10 Great Books I Haven’t Read

I have a weakness for listopia and list challenges. I’ve always been a sucker for lists. I really love to see various people’s books-you-should-read sort of lists. I will admit that part of it is vanity. As a life-long bookworm, I have usually read a fair number of the “most important” books on any given list. The BBC believes the average reader has read only six of these books. I’ve read 38. I know, plenty of people have read more, but still I beat the average by a lot. When it comes to my favorite genres, like science fiction and fantasy, I’ve often read the majority. On Listopia I’ve read a solid fifty of the Best Science Fiction books of all time.

But I thought it might be interesting to approach this from the opposite angle. There are books that show up time and time again on “must read” lists that I haven’t read. Some I might get to in time, others probably not. So here is my top ten books I haven’t read and why.

1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

For those that don’t know, Card is a homophobe. Not simply someone who disagrees with homosexuality, nor even some who is quietly uncomfortable with it. He’s an outspoken critic of pretty much any legislation or social movement that might give LGBT people equal protection under the law or say, a chance at life. He’s spent the money he’s made as a writer fighting long political battles against marriage equality. A short essay about his politics can be found here.

True fans will tell you that we should overlook his personal flaws because he is a great writer. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. Partly this is because he’s still alive and I don’t want to put money in his pocket, but there is more.

H. P. Lovecraft was a racist bigot. I’ve come to terms with this. I read his work with this in mind. I look at this with the same morbid fascination of a nurse looking at a pus filled wound. “Wow, that’s a personal flaw deeply revealed.” But I would never suggest a person of color set aside their personal feelings to read Lovecraft. And for the record I agree with The World Fantasy’s decision to drop Lovecraft as the image for their award.

Card might be an incredible writer. His works might have nothing to do with his personal views. But there are hundreds of incredible writers and most of them aren’t trying to squash my civil rights. Personally I prefer to avoid the whole nuanced “he’s a great writer but…” by simply not reading Card.

Note: I won’t attack anyone for being a fan of Card. In return I ask that fans not try to guilt me into overlooking my personal views of him, or “give him a try.” Thanks in advance.

2. Jayne Eyre by Emily Bronte

There are three reoccurring themes throughout this list. Political controversy, the reason I haven’t read Card, is one. The reason I haven’t Jayne Eyre is the second common theme, I’ve read other Bronte works. Or I should say I’ve choked down Wuthering Heights, because that’s how it felt to me. I know, lots of people love both books but there is something about her writing style that I can’t hack. Wuthering Heights left me with no desire to read more Bronte.

True fans will no doubt protest that I just haven’t read the right Bronte, or I didn’t understand it, or whatever. The list of reasons why I should like some great writer is long, but since I’m not a professor of literature I see no reason to agree. I don’t have to read anyone I don’t want.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Let’s jump straight into the third reoccurring theme, availability and/or the greed of publishers. In this case, it’s almost pure greed.

For a long time To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my I-should-get-to-this-someday list. I planned on reading it. Who knows, I still might.

Since the release of Go Set a Watchman and Lee’s passing, her estate has jacked up the price on To Kill a Mockingbird, even killing the mass-market edition to force schools to buy more expensive editions. This pisses me off. The whole agency pricing and traditional publishers jacking up ebook prices to save their print sales, pisses me off. I read a lot. I understand that there are costs to producing a print book and I will pay more for one. But more than ten books for an ebook? I don’t get it.

I know, it’s a dumb reason to not read a book. I know, libraries, used book stores, used books on Amazon, yada yada.

You know what else is dumb? Trying to prop up one sector of an industry at the expense of another. Expecting me to pay premium dollars for your book because it’s got some publisher’s stamp of approval on it when there are literally millions of other books I could easily read. I know so many struggling new writers who are selling ebooks at 2.99 or 3.99. Why should I be willing to give Lee’s attorney three times that to read her client? Screw that.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For the record, I do like literature. I just don’t like all literature and I refuse to like something because “everybody” insists someone is a great writer. Like Emily Bronte, I’ve read a smattering of Jane Austen, notably Sense and Sensibility. It was better than Wuthering Heights and that is faint praise indeed. She’s just not the writer for me.

5. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is one of my favorite writers of all time. Snow Crash and the Cryptonomicon are two of my all time favorite books. He’s unfortunately fallen into the same trap that many established traditionally published authors have. 17.99 for an ebook? Outrageous.

(It looks like since writing this, the price has dropped to eleven bucks. Still higher than I like for an ebook, but I might pay it for Stephenson.)

6. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

No big controversy here. I haven’t heard terrible thing about Mr. Jordan. His books are mostly under ten dollars in ebook form. I haven’t read anything by him and I don’t have any bias for or against this series.

It’s just long and I’ve read so many long series that I am leery of starting yet another one. In my youth I read the lord of the ring, including the Similarillion. I read fourteen or fifteen of the Xanth books before out growing that series. I read each Harry Potter book as it came out. I’ve read almost every of the twenty some discworld books. I am a veteran of long series.

But it’s a huge commitment. I have limited reading time and I need choose wisely which series I want to start. I held off on the Songs of Fire and Ice for a long time for the same reason. I’ve read that and I may very well read the Wheel of Time eventually.

7. Virgin Suicides By Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve read Middlesex, or as much of it as I could plow through. Eugenides is a great writer when he’s on. Which is about every other chapter as far as I can tell. The alternate chapters he’s long winded, vague and his editor is on break. Seriously I would read one scene and love it. The next scene I would read three times and still wasn’t sure what he was saying. Maybe his other works are better, but I’m not inclined to find out.

8. Anything by Nicholas Sparks

I read The Bridges of Madison County by Robert Waller, otherwise his name might make this list as well. Jonathan Franzen is another name to put under this list. My issue with these writers has less to do with them then with society as a whole. When women write about romance it’s just that, a romance novel. It’s dismissed as a lesser genre. When men write romance, it’s serious literature. Jodi Picoult has weighed in on this better than I ever could.

I love a good romance now and then. I refuse to give into the conceit that puts these male authors above their female counterparts in the field. For the record I am not saying he isn’t a good writer in his own write, or that I would never read him. I just don’t see why I should put him on the “must read” list when there are so many good female romance writers I have yet to explore.

9. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow gets a double whammy of haven’t read. On it’s own Gravity’s Rainbow gets kicked to the back of my to-be-read pile again because even it’s fans, the people who love the book, describe it with words like daunting, dense and a difficult read. I’ve been known to take a perverse pride in having read long, dense books. But as I grow older I see this more and more as pride rather than accomplishment. So you read Gravity’s Rainbow and got it. Bully for you. I read for enjoyment and you aren’t convincing me that I will enjoy the book.

The second whammy comes from the publisher, who are currently pricing it at 15.99 on Amazon. You want me to blow that much money on a book that even fans admit is a “love it or hate it” book that is hard to read. Got better things to do with my time and money, thank you very much.

10. The Anu-Naki wars by R. J. Eliason

Me,

Me, getting back to writing

The voices in my head say it’s a really cool book. But I haven’t written it yet, so I don’t know. Which is my quirky way of saying that blogging is fun but writing pays the bills, so I had better get back to writing.

A final note on the greed of publishers: When I first started reading ebooks one of my big problems was the time and technology gap. Older writers, whose works were in the public domain, were easy to find. Newer writers were mostly online and available.

But many of the great classics were not available. Publishers still held rights and they were slow to jump on the ebook bandwagon, especially for older books. I had more than a dozen books I wanted to read but I read almost exclusively on a device these days and certain books just weren’t available.

Recently they’ve started to come around and realize that their backlist is valuable. They’ve released ebooks for most of their backlist now. That’s the good news. They’ve mysteriously decided to publish older works at new, print book prices, often ten to twelve dollars. So you can add about a hundred books to the “I will read someday when I can find a good copy for less than ten bucks” list.

