Michaeline: A Review of Bujold’s New Novella (No Spoilers, Some Marketing Theories)

The Vorkosigan butterbugs in their radbug incarnation, glowing with radiation markers on their backs.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Flowers of Vashnoi” came out on May 17, 2018! I’m not really a bug person, but boy, Ekaterin knows how to make a glorious bug! Art, science and passion is a winning combination for this heroine! (Image via Goodreads)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s newest novella, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (with beautiful cover art by Ron Miller), came out on May 17 (Goodreads announcement), and it’s a good one. If you like Bujold, you will like this novella set in the Vorkosigan’s radioactive district, about four years after Ekaterin and Miles get married.

I really like the spirit of experimentation Lois puts into her self-published novels. She’s a pro, and writes well, and has apparently learned good lessons from her time with traditional publishers (I might be wrong: is it natural, or is it L’Oreal?). But now, she’s retired, and she’s been breaking some of the rules in order to tell the stories she wants to tell, without undue stress and story-bending to fit the rules of an outside publisher.

For example, this is women’s fiction. (We’re told over and over that women’s fiction doesn’t sell . . . and women’s science fiction? Not even a category. Chick Sci’ Lit? Chicka-Sicca-Fi Lit? Nobody’s labeled it as such.) This is totally Ekaterin’s story, and she isn’t some sweet young single fresh out of school. She’s in her mid-30s with three children, and a husband she loves to bits, but who gets slightly in the way at times. This is her project; she makes decisions as Lady Vorkosigan; and she shares the credit gracefully, but is the boss. Not exactly a common heroine in modern genre fiction.

It’s not a love story; it’s not an epic adventure. There are no demons or vampires or werewolves (although there is soupcon of Baba Yaga), but there are some cool bugs that turn widespread radiation into something that can be dealt with. (Not a spoiler: Bujold has been flirting with this since A Civil Campaign. We fans are very lucky to see it happen on the page.) A dash of love, a dash of horror, a dash of thrills.

It isn’t a book. It’s a novella, and runs about 20,000 words – so it’s a nice treat for the afternoon, as well. But “we all know” that publishers like books — and even more, they like series. The kind of thing that makes readers binge for the entire weekend or more.

What is “The Flowers of Vashnoi”, then? Continue reading

Jilly: Making Good Use of Critical Reviews

Do you read reviews when you’re thinking about buying a book? How do you use them to help your decision-making?

I never take account of the star ratings, but I used to spend quite a lot of time sifting through the reviews themselves, trying to find ones that I thought were written by a reader with tastes similar to mine, who’d bought the book with their own hard-earned money and reviewed it because they wanted to discuss what worked for them and what didn’t.

That’s become almost impossible of late, because reviews are so important that publishers and authors will do whatever they legitimately can to collect as many high-scoring, positive reviews as possible. Searching for the few that might be useful to me has become a needle/haystack exercise, and linking reviews to verified purchases has, if anything, made the problem worse.

Now, if I see a book with hundreds or even thousands of five-star reviews, it does not make me think the book is likely to be good. I start with the expectation that the book is very probably the beneficiary of a well-executed and possibly expensive marketing campaign, and that I should disregard most if not all of the enthusiastic endorsement.

So I’ve been trying a new tactic lately—if it’s a book I like the sound of, but there are so many unhelpfully positive reviews that I can’t use them to form an opinion, I read the detailed critical reviews instead. Perhaps that sounds odd, but it’s been working quite well, for three reasons. Continue reading

Jilly: The Bad News About Good Reviews

Five Gold StarsWhere do you find new book recommendations? Do you read reviews, and would you make a purchase based on the opinions of persons unknown?

This week I did something perverse: I did not buy a book on Amazon because it had a huge number of positive reviews (more than 650 five star ratings).

I had a little time free and I was in the market for something new to read. The book was the first in a series by an indie author I’d never tried. As a newbie writer who might try self-publishing one day I’m all in favour of supporting good independent authors, so this was a strike in its favour. The series had been recommended to me by a friend who reads a lot and whose taste is similar to mine, so that was another. I logged on to Amazon and specifically searched for this author with the positive expectation that I would buy her book. Then I did what I usually do, which is to browse the reviews to get a flavour of what readers had enjoyed and what had annoyed them, and things went downhill fast. Continue reading