Bad News Customer Reviews

What use are Amazon customer reviews, or indeed the user reviews on any website? During Amazon’s first decade the company employed a team of freelance writers to review books, videos and DVDs. I was one of them. Crucially, our opinions remained our own. But we worked to guidelines which included being factually accurate, not committing libel and avoiding spoilers. Then Amazon introduced customer reviews, and the result is now a caveat emptor free-for-all.

While many customer reviews are excellent, Amazon imposes no quality control – some reviews are no worse than ill-informed and amateurish –  and no warning that one might at any time come across a massive spoilers. Amazon long ago gave-up proofreading customer reviews, and some Amazon users have no consideration for the reader or creative artist, and no idea of civilised reviewing etiquette.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears

I have just finished reading the novel Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears. This is an exceptionally long, intricately plotted historical thriller / mystery. It’s not perfect, but it is an extremely enjoyable and intelligent piece of work. Unfortunately, with 450 pages to go I decided to see what Amazon’s customers made of it. I happened to read a short ‘review’ by someone who admitted they had not read the whole book (they awarded it one star and described it as ’a waste of money’), but felt it their right to explain the central mystery of the entire narrative. Something the author chose to keep secret until almost the last page. It is a testament to Iain Pear’s skill that I remained engrossed despite knowing where the story was heading.

Not content with attempting to spoil the novel for the reader, the ‘reviewer’, hiding behind a pseudonym, also casually libeled Mr Pears, stating without evidence that he ‘must have stolen this idea for a book from some movie or book from the 1940’s or ’50’s’. I would like to see that stand-up in court.

So faced with the contemptible and unacceptable I have decided to stop looking at customer reviews before reading or watching any work of fiction. Meanwhile with some reservations I’d recommend Stone’s Fall. Clare Clark sums up the novel well on The Guardian without spoiling anything. Read the Amazon customer reviews at your peril.

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World Book Night

World Book Night logoI recently received an email which began:

Dear Giver

Congratulations! You have been chosen as a World Book Night giver and the book you will be giving away is The Player of Games which is your 1st choice. We’re sorry to have kept you waiting for so long to find out but we hope you’re pleased.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, 1st Edition cover

I am of course delighted, and will report back here about my experiences. World Book Night is a great idea. It is, as it says on the official website, a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of people gift books within their communities to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23. In 2012 World Book Night will be celebrated in the UK, Ireland, Germany and USA.

The site explains in more detail:

25 titles are specially chosen and printed in their thousands in World Book Night editions. Givers apply to give away a particular book (you get a first, second and third choice) which they must commit to give away to those who don’t regularly read to share and spread their love of reading. Each Giver receives 24 copies which they pick up from their local bookshops and libraries – the very heart of our reading communities – in the week before April 23.

The greatest reading journeys start when you put a book in to someone’s hand and say ‘this one’s amazing, you have to read it’ and by applying to be a giver you can help World Book Night give that experience to a million new readers on April 23.

It is difficult to quantify the value of reading on people’s lives, especially given the shocking statistics in the UK that outlines that one person in six struggles to read and write. Poor skills compromise health and well-being, confidence and employability. World Book Night’s charitable mission is to advance the education of the public by assisting in the promotion of literacy and the celebration of books and reading by creating unique moments which focus attention on adult literacy. By focusing on the enjoyment and engagement of reading we aim to reach and inspire those who have never discovered the value of reading.

Why April 23?

April 23 is a symbolic date for world literature. It is both the birth and death day of Shakespeare, as well as the death day of Cervantes, the great Spanish novelist. It is in their honour that UNESCO appointed it the international day of the book and that we choose it to celebrate World Book Night.

It is about 23 years since I have read The Player of Games, but I remember it as the most thrilling of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels. Over the intervening years I have read almost all of Banks books. I have read more of his novels than any other writer except Stephen King. I am going to reread it soon and will post about my thoughts about how it stands up now, and about why I chose it from the 25 titles available.

Some notes on Christopher Priest’s The Islanders

Yesterday morning I received a signed copy of Christopher Priest’s latest book, The Islanders, direct from the author. This is Priest’s first book length fiction since the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning The Separation, and since the release of the film The Prestige, based on the author’s James Tait Black Memorial Prize winning novel of the same name. What follows are some spoiler-free notes towards a later review.

The Islanders, Christopher PriestIn the first 22 pages of The Islanders Christopher Priest uses the word ‘adjacent’ three times.

By some counts The Islanders is Christopher Priest’s ** book, if one includes works of non-fiction, chapbooks and works written under a pseudonym. Do we count chapbooks, small publications such as The Song of the Book? Does The Book on The Edge of Forever count? – an account of the non-publication of another book (Last Dangerous Visions) by another author which if it did exist would be an anthology of stories many other writers.

But even if we consider only Priest’s fiction it is still difficult to reach an agreed number. What of the two slightly different versions of the story collection Real Time World? Do we count one, or both? Or the different revised texts of the novel The Glamour – for which Priest also wrote another version as a BBC Radio play? Itself which exists in two versions, one running approximately 100 minutes, the other, containing exactly the same material but time compressed to fill a 90 minute broadcast slot.

The Islanders is Priest’s ** novel, if we count works written under a pseudonym. But which pseudonyms? It’s well known that Priest wrote the ‘book of the film’ of eXistenZ as John Luther Novak, but what about certain other books which have long been rumoured to have been the author’s work, but which Priest has always denied?

As Chaster Kammeston writes in his introduction to The Islanders, ‘I did not write this book, although there have already been rumours that I did.’ Christopher Priest, The Islanders back cover

Just as no one can be sure exactly how many islands there are in the world  – ‘There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.’ – no one can be sure how many books Christopher Priest has written. All we can affirm is that The Islanders is one of them.

The Islanders documents certain aspects of The Dream Archipelago, the central setting for Priest’s story collection The Dream Archipelago. The Dream Archipelago was of course location for half of what is perhaps Priest’s greatest novel, The Affirmation. The Islanders is not a sequel, it is perhaps not a novel in the conventional sense, but a geographical, historical, biographical gazetteer of a place which seemed an ‘alien’ world in The Affirmation, half of which was located in a world parallel with our own (in that it contained a country called England with a capital city called London), while the other half introduced us to a country called Faiandland with a capital city called Jethra and a previously unknown chain of islands spanning the entire girth of the planet.

In The Islanders Priest writes about the world which is home to The Dream Archipelago as if it were exactly as real as the world in which we live, of which so far he has made no mention.

In a year or two, if shelved in order of publication The Islanders will separate Priest’s previous novel, The Separation, from his next, to which it will be adjacent. That novel already has a title. It is called The Adjacent.

*

You can read my interview with Christopher Priest here.

Fantasy Fiction Is Good For You

The Guardian reports that new research suggests reading fiction – even, shock, horror, fantasy fiction! – is good for you and society.

Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young conducted a study involving reactions to reading extracts from the Harry Potter and Twilight novels. In Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis they write: “The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.” (Full article published in the journal Psychological Studies).

Or as Keith Oatley, professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto comments, “I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world.” He adds, “reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education. In an era when high-school and university subjects are evaluated economically, our results do have economic implications.”

Coming soon, Harry Potter and the Psychopathy of Bankers.