Friday, August 4, 2017

When Good Authors Get Bad Reviews: Cedar Sanderson's "Snow In Her Eyes"

If you want to read the concise Amazon review, and avoid the chest-beating, click here.

In the 1994 movie "Leon: The Professional," one of hitman's rules is : No women, no kids.

Now, one day I was thinking: 'Hey, maybe it would be nice if I had some ethics or something.' I really didn't want to take a class, or have to read some philosophy book, or anything like that, BUT it just so happens that I HAD seen that movie.

'Wow,' I thought, 'this is going to be EASY! Leon's already done the heavy lifting for me. I'll just use his approach.'

And that's what I did.

Actually, I have adopted it not so much as my ethics (or whatever), but as a sort-of guide to which books to read or movies to watch. It chops some of my options pretty severely from time to time; a couple of months ago, I was looking for an action flick, and the description of about six of them in a row were 'Bubba was finished being a cop/criminal/international spy until they murdered/raped/kidnapped his wife/kid/family. Now he's after revenge.'

So, that night, I read a book instead.

Actually, there are  few other things I don't do.

One of them is horror, particularly slasher stuff. That's not ethical, it's good old fashioned scaredy pants fraidy cat stuff. I don't like being scared, I don't like having things jump out at me, and so there are huge areas of modern culture that I have missed on purpose.

I also don't care for porn, and that extends to sexually explicit scenes in otherwise good books. I skip over those parts, and enjoy the rest of the story. My reason for that is a bit more personal; I prefer my physical intimacy to be participatory, and I ALSO prefer the images in my head not to be of some actress who doesn't know or care that I exist. Yes, I am aware that there are a lot of beautiful women in the world. Only one of them is mine, and that is more than sufficient, thank you very much. I've got the best one, anyway.

My standard approach to books that deal with the above areas is to ignore them. I only work for myself; there is no one who tells me I have to review certain books. I only read what I want to read; that's why, if you look at my reviews, you will find that the vast majority award 4 or 5 stars. I have been chastised for this in the past; some people have accused me of pandering to authors, others have told me I was an easy grader.

Well, bite me.

When I select the food I'm going to eat for lunch, I'm going to get what I want. I do the same thing with the books I read. If you read my reviews, I think you'll agree that they aren't the review equivalent of elevator music: "Good read. Loved it. Can't wait for sequel." Nope, that's not the kind of review I write. I pick something I think I will like, and then I try to get everything out of it that the author put in. Every once in a while, I'll get something out that the author didn't intend, but it's usually in one of my areas of prior ignorance. For example, I reviewed a book some months ago in which the protagonist was asexual. I know NOTHING of that, and so I assumed that a particular act of physical intimacy was highly aversive to her. The author kindly informed me that wasn't the case, merely slightly uncomfortable; my interpretation made it a better story, though. (I think.)

If that is the case, why am I reviewing a book that I gave one star?

Part of is is because of the limitations of the Amazon rating system. If you look at what the ratings mean:
1 star: I hated it.
2 stars: I didn't like it.
3 stars: It was okay. (Amazon says this is a negative review, which makes no sense to me.)
4 stars: I liked it.
5 stars: I loved it.

You will notice that those ratings say nothing whatsoever about the artistry of the writing; the internal consistency of the story; plot development; originality; NOTHING at all about what I think really makes a book worth reading. It is an utterly subjective rating system, and I suppose the only kind that makes sense in the mass-market approach Amazon takes with the book reading public.

Now, that only explains the rating system, and not why I reviewed a book I gave 1 star to, and why I gave it one star.

1. I gave it one star, because in the first paragraph, the author kills off a baby girl. No women, no kids; one star.
2. I reviewed it because the author is Cedar Sanderson, and she is one of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite people as well. I couldn't NOT review it without my favoritism toward her and her work utterly destroying any credibility I have as a reviewer.  I gave Declan Finn, another favorite, a two-star review about a month ago for the same reason, and I wouldn't be able to face him if I were to give this book a pass.

Now, here comes the review of the book; this is the only part that will appear on Amazon and on Goodreads. Those of you who read my blog, therefore, have what Paul Harvey would have referred to as the rest of the story.

I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.
The starkly beautiful cover, also by Sanderson, shows the faint outline of a beautiful, big-eyed little girl, looking out in puzzlement from a frame of evergreens in the snow, an exquisitely drawn red snowflake and red spatters providing the hint of tragedy.

The first paragraph confirms it all.

Paranormal investigator Amaya is at the site of a multiple homicide, kneeling outside beside the frozen body of a three year old girl. The image of an unfrozen snowflake resting on the little girl's open eye is written with a pain-filled brutality; this is all there is left of the little girl, her life is no more, for reasons she would have been too young to understand.

The death is obviously caused by magic, because the cold is unnatural; there is no way the body of the little girl could have been frozen solid by the moderate temperatures at that time of year.

Inside the house are three other dead bodies. Two are the result of conventional forms of homicide, a man killed by a slashing attack,  and a woman dead by a shotgun blast. A second man is frozen solid, like the little girl, still holding the shotgun that took the life of the woman.

The investigation that follows is an elegant blend of paranormal investigation, logical puzzle-solving, and old-fashioned police work.  The clues to the crime are in plain sight; this isn't one of those mysteries where you have to know the thirty-seven varieties of English cigar ash in order to solve the problem. On my second read-through, I drew out a diagram of the relationships as I met the characters, and proved to myself that, yes, this WAS a fair mystery. It's just complex.

