface.  Thank you, Josh Olson.


But that's where I made my mistake.  I took Leland's "The Preface" as a prologue, as part of the narrative.



I suppose you could say it was by chance, or maybe destiny, but I prefer to not think of it in that sense. Perhaps instead, I took one road which lead me to another, and then to another, and so forth.

Leland, Yvonthia. The Wrythe and the Reckoning (The Wrythe and the Reckoning Saga Book 1) . Reverie Ardent. Kindle Edition.


It seemed like a short opening paragraph, the first person narrator reflecting on how her adventure began.  The opening of Dickens's David Copperfield is somewhat similar:


Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

David Copperfield (p. 1). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


But Dickens provided a true preface to his work, and added subsequent commentary on subsequent editions; the Kindle edition I have includes both the original 1850 Preface as well as one dated 1869.


Leland, however, seems not to understand exactly what a preface is -- and probably doesn't understand what a prologue is either.  The brief paragraph quoted above is the entire thing!  It's not the beginning of the book; it's her statement of her own journey.  As a writer?  As a person?  It's just not . . . right.


I didn't discover this until later last night when I determined to try to read at least a significant part of the book in order to assess the writing fairly.  To go from that one-paragraph preface directly into the narrative was quite a jolt.  I thought I had missed something, skipped a page.  But no, that's all there is.


Now, the problem with all the author's online histrionics is that she revealed certain information that can't be unrevealed.  As an individual reader, I can't just forget what I know about this book and about the character and even about what other reviewers have said about it.  That knowledge makes the author's failures even more apparent than they might be to another, less-informed reader.


In the text, there's no indication when the story takes place.  In the spring, yes, but of what year? 1800? 1820?  1850?  1859? 1875?  1919?  1680?


I know, personally, from reading the author's comments here and there, that the events are set sometime prior to the American Civil War, during a time when slavery was still an issue. But that still leaves a lot of decades open, and the reader who doesn't know the time frame at all would be at a complete loss.


This is further complicated by the description Leland provides of the conveyance the family is traveling in.  The opening line states that it's a wagon, and so in my mind I pictured an open farm wagon pulled by a team of horses or mules.  The parents might be sitting on the front seat, perhaps with a small child between them.  Other children would be sitting or lying in the back, surrounded by the family's furniture and other possessions. Maybe there's a milk cow ambling along behind the wagon, or a dog curled up with the children.


Again, my impression based on the knowledge Leland has provided in her online rants about the time frame for the novel and my own experience reading lots of books set in the nineteenth century is thrown for a loop when she begins describing this wagon.  It has a table! And side benches!  And a back bench with a window!


Sounds more like a Class A motorhome than a "wagon."


The narrator's brothers are playing marbles at the table. How does one play marbles on a table in a moving vehicle? Especially a vehicle that's probably traveling over unpaved, uneven country roads.  Her mother is knitting a shawl on the side bench.  She herself is sitting on the back bench looking out the window. 


This is the opposite of an invisible manuscript.


As a writer, you (should) want your reader to see the scene you're creating with your words. You don't want the reader to look at the words, go back a page or two to try to figure out what those words mean, then come back and read some more.  You want the pages to disappear.  Leland here is doing exactly the opposite.  And it's not just with the wagon.


We don't know the gender or age or name of the narrator.  We get the names and ages of the brothers, and there are references to an older sister.  I only know the narrator's gender because of the online drama; there's no reference to her being a girl so far into the book.  The sister is four years older, and then there's a mention of the house they're leaving.


My father and grandfather had helped to build the house about nineteen years prior, a few months after Abby was born.

Leland, Yvonthia. The Wrythe and the Reckoning (The Wrythe and the Reckoning Saga Book 1) . Reverie Ardent. Kindle Edition.


So now I have to go back to confirm that Abby is the older sister by four years and thus the unnamed narrator is somewhere between fifteen and sixteen.


All of this pushes me out of the story, when I want to be pulled in.


But again, what I know from the external context collides with the text itself to push me further away.  I know this story takes place prior to the American Civil War.  I know from the text that the narrator is in her middle teens and that the family is leaving a village where she has lived all her life.  Yet she references her classmates.


In that moment, it occurred to me that perhaps what my classmates said was true that our lives will change for the worst and we’ll never see the village. . . .

