Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Whatever Happened to the Kindness of Strangers?

I don't get it!  What is the point of being mean just because you can?  I don't condone, but at least I understand theft, robbery, and many other deplorable actions where the perpetrator thinks he or she is going to gain something by his/her action.  But what is there to be gained from vandalism, insulting strangers, random shootings, property destruction, hurting someone-you-never-met's feelings, or other mean actions? 

There has been a rash of churches vandalized recently.  Just this weekend someone broke into a Catholic Church in Magna, Utah.  They broke and destroyed valuable statues and art pieces pertinent not only to people of that faith, but an important part of the valley's history.  A short time ago the air conditioner was stolen from a small, poor church.  Several LDS Churches have had windows smashed and fires set inside them.  Fences and buildings are constant targets of ugly graffiti, turning them into eyesores. Bottles and cans are carelessly tossed onto lawns. Young trees are run over or snapped off. How can anyone possibly benefit from this ugly destructiveness?  

It's not just ill-mannered teenagers, but adults too, who yell insults at strangers, including small children, from the safety of their vehicles.  Trolls grab onto every opportunity to find fault and make insulting remarks every time a news story is posted on the internet whether local or national.  Ill-mannered people even post faux ratings and reviews of books, music, or movies on public rating sites.  Some go so far as to make false accusations of a crime. What is wrong with people who derive some kind of pleasure from causing emotional pain to strangers? 

There's plenty of meanness in this world directed against or between political groups, religions, cultures, races, gangs, and varying philosophies.  I've never noticed any of these being resolved by name calling, violence, or destruction.  Have we allowed hate and anger to become so common that cowards now consider vandalism and anonymous attacks to be an acceptable means of convincing themselves they're big and brave?  

I recently read a string of hateful anti-religion remarks following a news piece that actually had nothing to do with religion and the words of a familiar song ran through my mind.  "God is not dead, Nor doth He sleep."  We simply have far too many people who have changed sides, switched their allegiance from God to Satan. Which is sad since we already know who will ultimately win.  It won't be the mean guys!

Monday, August 26, 2013


Over the past few weeks I've heard from a number of authors who have been upset by ratings on public rating boards.  A couple were ones I gave lower ratings than they felt they deserved, but mostly they were writers who just wanted to vent their frustration with low ratings, what they felt were attacks by trolls, the unwieldy number of people added to GoodReads simply because they're face book friends, or other aspects of the rating game that annoyed them. 

Every year about this time I stop posting stars or numbers on Good Reads, LDS Publisher, Amazon, Deseret Book, etc. I and a couple of other authors and reviewers do this rather than let our views influence the Whitney judges and voters.  Our influence might be nonexistent, but it helps us feel we're doing our part to encourage others to make up their own minds rather than follow whatever is the popular vote.  Lately I've been thinking I might give up rating books on these sites altogether.  

There are several problems I've become aware of in the past few years concerning assigning a number or star rating to a book.  To begin with, the ratings mean different things to different people.  I consider these rankings personal opinions; others consider them professional judgments. If I give a book a five it's because I think it's worthy of Whitney Award consideration and it has enough depth to have me thinking about it long after I finish reading it, a four means it didn't interest me as much as a five or it might have a few flaws, but it's still worthy of Whitney consideration, a three generally means I liked most of it, but it just didn't capture my whole-hearted attention, a two means I couldn't really get into it, and a one means boring, crude, offensive, or a waste of time.  No marking can mean potential Whitney, so boring or disgusting I didn't finish it, I forgot to rate it, well written, but I didn't like it, or almost anything. You'll notice none of my ratings have to do with how well the book is written; they mostly have to do with my reading tastes.  Another reviewer whom I respect a great deal recently rated the same book I rated on one of these sites with very different numbers.  She loved it; I didn't.  She works with teenagers and loves teen fiction; I don't so much.  We both agreed the author has style, writes well, uses great dialog, but I found all the teen angst less than fascinating while she thought the story delved into serious issues.  One of us is not right and the other wrong; we each rated the book according to our personal response to it. (By the way I don't dislike all teen fiction and I've read quite a bit of it lately while I've been recuperating from surgery.  Some were superb and I hope they receive awards and recognition for a job well done.  I may even review a couple of them here on this blog.) 

