Saturday, 26 April 2014

What? You actually want my opinion?

I’ve spent my whole life reading. I have memories of living in West Germany as a little girl, where my father was stationed with the Air Force and the library on the air base was better than a sweet shop for me. We had no TV and our entertainment was the British Forces Broadcasting Service radio programmes, Barbie dolls (dangerous with a little sister who had a penchant for snapping off arms, legs and occasionally heads) and books.

Books were expensive even back in the 1970’s and the likelihood of getting something written in English where the national language was German, was remote. But the library on the base had them all lined up neatly on shelves, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, my heroes, wearing dustcovers and little plastic jackets to protect them from our tiny, eager hands. We went there on a Sunday after church but we had to be quick as the lunch would already be in the oven - my organised parents put it there before we left. There was no time to do proper choosing, it was just smash and grab, child style. It was the highlight of the week for me and sadly not always guaranteed. If Dad was on nights or working Sundays, we didn’t get to go anywhere as Mum couldn’t drive.
I remember once, getting home, scoffing my lunch and devouring Enid Blyton’s ‘Castle of Adventure’ for pudding. I couldn’t get enough of it. My mother refused to believe that I had actually read it all in that short space of time, coming upon me as I closed the back cover in sadness about two hours after lunch. I recounted the whole thing and she was probably sorry that she had asked, when I finally finished following her around the house four hours later.
But what is my point here?   
Well it’s basically that back then, nobody really cared if I liked the book and went back for the next one at the earliest opportunity. The publisher didn’t, the library just had it there and the author would never have known that she just make a little girl’s boring Sunday afternoon a whole lot better.
I started publishing a year ago, but only got my Kindle six months later as a gift from my mother. Up until then, I was still feeding my library habit, only I could choose six instead of one and didn’t have to pay my younger sister in household chores just to let me have her choose as well. Again, the library didn’t care if I liked my picks when I returned them, they probably measured their stats on how many times that book was issued, but they never actually asked ME personally if I had enjoyed it.

I always read the bit about the author in the back and love it when there’s a photo because I can see if they look how I imagined them. Maybe there were email addresses and website addresses but I had a book in my hands, not a computer and so I don’t recall ever looking anything up.
The world is different now. When I finish a book on my Kindle, a box pops up asking me if I want to give it a star rating. Amazon emails me if I ignore that and asks me what I thought of my purchase. As a reader, I’m bombarded by questions and asked for my opinion about somebody else’s work. It’s no longer that detached experience, it’s an interaction with a real person, who is going to see what I think and have an opinion on it. As a reader, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I like what I like and surely that’s nobody’s business but mine. Isn’t it?
As an author, I am ranked and rated and statistically examined a million times over, based on the reviews I get for my work. Some authors give away copies of their precious works in return for reviews which they may never get, knowing that the greasy pole which our books have to climb is aided by the solid opinion of our readers. Others cajole, encourage and resort to begging readers who perhaps agree cagily and then don’t, for a whole variety of reasons.
What seems to have happened in the last few years, is that readers who willingly and genuinely place reviews for every book they read, become hot property. Amazon and Goodreads both have lists of their ‘top 100 reviewers’. I do routinely review almost every book that I read nowadays, because I know that it’s important and even I have a rank as a reviewer - not a very good one yet, but it’s getting there. Authors used to be powerful people, able to influence the fabric of society, the perception of governments and the mood of the people. Now it’s readers.
With the click of the keyboard, a reader can place a review that either devastates or delivers hope to somebody who has put their work out there in the ether. There are no surprises (other than perhaps content) as the author will be eagerly awaiting that opinion. Some authors must check hourly for reviews. I’ve put up a review as a reader, only to get a notification from Amazon within minutes that ‘somebody’ liked my review and found it ‘helpful’. I know it’s the author, who else could it be? I’m going to time the next one and see how long it takes. I might even keep a book on it, in a light hearted, completely non-financially advantageous way, you understand.
A few reviewers really do understand the power of reviews. I have heard awful stories of reviewers deliberately trashing work which they haven’t even read, just because they can. They spend an afternoon dolling out one star reviews to random authors because it’s raining and they were bored. But I wonder if they get and keep that power, because not enough of the other readers out there, know that their opinion is wanted and valued, very much. Perhaps if the load was spread among the other millions, the corrosive influence of the few would be dispersed.
I’m not really sure what the answer is - I’m just musing as always.
I guess what I’m saying is that, if you are reading this and currently enjoying something on your iPad, Kindle or other device, just know that there is an author on the other side of that creation who is desperate to know what you thought. Yes you! They care about how your received their main character, what you liked or didn’t about the setting. Are you bothered that they killed off the lead actress at the end or did you hate her anyway? Did you want to marry the leading man or take out a hit on him and more importantly, when this author puts out their next book, will you be there? Do a 5 minute review. Let them know.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Reviews - What Goes Around, Comes Around