Leland, Yvonthia. The Wrythe and the Reckoning (The Wrythe and the Reckoning Saga Book 1) . Reverie Ardent. Kindle Edition.


What kind of school would she have been attending in rural New Hampshire in the first half of the nineteenth century?  The fact that I as a reader need to ask this question signifies that the author hasn't done her job.  Imagine how much clearer the mental picture would have been if Leland had written something like


I had been lucky.  Our little village of Deerfield had a fine school because Mr. Alford the schoolmaster had not only attended the college at Dartmouth but even studied at the great university in Cambridge, England.  I so loved my studies that Mr. Alford prevailed upon my parents to let me continue well past the age when I should have finished any formal education required of a female.


This gives an explanation of how there was a school in their village and why she was still there.  To put all of this in historical context, Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame was born in 1867 and began teaching school in 1882 at the age of 15.


Authors don't have twenty or thirty pages to grab a reader's interest.  I don't care if the book is 813 pages long and needs 150 pages of warm-up.  I want to know right from the beginning, from page one, paragraph one, that this is a book I'm going to be interested in.


Yvonthia Leland turned me off her book before I'd even started it, but I took a look out of morbid curiosity and because it was free.  I know from her comments online that the story isn't going to be wrapped up in 400 pages, which is what she put on NetGalley, nor in 813 pages.  If I'm going to invest the time and effort -- and apparently money, since this volume is now priced at $8.49 -- to read that kind of narrative, it had better be damned good.  It's not.


The writing itself is pedestrian.  There's nothing exquisite about the individual sentences, and they're sequenced into a prose narrative that's lackluster at best.  Everything is told, nothing is shown.  Details make no sense in the historical context, and certain crucial information -- revealed only in the author's online comments -- is withheld from the reader.  (There's a section of the book that seemed very problematic to me on this particular point, but I'm going to reserve that analysis for later, when I can devote more time to it.)


Bottom line:  This is a book that should never have been published simply because it's so poorly written.  The author needs to strap on her skates, take a few falls, find a coach, and start over again.  And again.  And again.  There are books out there that will help her, blogs and patreons and other resources.  She needs to apologize abjectly to each and every one of her critics and shut her fingers up until she's had some serious criticism and listened to it.


Her writing sucks.



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text 2019-12-15 03:53
Writhing through the reckoning . . . the utter horror of truly terrible writing and worse behavior
The Wrythe and the Reckoning - Yvonthia Leland

Disclosure: I acquired the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free on 14 December 2019.  I have encountered the author on Twitter, where she has viciously attacked reviewers. (She has also attacked them on GoodReads, but I'm not there.)  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary gothic romance, and assorted nonfiction.


Pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, but keep the bottle/pot close by because this is going to be a long one.


The Kindle edition says it was published 4 December 2019.  ARCs via NetGalley were apparently distributed as early as January 2019, as evidenced by reviews posted on GoodReads.



Between January and April 2019, several GoodReads members posted reviews, most of them identifying the source as the NetGalley ARC. Most of the reviews were one- and two-stars, with a lot of DNFs.


In April, the author came to GoodReads and posted her own comments (not a review?) explaining that the ARC was not the whole book.




It's logical to assume, then, that the author doesn't know what an ARC is, or at least is supposed to be. 


An Advance Reading Copy is the full text, not half of a rough draft, distributed to readers to generate publicity and "buzz" prior to publication.  Other than minor last minute edits, an ARC should be the final version of the book.  Usually the ARC is sent out a few months -- but not a full year -- prior to scheduled publication.


Author Leland apparently believed that an "ARC novel" was some kind of partial rough draft sent out for . . . what?  Critiques?  Free editing?  Proofreading?


Though she admitted the ARC was only a "partial novel," she claimed NetGalley readers loved it.  I know nothing about NetGalley, so I have no idea how that works.  But she also claimed that it wasn't supposed to be reviewed on GoodReads.  She doesn't know what she's doing.  Of course ARCs are allowed to be reviewed on GoodReads.  That's what they're for!


(One of the commenters on GoodReads posted the relevant ratings from NetGalley; they averaged a 2.88.)


Leland then popped up on Twitter on 12 December 2019, again scolding readers and reviewers.  There was a lot of pushback, with screenshots of her GoodReads posts and Facebook posts added to the discussion.


As of this moment -- approx. 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 14 December 2019 -- there are no reviews posted for the book on Amazon.  There have been additional listings/ratings posted to GoodReads on 13 and 14 December, probably in response to the Twitter discussion.  There are no good reviews.


