Bad Book

You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published?  I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”.  I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling.  By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.  He is now 86 years old.

In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins.  As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.”  Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.

So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write?  The answer to the latter question is not in the public record.  The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.

In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”

Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?

This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats.  There are plenty of adventures:

  • Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
  • The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
  • There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
  • Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship.  (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
  • Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
  • Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school.  He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
  • The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
  • Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
  • The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
  • Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
  • They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
  • Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
  • The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
  • The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
  • The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
  • Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
  • Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
  • Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
  • The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
  • Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
  • Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.

But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex.  Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears.  The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity.  And what motivates our hero, Tom?  It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands.  The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved.  It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.”  One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story.  The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.

There were several factual errors in the first few pages.  East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa.  During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword.  This is extremely unlikely.  The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire.  The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley).  There is also mention of an un-manned broadside.  To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.

There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.

Give it a pass.

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.

6 Elements of a Good Book Review

There is a post on the above subject which appears of the Steve Laube Agency blog.  It was written by Karen Ball, who was a literary agent with the Agency, but has now gone back to writing.

Karen Ball

She said that a “good review” is helpful to readers in deciding whether the book is for them.  “So here are some things, based on book reviews out there, for reviewers to keep in mind.

“A good review is balanced. It takes into account that we all have likes and dislikes, and while this book may not be our cup of tea, it could be someone else’s absolute favorite. (Hey, it could happen!) Yes, share your honest opinion. But realize that’s what it is. Your opinion. A subjective evaluation of what you’ve read. No more, no less.

“A good review is about the book, not the author. Focus on the writing, on the treatment of the topic, on the characters, on the storyline, on the research, on the facts, and so on. Don’t make judgment calls about the author’s faith, intelligence, relationships, parenting skills, parentage, or whatever. A reviewer’s job is to share your opinion of the book. You don’t have the right to go beyond that.

“A good review is about the author’s craft, not the book’s packaging. Don’t base your review on the cover or endorsements or things over which, I guarantee you, most traditionally published writers have absolutely no control.  (Now, if the authors are indie, then yes, they control those things…) But remember, what you’re reviewing is the writing, not the packaging.

“A good book review doesn’t give an extensive summary of the book and then one or two lines about your thoughts. Readers can get the summary from lots of places. What they want to know is what you thought of the writing, the message, the story.

“Even more important, a good review doesn’t give away the ending/secret/mystery/twist! Please, friends, for the love of heaven, don’t ruin the read for others. If you knew who the killer was on page 2, fine, say, “I knew who the killer was by page two.” But do NOT say, “I knew by page two that the butler was the killer.” If a book has a great twist, say that. But don’t give the twist away. Have mercy on not just the readers, but on the author.

“A good book review is specific. Don’t just say you loved the book or hated it, tell us why. And tell us what specific aspect of it you loved or hated. For example:

What did you like or dislike about the writing?

What drew you to–or left you cold about–the topic or characters?

What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?”

I think this is all good advice.  I would add that there are almost always some things things the writer has done well, and that praise should come before criticism.  I may have a tendency to give too long a summary of the story, but when I do this, it is for two reasons: first, to show that I have actually read the book (there have been cases where a reviewer based his critique on only a sample of the book), and because I may want to make a point about the plot in my critique.

Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, published a post on her blog, https://ellenbrockediting.com, with this title on February 16, 2015, but it is still timely.  She works with about 150 authors per year as editor, plot consultant and writing coach.

Ellen Brock

She said, “It’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.”

Here is where she says many of these bad books come from:

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A ‘Catchy’ or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept That Is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.”

I think it would be very interesting to spend a couple of days with an experienced and successful acquisition editor, looking at synopses and samples of novels s/he has rejected, and discussing the rationale for rejection.  It would also be interesting to understand her/his evaluation of why a published novel failed.