What about you? Are there books that you have been told are great and “must read” that you haven’t read and don’t plan to? Let me know in the comments.

How to be a Prolific Writer

I’m a prolific writer. With my 10th full-length novel coming out this month and another 10 shorter works on the market, that’s just a statement of fact. Other writers tend to have a love-hate relationship with prolific writers. In writing group some will express admiration or jealousy over how much I write. Others are far more disparaging, sure that writing a lot means writing poor quality stuff.

Zoey one

My tenth full length novel.

Too many writers think that prolific writers are just born that way, that we are somehow different from other, slower writers. In fact there are two simple secrets to being a prolific writer, and neither are secret at all.

Everybody writes at a certain pace. There are certain tricks to speeding up the pace but I found most of them don’t work. Some writers suggest doing high-intensity sprints of writing. For me, the sprints just wear me out and slow and steady racks up better word counts anyway. A lot of prolific writers use technology, programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I do, too. I do it to save my wrists. Honestly, it doesn’t speed up my work counts that much. It varies a little bit from genre to genre and piece to piece, but overall dictating has not sped up my writing is much as I thought it would.

So if we accept the idea that every writer has a certain pace of writing there are two simple ways to increase your word counts and become more prolific.

One. Write more.

Two. Make more of your “writing time” writing.

Writing more

One of my writing friends likes to joke that she uses the writing strategy of “butt in chair.” It really a great writing strategy that can help with many writing problems. And I guarantee you will increase your productivity. If you average 500 words per hour and you want to double your word count, write for two hours. The more time you spend in the chair writing, the more writing you get done.

Sadly the only guaranteed way to write more is to spend more time at the keyboard.

Sadly, the only guaranteed way to write more is to spend more time at the keyboard.

It’s really easy on paper, but much harder in real life. We all have many competing claims on our time; there are day jobs, families and we need to take care of ourselves as well. There are days when it seems like everybody wants something from us. If we are the kind of person that routinely says yes to requests, we quickly find our day filled up with everything but writing.

In ways, saying that I’m a prolific writer is simply putting a positive spin on the fact that I have no life. Okay I’m joking, or half joking. I made a conscious decision a few years ago that if you want to be a writer you must write. And if you hope to someday be a professional writer, someone who supports herself entirely with their writing, you need to write like a professional. I track my time and I shoot for somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, depending on what else is going on in my life.

Not everybody will be able to dedicate that much time to writing, nor am I always able to do that. The most important thing to draw from this is attitude. Nobody else is going to care about your dream as much as you do. And living your dream is going to take time. You will have to learn to make choices, set limits and carve out time to write.

Some of you will have supportive spouses who will actively help you make time to write. A few of you will have unsupportive spouses. But most of the time spouses and family members will be somewhere in between, they will acknowledge your writing dream but the extent to which they will honor your need to make time for it will vary from day-to-day. Very few will hold your feet to the fire and force you to make that time. You have to be the driving force.

Make more of your “writing time” writing

I’ve noticed over the years that prolific writers tend to be planners and researchers. This might seem counterintuitive but it’s not. To make the most of a limited amount of writing time you need to spend most of that time with your fingers on the keyboard and your eyes on the screen. Planning and researching can help this.

First let’s be clear about what I mean by planning. A lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers are dead set against any sort of planning. They also tend to associate planning with long complicated outlines and 50 page synopsis. Apparently that was how MFA programs taught or teach writing. I say apparently because I don’t know a single writer, MFA trained or self-taught, that actually plans this way.

There are literally dozens of different ways to plan out a novel. In my own writing I have tried storyboarding, the snowflake method, beat sheets and several more. My current writing process is a hodgepodge of several of these methods.

I now use Scrivener to plan my writing.

I now use Scrivener to plan my writing.