I'm going to take my dogs outside, finish making my bed, and then come back to this.




On 12 December 2019, Author Leland posted this on Twitter:



(The only drama on GoodReads is what she herself has generated.  No one has been rude to her, though many have pointed out her errors, such as her belief that the book was put on GoodReads in violation of GoodReads policy, and so on.)


Despite being directly addressed about the wrongness of her behavior, Leland has not removed the tweet.  Nor has she responded, at least not on Twitter.  This, however, was captured from her Facebook account:






The GoodReads thread of comments on Rhonda's review is illuminating, but Leland has not apologized nor acknowledged that she did anything wrong.


Soooooo . . . . .


I downloaded the free Kindle edition.


The cover is nice.  I suppose it could have used a more imaginative font, but it's okay.


The title page is weird.




I had to go back to the Amazon listing to discover that "Reverie Ardent" is the name of the publisher.


I'm not sure why the title is listed twice without some graphic to distinguish between the book and the series.  And it seems to me if the saga is "The Wrythe and the Reckoning," shouldn't the two books comprising it have different titles?  Oh, well, maybe that's just me.


Next comes the Table of Contents.



Special Note, Introduction, and a Preface.  Hmmmmmm. . . . .









I did these as screen shots rather than Kindle snips because I wanted to make sure the visual impression came through, not just the text.


All the rest of the nonsense aside, I fall back on the Josh Olson Protocol:



Had this been just another author-published freebie, I would have quit at the end of that first page.  All the preceding nonsense probably wouldn't have stopped me; more than likely I'd skip over it to get to the story.


But when the first page contains a common usage error, I know without a doubt that the author -- and I use the word very loosely -- is not a writer.  More than likely she's not a reader either.  She's probably very young and has never engaged in any serious genre fiction writing and critique.  If you click through to the "About the Author" page, it says she graduated from college with a degree in sociology (that's my field, by the way), but the syntax is that of an artistically immature writer who thinks she's impressing the reader.  She's not.  She has a link to the publisher's website -- it's her own blog.


The whole project, and the way it's been presented, is a catastrophe.  We've seen others here like it, and before BookLikes there were disasters on GoodReads.  Right now it's ranked quite high in the Kindle freebie listing, but no doubt that's due to the buzz she's generated by being such an ass.


Under normal circumstances, I would let this go at this point. The author has behaved abominably.  The product is substandard.  The writing is worthless.  But I'm angry.  There have been too many self-publishing authors getting on my last nerve this week, and I have enough other crap going on in my life right now that makes me disinclined to be charitable to the stupids.


Review to come.

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text 2019-09-04 00:16
Halloween Bingo reject - DNF, no stars
Child of the Ghosts (Ghosts, #1) - Jonathan Moeller

Disclosure - I acquired the Kindle edition of this book when it was offered free on Amazon (2014).  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with him regarding this book or any other matter.  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary gothic romance, and assorted non-fiction.


The Josh Olson Protocol rides again!


I intended to use this book for the "Ghost Stories" square, but after two pages I gave up.


The writing actually isn't too bad, at least in terms of sentence construction and syntax and so on.  But the formatting is block paragraphs, which I hate and which in my opinion immediately identifies the work as amateurishly self-published.  As soon as I see block paragraphs, I anticipate other errors.


Sure enough, there was a word missing on page one.


"But if you’re meeting with the decimvirs, that means you’re discussing criminal cases, which [you] don’t want to discuss in front of me.”

Moeller, Jonathan. Child of the Ghosts (p. 1). Azure Flame Media, LLC. Kindle Edition.


By page two there was another error, this one of words in switched places.


"I wish I had never borne you! I wish had I never met your father! Get out of my sight!"

Moeller, Jonathan. Child of the Ghosts (p. 2). Azure Flame Media, LLC. Kindle Edition.


Because the book is obviously fantasy, I discounted the misspelling of "decemvirs" as perhaps intentional, but the other errors were obviously not.


The book has received almost 400 reviews on Amazon, and over half of them are 5 stars.  The one- and two-star reviews cite the common occurrences of missing and misplaced words as a sign of poor editing.  Maybe the series (now 19 volumes?) gets better, but comments about how graphic the violence in this book is made me glad I decided not to read further.





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