A Romance fan is probably going to rate Sarah Eden higher than Orson Scott Card and Anita Stansfield's fans are probably not as enamored with Dan Wells as they are with her.  Those ratings are a measurement of how much the reader enjoyed the book and the reader's personal taste in reading material.  I have two books on my keeper shelf that are not well written, in fact from a professional standpoint, they're pretty clumsy and amateurish, but I love them and would rate them high, if I rated them, because of their strong personal appeal and excellent research. On the other hand I've seen wonderful books marked down because the reader expected one genre and the book picked up proved to be something else.  

Another problem I'm aware of in this rating game is people who troll.  That is, they give negative ratings to people they're jealous of, to get revenge, because they think it's a funny game, to make a friend look better by comparison, because the author is perceived to support a cause or belong to a group they oppose, etc. The anonymous nature of the internet seems to bring out the worst in some people.  One writer claims she got one star ratings on a book that hasn't even been released yet and the ratings weren't given by reviewers who often do get advance readers copies. 

Sometimes the opposite problem arises when writers who belong to the same critique group, guild, town, family, or other organization attempt to show their loyalty to each other by flooding rating sites with high marks for the work of one of their own. Also some writers and groups have campaigns to get everyone they know to go to a particular site and rate their books high. This is sad and misleading since the majority of readers aren't aware they can rate the books they read or are uninterested in doing so.  Many readers don't even know where to go to do it.   (There's a link on my sidebar)

I, and almost every other writer I know, have had our feelings hurt at some time by someone who gave us a low rating on a book we spent months, possibly years, writing.  After being a writer as long as I have, I recognize that not everyone is going to like my books and those who do will like some of them better than others.  I freely admit that I don't like every book some of my favorite writers have written, but that isn't because they aren't well-written and they won't appeal to someone else.  It's easy to say, "Get over it.  Don't take ratings on these public pages so seriously."  Most writers know ratings have little to do with sales or popularity, but still low marks hurt.  

If someone really wants to know how well written a book is or if it's the kind of book he or she wants to read, I suggest going to a reputable newspaper, magazine, or blog reviewer.  They can also checkout the synopsis of the book listed by the bookstore or on the bookliner.  Another source is friends whose taste in reading material is similar to their own.  To anyone who likes to look for ratings, I say go ahead, it's kind of fun, but remember they don't really mean much, and if you're one of those who bestows ratings, be honest, but don't be deliberately hurtful.  And to my fellow writers, I suggest growing a thick skin, consider the source, and avoid making career choices based on those ratings.  Not only have I received a one star rating, but I've seen one star ratings for Brandon Mull, Rachel Nunes, Josi Killpack, Stephanie Black, Jeff Savage, and many other authors who are doing just fine and are counted among the best. The rating that matters is the number of books sold.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Almost twenty years ago I read a horrible review of a rather mediocre book.  Though I agreed with most of the nasty comments the reviewer wrote, I felt uncomfortable with his mocking tone. There were good things too, he might have mentioned.  Imagine my surprise when the book soared to record-breaking sales in the ensuing weeks in spite of, or because of, the snide review.  I concluded it's more important to get reviewed than whether or not the review is positive. 

A few years later I accepted the job of reviewing fiction for Meridian magazine. My journalism training had qualified me as a critic, but since I was writing fiction by that time myself and knew how badly nasty comments concerning my writing could hurt, I vowed to be kinder than some of the critics I knew and simply not review books I thought didn't deserve any free publicity, point out flaws honestly but charitably, and never ridicule a writer .  Over the many years I've been critiquing books I've pretty much stuck to that philosophy, but have broadened it.  I still don't review books I seriously dislike, but that's not the only reason I decline to review some books. Because I review LDS books, I generally don't review books that are doctrinally questionable or negative toward the Church, I try not to review several consecutive books in the same genre or by the same author, I rarely review YA books, and sometimes my "to read" stack is so tall, there's no way I can review every book in the pile.  There are times too when a book doesn't strike me as terrible, but it isn't anything special either, and since I usually have plenty of books to review I go for the ones that make the biggest impact on me, present something new and interesting, are memorable, or present a fresh way of looking at an old problem. Sometimes I just get tired of reviewing books in series. Occasionally I play catch-up and review a book on my blog instead of for the magazine.   

I have little patience with ridiculing an author's work.  Even books I consider boring or trivial represent a great deal of work and effort. Finishing a book and getting it published is a huge achievement and I applaud the effort. 