I’m not going to argue for one planning process over another, or insist that you have to plan a certain way to be prolific. I’m merely going to suggest this; if you have some sort of a plan then as soon as you finish one scene or chapter you can easily jump straight into the next one. Without a plan when you finish the part you know, you must stop and think up the next part. This kind of musing is critical to writing but doesn’t necessarily have to be done while you’re sitting at the keyboard writing.

And therein lies the advantage of planning for the prolific writer. Knowing even the broadest plot points that will occur at some point in your novel allows you to write from one point to the next. It allows you to spend all of your writing time doing the writing.

The same thing can be applied to research. Writers who do the research they need before they start writing will have those facts on hand as they write. Writers who don’t will waste large chunks of their writing time on Google.

Doing your planning and research together provides double benefits. By having a plan for your novel you know exactly what you need to research. So research takes less time. Having that research done and in hand makes the writing go faster and smoother.

And that’s all there is to it. If you want to be a prolific writer you need to spend more time writing and you need to make sure the time you spend writing is spent well. No tricks, just discipline.

The Girl in the Tank Omnibus Edition is out!

For those who want the entire first season of my serialized science fiction story, The Girl in the Tank, an omnibus edition is now available. You can get it in print, kindle or Kobo Ebooks.

Girl in the Tank Omnibus front

Less than five months ago, lights appeared in the sky. Days later the ships started to arrive. They call themselves the Consortium. They are human, or at least Simian, descending from the same genetic line as humans. They terraformed this planet centuries ago, sent settlers a mere forty thousand years ago. Now they are back, ready to begin the exploration of this galaxy.

For Cheyenne Walker, Chief Petty Officer aboard the Cambridge, a USS destroyer, the arrival of the Consortium is just one more obstacle to finishing her final tour of duty and getting home to her kids. The political upheaval forces the US into an uneasy alliance with the Consortium against China, and puts the Cambridge on the edge of a nuclear blast.

Cheyenne wakes to find herself aboard the Corelean, a Consortium Medical Evacuation ship. Floating in a medi-tank, she wonders if they really can repair the wreck of her body, whether these newcomers are friends or foes and most importantly, will she ever make it back to children?

Omnibus: Get all eight episodes in one volume.

Print

Amazon

Kobo

 

Trivia Time: Rebecca and her Daughters

In honor of North Carolina and a whole host of conservative states manufacturing an issue around trans people peeing in the bathroom that best suits the gender they live in, we bring you a special trivia time where we look at the real historic dangers of cross dressing men, Rebecca and her Daughters.

RebeccaRiots

The scene is Wales and the year is 1842. Wales has been, even down to this day, a reluctant and uneasy part of the English crown. The list of Anglo-Welsh wars and Welsh uprising spans over a thousand years and you can find websites dedicated to Welsh independence even today.

The issue in 1842 was a combination of dropping agricultural prices and static rents, taxes and tolls on Welsh farmers, causing many poor farmers to become even poorer. So one night a huge man by the name of Thomas Reese approached the tollgate at Yr Efail Wen in Carmarthenshire in woman’s clothes. He claimed to be Rebecca and demanded to be let through the toll booth to see his children. When refused, he attacked the guards and destroyed the gate. The Rebecca Riots had begun.

Historians often state that the name Rebecca was drawn from the bible. Genesis 24:60 “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” Local legend however, insists that Rebecca was the name of the woman to which the dress in question had belonged. There is no evidence for this assertion and we may never know.

At any rate the Merched Becca, which translates as Rebecca’s Daughters, continued Thomas’s work throughout 1842 and into 1843. They would approach toll booths dressed as woman and with blackened faces. Sometimes they would pretend to be blind old woman and then pretend to be surprised to find the toll booth in their way. They would smash them and riot.

The riots were put down in 1843 by an increased military presence in the region. However in the aftermath of the riots, there was a commission and the Turnpike Act of 1844, which improved road conditions and made the tolls fairer. Toll booths all but disappeared over the next hundred years and the movement became little more than a foot note in history, and an interesting piece of trivia.