As is the case in real life, details exist that are neither red herrings, nor are they essential elements of the crime. Mixed in with those are some factors which DO have bearing on the story, but you don't know which is which.  Amaya's office is in a broom closet, because magic gives her migraines, and she wants to throw up in private. The head of the local witches' coven is Amaya's great aunt. The police chief hasn't learned how to eliminate paper from his paperwork. Amaya's left hand is prosthetic. She likes tea, because coffee is too bitter. All of the elements combine to describe the people and the environment, BUT this isn't one of those heavy-handed stories which only mentions the tsotchkes because one of them is missing/the murder weapon/a clue to the murderer. They just go into making an elegant tale.

As does her precise beauty of word choice. In one scene, she describes the effect of a defensive spell which is keeping her and her partner from approaching a house.

I could hear that he was talking, but the words were distant, almost music if a muted trombone were playing a solo.

I read that, and I've got the Miles Davis band playing in my head immediately.

Although this is a short piece, and there are no elements left hanging, there are plenty of details which tickle. For example, the professional status Amaya has as an official paranormal investigator is bothersome to some of the other law enforcement officers. For another, how did she come by a prosthetic arm? And why was her aunt only free from jail because of Amaya's sufferance? Sanderson does these things, though. About five years ago, she wrote a short work called 'Stargazer' which  DEMANDED one or more sequels, and so far, that hasn't happened. I believe that is something we are going to have to accept about Sanderson; she is always going to leave us wanting more.

Peace be on your household.


  1. What would you have given the book if Cedar had used an adult instead of child in the opening? I'm curious to know how much that one scene impacted your score.

    What about a young woman?
    Roughly what age does the character cease to be a child and thus cause a negative reaction when harmed?
    Is it harming the character or the death that provokes the reaction?

    I am not trying to start a debate, I am genuinely interested.

    1. You raise interesting issues.
      If it's the frozen body of an adult, I'd give the book 5 stars, because the mechanics of the detective story are flawless, and all the OTHER stuff I said were excellent in the book. HOWEVER!!!!! The book doesn't have the punch if it's not that sweet innocent little girl on the cover who lies there on the path.
      On May 23, I gave 'Codename Winterborn' by Declan Finn two stars because he killed the new bride of the protagonist on their honeymoon. It's the context that's important with adults, I think.
      And I SWEATED this review; in fact, I postponed a review of Lawdog Files, AND reading of the Golden Horde, to contemplate what I was going to say; so, I can pretty much guarantee that the once scene, plus the fact that it's the LEAD scene, is why I hated the book (which is what 1 star means).
      On the other hand, on January 23, I gave 'The Midnight Sea' a 4 star rating, even though I hated the characters in the book. I explained in that review that the characters were the ancestors of the people who tried to kill my son in Afghanistan four years ago, and I hated them all and wanted them dead. (My son, by the way, carries no such bitterness, even though he remains 100% medically disabled.)
      It's not just pain; I reviewed 'Survivors' by Holly Chism on April 18, gave it 5 stars, and it's got the most traumatic stories I've ever read, I think; but they ARE written from the point of view of a survivor.
      So, a couple of things: 1. I'm not always consistent, but I try to be equitable. 2. It is my hope that I expressed my admiration of the way she told the story, and that it might generate enough buzz to jack up her sales.
      I do know that so far this post has been viewed 155 times, and that is unusually high for my blog. So, maybe the sales numbers will compensate her for the fact that she pressed one of my buttons.
      If I failed to address something, feel free.

    2. I think I can understand. The story is good, but the context of that one scene hurts so much you cannot enjoy the rest of the story.

      There is a short story that I read 17 years ago that I almost threw the book across the room. The author of the story, whose title escapes me, killed the main character's cat. In my mind that was a needless death of an innocent creature. It ruined what was, otherwise, a decent story.

      For me, it comes down to when I read the scene do I think "aww, what a shame", and move on or does it stick a knife in my heart.

  2. I share your attitudes toward gore and sex; but you already know that.

    I don't read authors who pander - there are plenty of other books I haven't gotten around to yet.

    And there are plenty of ways to describe the horrible things which happen in life without the graphic details - and I think they work better than shock tactics. On me, anyway.

  3. There are a few books I've read where I have a similar reaction, but I think my ethics about it are a little different. For example, Larry McMurtry creates a really interesting teenage girl, and then just kills her in a meaningless fight and it has no resonance in the story at all.

    And my language betrays why that pisses me off: "he creates her". The author is the god of his creation, and he is responsible for life and death. It's true that the innocent die -- that is the reality we live in. But if you're going to kill the innocent as an author, there should be better reasons than that. There had better be a point to it.

    The death of the child that you describe wouldn't offend me in principle, since I presume that haunts the protagonist and motivates a solution (guessing -- I haven't read the book). But a meaningless death (from a fictional perspective), one that serves no purpose at all other than a nod to chaos, a character that simply vanishes and no one is affected... well, that's too close to sadism for me: "watch me build this interesting person and then destroy him, just because I can."

    I don't like the horror genre much, either, though I'm OK with grim, dark stuff -- the horror genre doesn't care enough about the god-like responsibilities of an author for my taste, while in the equally bloody grim stuff, at least the deaths/pain matter to someone.

    1. Your response helps me to clarify something in my own mind about my own 'No women, no kids' philosophy: it's because I'm a sissy.
      I have no problem with being a sissy, or with being called a sissy; I've paid my dues, and earned the right to the title. I'm just squeamish. I likely miss some good literature that way, but it DOES keep me safe from the extremes you describe.
      It also gives me the forum to say that this was NOT a pointless death; it was, in fact, absolutely necessary to the plot. The 'WHY' of Olivia's death, and the reason she was found outside, provide the ONLY clue as to the rest of the story.
      So, if you have KU, please read the work. If you don't have KU, and have an extra $1.99, read the work.
      This author DOES care about her responsibilities!