I’ve seen some really spiteful reviews out there in the ether, needlessly unkind words that have absolutely no relation to the work which some reviewers claim to have read, and hated. Until I began publishing, I had no idea that I was even meant to write reviews for the books I read - I guess it never occurred to me that anyone else would be interested in my opinion and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Nobody was - and now they are. In fact, an author will go to great lengths to get that reviewer’s precious opinion, in the dreadful numbers game that pushes publications further up the food chain because of the number of verified reviews.

Gutenberg Bible courtesy of Creative Commons
Wikimedia uploaded by Gun Powder Ma
Until a couple of years ago, I was happily getting books out of my local library and reading them, before just as happily returning them. The lady behind the counter would take them and put them back into the system, not even remotely interested in whether they had met my expectation or if I had failed to get beyond the first chapter. I wasn’t awfully inclined to hand them over with, ‘Thanks, that was really great, I read it in the bath,’ or, ‘I didn’t like all the expletives in that one’ (opens page to make point) ‘I don’t suppose you know what that swear word actually means...?’ She wasn’t interested in the minutiae of my reading experience, what I thought of the cover or blurb and she definitely wasn’t passing on any of my inane observations to the author.

Now we live in an age where the author is not just someone remote; that photographed gentle looking soul on the back page who wrote the book in your hand, but with whom you can have no meaningful interaction. They are accessible, their email address and website is in the back of their work, you can get in touch, compliment or abuse them and walk away largely unscathed. You can follow and un-follow them, like and unlike them, scour their lives and find out personal things about them. It’s all out there and in their eagerness to engage you, the reader, they handed it all to you on a plate in short bios, comments on Facebook, posts on Google+ and throw away comments on Twitter. You can have an opinion on what they wear, where they go and who they go with, in addition to that all important critique of their latest piece of work. You can extol or rubbish it as you so desire, depending on what mood you’re in or how much you enjoyed the thing they pulled out of their head for your pleasure alone.

Old book bindings at the Merton College Library
Picture courtesy of CC Licence Tom Murphy VII
Just scrolling down random reviews on Amazon, I can tell you now that there are some horrible things written about novels which were published with the best of intentions by good people full of hope. Things like, “Hated it. What a load of rubbish...” “Just couldn’t finish it...”He’s mad if he thinks that’s literature...” and yes, maybe good money was spent on something that wasn’t really print ready and the author needs a bit of a kick into reality, but surely there are nicer ways to do it? I have to balance the thing out to be fair, as I also saw some really helpful comments too, “An awesome storyline but the book needs a really good editor...” “Some parts of this novel weren’t very realistic and it lost its believability for me when...”
Good on you, those awesome people who put up a review at all and bravo to those readers who, instead of ranting about their wasted 99c, actually gave some helpful pointers to the author. We’re so full of our own sense of ‘me’ as a society, that it’s suddenly become ok to say, ‘I hated that book,’ but not why. If you take something back to a shop, you give a reason if you’re expecting your money back, ‘It didn’t fit me, it didn’t look right on, it made my butt look like HMS Interloper.’ You wouldn’t get away with saying to a shop assistant, ‘I hate it. It sucks.’ If you’re unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire of someone else’s family dispute, they’re really quick to tell you why they don’t like that particular family member. Believe me, they can go on for hours. Anyone who’s ever watched Jeremy Kyle or in the olden days, Jerry Springer, try and mediate between two raging forces who can’t even remember how it all started, knows all about the ‘why’s’ of arguments. If you get a horrid cup of coffee and paid NZ$4 for the pleasure and have the courage to take it back to the barrista, rather than sneaking out and leaving it on the table, you can’t just say, ‘I hated that coffee,’ because they’re bound to ask you what in particular was wrong with it. So how come it’s alright to tell someone that their book sucked, in public, on the internet for all future customers to see for time immemorial, but not tell them honestly why?
I had a bad review recently and it actually rocked my confidence initially. A book that had been getting only 5* reviews from perfect strangers suddenly had this 3* thrown at it and why? Well, I honestly couldn’t tell you. There was nothing coherent about the review that gave me a clue, other than that the person just didn’t like it. That’s ok but it would have been helpful to know what in particular they didn’t like. They raved on about nonsense really, not getting parts of the plot which, when I checked again were clearly explained and accounted for and they even used the wrong name for one of the characters and misunderstood the location of the whole book. So whilst they had admittedly damaged my poor book’s stats without just cause, I had to dismiss the review as the strange ramblings of someone I would probably rather didn’t ever buy any of my novels again.