But why did they cross dress?

It makes sense that peasants planning to commit acts of sabotage would want a disguise. But women’s clothing might seem an odd choice to modern readers.

One possible answer lies in the ancient Welsh Ceffyl Pren, or wooden horse. The wooden horse was used to punish men who had transgressed the morality of the time by beating their wives, fathering bastard children or being unfaithful. The men were strapped to the wooden horse and dragged through the village to be ridiculed and scorned by all.

mummers

What does the Ceffyl Pren have to do with cross dressing? It was customary for the judges who oversaw the trial and punishment to wear women’s clothes and blacken their faces. This makes a certain sense in context, they are administering punishment in the name of women in most of these cases, so they symbolically take on that role. Perhaps Rebecca and her daughters meant to shame the English for their rape of the Welsh countryside and abuse of her lands?

Or perhaps it was like the masquerade masks the nobles often wore to balls. They aren’t much of a disguise to modern eyes, but they weren’t meant to be. They meant merely to give others a degree of plausible deniability, an easy way to pretend you don’t know who that man or woman really is. One can imagine a group of Welsh farmers shrugging at the local constable and saying, “Don’t know, it was some woman that did it.”

Yet another explanation lies in medieval carnivals. Carnival days were often celebrated by groups like the “Abbeys of Misrule.” The men in these groups cross dressed, went by names like “princess” and “dame.” They mocked the powers that be and hypocrisy, all from the safety of their disguise. Authorities tended to look the other way, a once yearly carnival was an easy release valve for tensions that might otherwise turn into revolution or rebellion.

What does this have to do with transgender people?

Nothing, at least not directly. Rebecca and her daughters were not trans people. There is no evidence that they continued any sort of cross gender behavior outside of the revolt. There may well have been a few trans people who lived their whole year waiting for that one carnival day when they could truly be themselves, but overall the carnival princesses have more in common with the drag queens of today, more a performance than an identity.

And yet, as Leslie Feinberg point out in Transgender Warriors, the whole notion of men cross dressing to perform acts of rebellion is a far cry from modern stereotypes of crossdressers or trans people. Leslie goes on to point out that even those these people weren’t transgender, we can draw some pride in the fact they choose violating gender norms as a way to show their strength, not as something to be ashamed of.

What does this have to do with the bathroom bills?

Again, nothing. But it might be a lot of fun, the next time some conservative is sharing unrealistic fears of what might happen if trans people are allowed to pee in peace, to remind them that historically speaking, Welsh peasants wrecking up the joint is one of the possibilities.

Trivia Time: Thieve’s Oil

Go into just about any health food store, or shop online from health food company and you can probably find Thieve’s Oil, typically a blend of Clove, Lemon, Eucalyptus and Cinnamon essential oils. Thieve’s Oil is a panacea or cure-all, an herbal concoction with many claimed uses. It’s reputed to have strong antiseptic and anti-microbial effects when used as a cleaning agent, diffused in the air, rubbed on the skin or even ingested.

Two big cautions:

Some essential oils are potentially toxic if ingested. You must do your own research on the Thieve’s Oil you buy to determine if it’s food grade and how much dilution it needs. I am not recommending ingesting any essential oil. It’s all on you.

Essential oils are also potentially caustic. They are typically added in small quantities to a carrier oil before applying them to the skin. Add a few drops to something like Olive Oil, Grapeseed Oil, etc. And test a patch of skin before using too much.

There is an interesting story behind how Thieve’s Oil got it’s name and what it’s original use was. The story goes like this, in medieval times there were four merchants or spice traders. (There are many variations of the story, and many different versions of exactly when and where this took place.) Their city was overran with the plague and they were destitute because of it. They decided to re-purpose the goods and clothing of some of their fallen comrades, ie. They turned to grave robbing. The endeavor was so lucrative that they authorities  became suspicious and the four thieves were arrested and dragged in front of the king.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

He had only one question for them, why hadn’t they gotten sick? To save themselves from the gallows, they made him offer. Let them go and they’d reveal their secret.

