How do you review a friend’s book?

Following on from last week’s post about self-publishing, another question arose – how do you review a book by a friend or acquaintance without facing some sort of ethical dilemma?

You want to help your friends by spreading the word with a good review, but you don’t want to appear biased, and on the flip side, what if you promote a friend’s book that’s clearly not as good as you say it is? People won’t trust you.

Last week, I commented on three books from authors I don’t know – but I’ve got books in my collection from authors I do know. Lots of them.

Do I review their babies and give an honest opinion? What if I don’t like what I read? What if I do?

Should I just comment on the aspects I like and pretend the stuff I don’t like isn’t there?

What if I only post about the ones I like? That’s an opinion too, and one even more likely to hurt people.

I suspect the best option might be to avoid reviewing books written by people I know, but that’s not helping either.

What’s your take on this problem? Do you review books by friends? Should you? How do you go about it?

If you missed it, you might like to check out last week’s post: Is self publishing a good thing?

The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

A friend told me Richard Morgan’s books were difficult to put down, and as Altered Carbon had given Morgan a huge fan-base (though I still haven’t read it), I figured I’d rock up at a book signing and grab a copy of his latest novel, The Steel Remains.

I met Morgan at the Gaslight Bookshop in Fyshwick (along with about a hundred devoted fans). The Gaslight Bookshop is a fantastic little new and second-hand bookshop catering to lovers of speculative fiction in the Canberra region.

My first impression was that Morgan seemed like a pretty nice guy, and that didn’t change as he remained happy to sign book after book for hours – plenty of them dog-eared copies of previously published works.

Because the line was pretty long, I didn’t get to chat beyond a couple of pleasantries, but his genuine appreciation that people were waiting was obvious.

Once home with my shiny, newly-signed copy, I made a start – and found my friend was right – it actually was pretty hard to put down.

To say it’s ‘in your face’ is being mild. More like a kick in the face.

My second impression was that Morgan knows how to write. It started a little slow, but when things began moving, they moved like a bucking horse.

The action takes place in a richly imagined universe so detailed and real you can almost step into it. It begins with the main character Ringol taking a commission to investigate missing girls, and before long he’s shoved into the middle of a conflict that threatens to destroy empires.

Mix in some magic and human-like creatures from another plane of existence, and you’ve got everything you need for a powerful fantasy story.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the protagonist, Ringol, is a rather sullen bastard with a truckload of baggage and a brutal attitude – most of it stemming from the fact he’s gay in a gay-hating society.

It probably doesn’t help that he’s also the hero of Gallows Gap, a war a decade or so in the past, and has to suffer the expectations that everyone places on him. Because of his attitude, I found it hard to get on Ringol’s side. He’s basically a decent guy, but I found I didn’t particularly like him. What empathy Morgan develops through Ringol’s good acts, he peels away with Ringol’s ‘screw you’ attitude.

  Overall, The Steel Remains is a grim and gritty book and leaves you feeling wrung out, if satisfied. It’s pretty difficult to find something this powerful and original, so for that alone I’d recommend it.

Morgan doesn’t leave too much to the imagination either, so just prepare yourself for some pretty graphic imagery and brutal character development.

Oh, and be prepared for a sequel or three. It is a fantasy, after all, and there’s some pretty big hints at the end.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: William ZinsserI first came across this book just after I became interested in writing fiction, and it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever found.

My first copy was the ‘Third Edition: Revised and Enlarged’ edition, and it’s somewhat dog-eared now from so many years of use and being leant out.

It even had a helpful section called ‘Writing – and rewriting – with a Word Processor’. Ahh, word pricessors, those new-fangled things on them fancy computers.

Yes, I’m almost embarrassed to say it was that long ago.

The book’s currently on its ’30th Anniversary Edition’, which suggests Zinsser’s doing something right.

The most valuable part about On Writing Well is that it strongly promotes simplicity and keeping things clear and concise. Zinsser argues there’s no room for wordiness – and he shows you how to achieve clear and accurate text with a range of examples.

Although designed with non-fiction in mind, the book is for anyone who wants to write, and any fiction writer will benefit from reading it.

The book is broken into four parts – Principles, Methods, Forms and Attitudes, but it’s Principles and Methods that give the book its value.