Some reviews are so downright unhelpful, it makes me wonder about the kind of people who bother to place their fingers over the keyboard and type. One novel I bought recently was ruined for me because the reviewer decided to blatantly reveal the ending. (Note to self - never read reviews when you’re half way through.) I mean, why would you do that, destroy the ending for everyone else just because you thought it was rubbish? And some of them are so littered with grammatical and spelling errors, I wonder if they are even qualified to be commenting on the quality of somebody else’s work.  
I think the moral of the story is to do what our parents told us when we were kids:
Think before you speak...only in this case, it’s think before you type.
Some salient questions before pressing ‘submit’ for that mean review:
1. Am I being deliberately personal?
2. Did I give this novel a fair go?
3. Have I been reasonable in my criticism and offered examples to back it up?
4. Have I listed at least one thing that the author got right?
5. Would I stand in front of this author and be prepared to read my review out  
    loud to them, when I can see their reaction?

If you can’t think of even one nice thing to say, then perhaps you aren’t reviewing with the right heart, but are just needlessly assassinating another person’s work for the sheer fun of it. In which case, don’t expect to be taken seriously and if you are an author trashing another author’s work, don’t be surprised when what goes around, comes right back to bite you.


Saturday, 5 April 2014

My tiki tour of the Waikato - beautiful Ngaruawahia


Pronounced, Na-ra-wa-hia.

See, it’s really not that hard to say, but it is just one of the Maori names that gets absolutely mangled in the telling. I remember looking at the signpost the night we passed through Hamilton and ended up too far north and thought, ‘I ain’t gonna be saying that out loud’. But after ending up living here 5 years later, I really can’t see what the problem was.

Turangawaewae House in Ngaruawahia
Ngaruawahia was - and still is - a Maori stronghold within the Waikato. It is the home of the Maori king and the seat of the Kingitanga movement, which first sought to establish a Maori royalty from amongst the tribal leaders. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Maori king, was crowned in Ngāruawāhia in April, 1857. Tuheitia Paki held his coronation at Turangawaewae Marae,  following his mother's death in 2006 and is the current monarch, internationally renowned as the king who said ‘no thank you’ to being visited by William, Kate and baby George Windsor recently.
Despite the city of Hamilton’s sliding climb north as part of its great expansion, this tiny town predates it by more than two centuries. I always thought that the name meant ‘the twin rivers’ because the town is situated on the exact location where two significant rivers, the Waipa and the Waikato converge, becoming the fearsome and Mighty Waikato. That just shows what I know, as it apparently means, ‘The opened food pits’ - Wāhia ngā rua.

The Point, Ngaruawahia
In the 1600’s, tribal law was paramount and so, when a Ngati Tamainupo chief and a Ngati Maniapoto woman decided to elope and join the Waikato tribe in Ngaruawahia, it was a factor in the disunity between the Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto tribes. When the first child of Te Ngaere and Heke-i-te-rangi was born, Ngati Maniapoto were invited to come to the celebration, which must have been a very tense moment for all. Te Ngaere’s father honoured the visiting tribe by naming the tiny boy, Te Mana-o-te-rangi and they accepted the attempt at reconciliation. Legend has it then, that Te Ngaere shouted, ‘Break open the food pits, Wāhia ngā rua’ referring to the traditional hangi, which is an underground pit where food is cooked and the name stuck, albeit slightly reversed. The sharing of food is hugely important to a hospitable culture such as Maori, who pride themselves on their care of visitors and it would have been a feast to behold. If you ever get the opportunity to eat hangi food, then do so. It is incredibly nice and I just love the smoked taste that it has.