The secret was Thieve’s Oil, a blend of spices that prevented them from catching the pestilence. The king kept notes on how to make it and for much of the late medieval period recipes for Thieve’s oil abound and many believed it would prevent the plague. And they may have been right, though not in the way they, or modern health nuts, believe.

Yersinias Pestis is a peculiar bacteria that can spread in a number of ways and causes more than one disease. It lives in both humans and rats. It can be spread directly from rats to humans by bite, and causes the Sylvanic plague, which remains endemic in many parts of the world. Sometimes it can get into a person’s lungs causing high fevers and racking coughs, which spread the plague. This is called pneumonic plague.

Rats, or more accurately, the fleas they carried, spread the black death.

Rats, or more accurately, the fleas they carried, spread the black death.

But the black death was neither of these. When yersinia pestis becomes lodged in a person’s lymph nodes it protects itself by forming a thick casing, or buboe. The lymph glands swell and turn black with buboes and blood, hence the “black” death. The afflicted would spike a high fever. Large black lumps would appear on their bodies and they would die.

This form of the plague is spread primarily from rats to humans via flea bites. The disease spreads first through the rat populations in medieval cities. As the rats died, the fleas on them would jump off looking for a new food source. Fleas don’t prefer humans, but in desperate times will feed on us. And then humans would sicken and die.

Grave robbers would douse their gloves and cuffs in fragrant herbal concoctions because they believed they had magic properties to ward off the curse of their crimes. They didn’t, but the thieve’s oil did repel fleas.

Later plague doctors would take it two steps further. The signature bird masks they wore had hollow beaks, which they would fill with fragrant herbs and dried flowers, to both mask the smells they faced and purify the air they breathed. They would wear heavy coats that were covered in wax or grease to create as thick of a barrier as possible between them and the miasma, the bad air they thought caused the plague. And they would dab their cuffs in thieve’s oil. The result was to make it hard for a hungry flea to find any exposed skin, or any tempting way in to exposed skin.

Source: Wikicommons

Source: Wikicommons

Does thieve’s oil work for the myriad ailments that people use it for today? That’s an open question. There are so many variations on the recipes and so many competing claims that it’s hard to know. As with my cautions above, it’s up to you to do your own research and make your own decisions. But you might want to add a bottle or two of thieve’s oil to your apocalypse bug out bag, you know, just in case you need to go “re-purposing.”

For more information on thieve’s oil and how to make it: http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/how-to-make-thieves-oil.html

For another take on the legend: http://www.secretofthieves.com/four-thieves-vinegar.cfm

A Quick Scrivener Tip: Diverging Paths

Scrivener logo

Two icons diverged in the woods…

So I was writing today on my WIP. Character A needed to know some information about natural birth control. (Long story) When I had planned this out, I thought Character B should impart this information and created a scene in which he could specifically do that.

As I wrote the scene it felt stilted. If felt out of character for both Character B and for the world in general.

So I came up with a different way for Character A to get the information on her own. But I still wasn’t sure. Maybe I should just leave it that way it was and fix it in editing, if it still felt stilted.

So here’s what I did instead.

I changed the scene icon to a test tube. I created a new scene with approach 2 and changed it’s scene icon to a test tube as well. I wrote the new scene with the new approach. Now I have this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 11.54.51 PM

Two scenes clearly labeled experimental, so that when I go back to edit I have a quick reminder. That way I keep both scenes and can ponder them later.

To change an icon in Scrivener simply right click on that file in the binder and select “change Icon.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 11.59.06 PM

There are a number of icons to choose from and you can customize the icons as well. I wrote about that here.