For example, the topic on Simplicity begins with: “Clutter is the Disease of American Writing.”

Of course, the problem isn’t limited to just America, but the entire English language.

The paragraph finishes with: “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless Jargon.”

What was true thirty-odd years ago holds true today.

If you want to get the basics right, On Writing Well is the book you need.

Ghost Town: Morganville Vampires Book 9

Cover Image: Ghost TownI read Rachel Caine’s Ghost Town: Book Nine in the Morganville Vampires series, shortly after reading book six – I’m still not sure how I missed books seven and eight.

Nothing really happened in between that I couldn’t easily pick up though – or after reading book nine, feel I needed to go back for.

The only thing to note was that Ada, the computer/brain that controlled the town’s portals and made people forget about vampires when they left town, had died or otherwise been ‘put down’.

That, of course, gave rise to the main plot of Ghost Town. With no machine to wipe memories, Morganville’s vampires have an exposure problem – and following an accident, Clare (something of a science prodigy) is forced to build them a new machine.

Ghost Town is a ‘problem of the week’ story and plays on the status quo of the town: vampires in control, humans doing their best not to get eaten or otherwise killed, and Clare and her friends in the middle of the latest crisis to beset the town.

That means the Reset Button is well and truly at play in the world of Morganville.

If you’re unfamiliar with the dreaded reset button – it means that by the end, things pretty much go back to how they were at the start. This shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve read the series up to this point.

After nine books however, it’s starting to feel tired. The premise is that the machine Clare builds to replace Ada gets some wires crossed and begins making people inside the town forget the last three years – some even go crazy.

That creates a big problem for Clare – she wasn’t in town three years ago, so people don’t remember her, particularly the vampires she works for.

That makes it difficult (and dangerous) to convince them the machine’s broken, or that she’s the only one who can fix it.

Soon enough, Clare is neck deep in it and struggling to survive. Considering the number of books in the series, you shouldn’t have to guess how it turns out. Still, Rachel Caine does know how to keep you cheering for the good guys.

While Ghost Town didn’t draw me in as much as the earlier books, it’s still decent, and certainly a cut above many of the other ‘vampire chick lit’ books around.

The first six are highly recommended.

You can see an interview with Rachel Caine here on fandelion.com.

Bitten – Kelley Armstrong

The cover of the book Bitten by Kelley Armstrong A friend knows I like werewolves, and recommended Bitten to me.

Funny thing is, while I like werewolves, I’m not much of a ‘traditional werewolf’ fan – the kind of werewolf that goes nuts on a full moon and usually ends up dead (Wolfman, anyone?).

Thankfully, Bitten doesn’t fall into formula.

This isn’t a Twilight version of a werewolf story either. This is an ‘in your face’, get kicked where it hurts kind of novel.

Gritty.

The story begins with Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf (genetics mean the werewolf gene doesn’t pass to female offspring – instead, she’s one of the rare survivors of a werewolf bite), doing her best to live a normal life with her human boyfriend, away from ‘the Pack’.

Nevermind that her boyfriend doesn’t have a clue about her true nature, or that the Pack are the authority in the werewolf world – she’s looking escape her past.

Her ‘normal life’ means a job and boyfriend, but that gets a whole lot trickier when her pack is threatened and she’s obliged to help out.

Doing her duty, unfortunately, means returning to the Pack and facing her former boyfriend, Clay, the werewolf who bit her. Clay, naturally, wants her back, and he’s the werewolf all other werewolves fear.

It’s not long after she turns up on ‘home turf’ that human bodies begin getting dumped on Pack land and Pack members start turning up dead.

Yep, there’s a power struggle erupting, and Elena’s landed right in the middle of it – and did I mention her ex wants her back?

While the story and characters are engaging and the book hard to put down, the real story is Elena’s struggle with her werewolf nature and her place in the world.

She doesn’t want to be a werewolf, and definately doesn’t want to be drawn back into the Pack and werewolf politics, but if she ever wants a normal life, she’s going to have to deal with both.

And that’s what makes Bitten so good.

The story forces you to care about Elena and what happens to her – and that as much as anything else makes Bitten worth the read.