Seeing as Ngaruawahia's name involves a hangi, I should probably explain what one is, but please don’t be put off by my description. First a pit is dug in the ground, a fire is lit in the bottom, huge stones are heated over it and then baskets of food are placed on top, meat at the bottom and veggies on top. The hangis I have been to, involved quite a lot of tin foil, which clearly isn’t traditional material, but there was also a goodly covering of sack cloth before the earth went back over. It was left for several hours and then dug up and we tucked in. Whilst on exchange to Calgary University in Canada, my daughter and another New Zealander sought permission to do a hangi for a ‘celebration of cultural foods’ day, thinking that it would be awesome to demonstrate something significant from their homeland. Sadly the Uni wouldn’t give them permission to dig the hole on campus and so alas, they had to think of something else. But I can promise the students of Calgary - you seriously missed out!

With our usual audacity, following the English invasion of the Waikato in 1863, British Imperial Forces renamed the town ‘Newcastle’. Latterly this explains some of the street names, such as Durham Street, but the name never stuck and Ngaruawahia determinedly stuck its chin in the air and shucked off the insult. My Hana Mystery Series is partly set in Ngaruawahia. Hana Du Rose purchased her home in the Hakarimata Ranges and ventures into this small town on numerous occasions. Her next door neighbour, Maihi, is related to most of the people in the town and through the 'cuzzie's grapevine' keeps her finger very much on the pulse of everyone's business. My characters are fictional but hopefully, epitomise the kind of Maori welcome and sense of belonging which we have been fortunate enough to be drawn into.

My Rahui Pole
When we first announced that we were moving here, the people of Hamilton would shake their heads and wish us well, expecting us to be robbed, gunned down or just disappear without trace within the first few months. We toddled off up here into the back of beyond and have never been happier. Early every Saturday morning there is a street market, where you can get your veggies and your plant cuttings, numerous arts and crafts or just buy second hand clothes. Or if you so desire, you can eat from one end of the main street to the other and then go home calling it ‘breakfast’. We love it here. There are regular craft markets and the sense of community means that there is always something going on down at The Point.

Main Street, Ngaruawahia
I once mentioned to a local resident, how much we enjoyed living here and how I felt that I had to put some of the myths about Ngaruawahia to bed, amongst my Hamiltonian friends. She grabbed my arm in horror, whilst putting her finger to her lips, “Don’t do that!” she cried. “We don’t want them all living here!”

I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed onto Turangawaewae Marae and enjoying a powhiri and a hangi there. Photos are prohibited once on the marae but I can promise you that it is beautiful, the tour was awesome and the sense of love that the elders have for the town and for their history is deep and genuine. The land on which my house is built was once owned by Te Wherowhero, the Maori king, confiscated by the defeating English. The curse has long since been removed by the kaumatua, as our guide reassured me, but there are dark areas around which still hurt from the bloodshed and the injustice. A paddock nearby, where my youngest daughter and I used to ride our horses, definitely contained something bad. If one of the horses was going to go loco, it would be in that paddock. If someone was going to fall off, it would be there. We stopped riding in it eventually, despite the fact that it was perfect in every other way. As a Christian, I walk and pray over our boundaries with my Rahui pole regularly, a piece of driftwood found on the riverbank of the Waikato at the edge of our property and inscribed by me, with the words of Psalm 90:9-11. Without exception, every Maori I’ve met has been respectful of my Christian beliefs. But it’s a fool who mocks and does not take seriously the spirituality of Maori and show it a healthy respect in return.

Until I took the above photograph, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, of the main street in Ngaruawahia, I had overlooked the influence of the Hakarimata Ranges. They are just there, quietly in the background, channelling a damaging north-easterly wind during winter and ensuring rain when our water tanks get low. I have been soaked in the ranges when the rest of the Waikato has been drought-dry and nobody would believe the 5 hours of soaking which I had shared with 2 class teachers and 60 wet Year 5’s. From that day onwards, my daughter’s teacher was nicknamed, Mr Noah and could never get parent helpers for a day out. Hamilton had enjoyed a lovely, dry, sunny day.

Near the police station, Ngaruawahia
There is water in most directions in Ngaruawahia. Bisected by two rivers, the Waipa and the Waikato, it’s not that surprising. It is a beautiful, peaceful town, steeped in community and history. Oh...but don’t tell anyone, will you?