I don't play the stars rating game on my review column or my blog, though sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, on Good Reads.  Often I forget to even make note there of books I've read. Only once did I give a book a one star rating and that was because the language was filthy and the author hadn't researched LDS policy. (The author came unglued over my rating!) Rarely do I post a comment or review on Good Reads.  When I do it's because the book made an impression, but I probably won't be reviewing it.  Unfortunately I managed to hurt an author's feelings recently because I made a brief comment (It wasn't negative), then didn't review the book. I feel badly about this reaction because the book has some very good passages, they just aren't linked well and the middle drags down an excellent beginning and end, but the author shows real promise and I would hate to be responsible for discouraging a writer through "faint praise." 

Over the years I've noticed that I'm often the toughest on some of the writers I admire most.  I've also noticed that the most truly professional writers never try to defend themselves, but fix what was wrong in their next book or decide it's not worth getting upset over and ignore a critic's fault finding.  I've received some great thank you notes over the years, one memorable one from an author whose book I came down kind of heavy on, and I've watched many authors move from promising to favorites.  When I first started writing fiction I could count the number of LDS fiction writers on one hand, and now there are so many I can't even name them all.  When I began reviewing, it sometimes became difficult because the other writers had all become personal friends. I have to admit those early writers were great to accept my criticism and give me the freedom to write about their work with honesty. 

In all my years as a journalist, the assignment I hated most was writing obituaries, so when I write a review I keep in mind an old atheist friend of my father's.  He often proclaimed that when he died he wanted a Mormon funeral so someone would say something nice about him.  I don't want my reviews to be any book's obituary and honesty won't let me say wonderful things about a book I don't think is wonderful.  So I'll go right on telling others what I think is great while acknowledging there might be flaws.  Remember what I learned a long time ago--just getting reviewed means you did something right.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


It was all because of toothpaste!  Five children under the age of twelve meant toothpaste smears on the sink, on the towels, down the front of shirts, and even on the floor.  That's when I got the brilliant idea to put away the toothpaste and use tooth powder instead.  I'm not sure why I thought that would be less messy.

The day I brought a tin of tooth powder home, my curious four-year-old promptly removed the lid and stuck her finger inside the can, presumably to taste the powder.  That's when disaster struck.  She couldn't get her finger back out of the tiny opening.  I tried all the usual methods for a stuck ring; soap, ice, lotion.  Nothing worked and by that time her finger was bleeding where the can had cut a deep groove around her poor little finger. 

We lived less than a block from the fire station, and being a reporter, I knew most of the firemen at the nearby station.  Leaving my oldest daughter to watch the other kids, I dashed to the fire station with my bleeding little girl.  The men were sympathetic and kind to my daughter as they tried the same methods that had failed for me.  Finally a paramedic said, "We'll have to cut it off."  He explained that he'd have to use the jaws of life, the same tool used to rip open cars to extract accident victims and though the tool is large and scary looking it would work fine. 

My child stood still and didn't cry, though pale and wide eyed, while the firemen cut away the can.  "There!  All done. I'll just put a band-aid on your finger and it will be just fine." 

She looked up at him and in a trembling voice said, "But my finger is still there." 

Both the paramedic and I had tears in our eyes as we realized my little daughter had thought he was going to cut off her finger instead of the can. I was overwhelmed by her courage, but I also learned a valuable lesson about using pronouns. Be very sure it is clear to the reader or listener what the antecedent to the pronoun is.   

I've read a number of books lately that have left me confused just the way my child had been confused over whether the author like the paramedic meant for it to stand for the can or the finger.  This problem pops up a lot on face book and it would be helpful if we all were more careful in the quick comments we make there, but let's take extra care in what we write for publication.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spur of the moment Picnic

My daughter, Mary Jo, called this morning to ask if we'd like to go with them for a picnic up Millcreek Canyon.  This past year has been spent mostly getting through and recuperating from three major surgeries.  We haven't gone many places or done much other than try to get through my medical problems, but the past few weeks we've gone out to dinner twice, resumed working at the temple, and attended two grandchildren's piano recital. I also completed a short story which will appear in a collection of true Christmas stories later this fall. Life is just getting back to normal in time for my last (hopefully) surgery which is scheduled for next month. The idea of a picnic sounded like fun so we joined them and thoroughly enjoyed lunch with our daughter's family.  Below I've posted a few pictures from our picnic and one from another daughter's children's piano recital.  The girl on the far right and the boy in a blue shirt in the middle are our grandchildren.