Trivia Time: The Danse Macabre

I always thought the Danse Macabre was simply saying. Wikipedia describes the Danse Macabre as a medieval motif about the ever presence of death, one that arose in the years following the black death.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

While researching the black death, I came across something very interesting. I found an old book by a medical historian Justice Friedrich Karl Hecker; The Black Death and The Dancing Mania. In it I discovered that the Danse Macabre was actually an event that occurred in the decades following the black death.

Dancing mania is an ancient disease that afflicted medieval peasants. Some modern historians have written off descriptions of the dancing mania as a form of epileptic seizure, but actual descriptions of dancing mania show it to be something quite different and unique.

A peasant afflicted with dancing mania would begin to dance and gyrate around wildly, often screaming or howling. A dancing fit could last for many hours or even days until the afflicted collapsed of exhaustion. According to the book, “their fury and extravagance of demeanor so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.”

that many of them dashed their brains out against walls and corners of buildings, or rushed long headlong into rapid rivers, where they found a watery grave.

And to make matters worse the dancing mania was not an individual affliction but a form of mass hysteria. Upon seeing somebody begin dancing other susceptible peasants would join in, sometimes in the hundreds. They would dance in the streets and courtyards of villages and towns. This would bring a large crowd of spectators out. Musicians would often come and begin to play for the dancers.

When the people collapsed onlookers would sometimes bind them about the waist with a cloth, pulling it as tight as they could. This would revive the dancer. In other times and places they would affect a much simpler and more brutal cure by kicking and pummeling the fallen dancers until they regain their senses.

Some of the dancers would recover normally and return back to their workday lives. Some would die from heart attacks or exhaustion. Others would be left with permanent maladies, tremors, epileptic seizures and other indications of some sort of neurological problem.

Learned men of the time believe the dancing was caused by demonic possession. For most of the Middle Ages doctors would not treat the dancing mania but rather left that up to the priests. The priests often tried exorcism, beating the Devil out of the afflicted and other brutal cures.

The Black death, a particularly virulent and deadly form of Yersinia pestis,  the bubonic plague, swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353. It destroyed nearly half of Europe’s population in that time and tore the fabric of society apart in ways that are hard to comprehend today.  People were so afraid of the plague that when it appeared in their town many would flee, leaving behind jobs, social roles and even families. So great was the fear, that mothers abandon sick children to die and fled into the surrounding countryside.

The danse macabre arose in Germany in 1374 nearly two decades later. The earliest reports were from Aix-la-Chapelle in western Germany.  Large groups of men and women would come together, “they form circles hand-in-hand, and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continue dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion.”

This new mania swept over Germany spread by the sight of the sufferers and even by the word of the epidemic. In a matter of months the Danse Macabre had spread to Cologne where it possessed more than 500 dancers. In the city of Metz there were said to be 1100 dancers.

Of the more bizarre symptoms of this mania, the afflicted were often triggered by the sight of the color red or by pointy shoes (which had become the fashion shortly after the black death). As the number of dancers grew, some areas of Germany attempted to halt the spread by outlawing pointy shoes.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

When time traveling to medieval Germany, choose your footwear carefully.

As the mania spread it also took on a more organized appearance. Men, women and children would abandon their homes and lives to join traveling troupes of dancers going from town to town. They would bring their own minstrels and the dancing became a show for locals, who would throw coins to keep the dancers going.

Dancers would also often take over religious halls or dance in courtyards in front of churches while services were going on. The priesthood became more and more convinced that the dancers were charlatans or religious fanatics similar to the flagellants that had existed during the plague. As a result, they used harsher and harsher methods to stop the dancing, including accusing the leaders of the movement of being in league with the devil or heretics. Either accusation led almost invariably to torture and death. The draconian measures used by the priests eventually put a stop to the dancing by the century’s end.

But it wasn’t the end of dancing mania. In Strasburg Germany in 1418 a new dancing plague emerged called St. Vitus dance or sometimes called St. John’s dance. That plague was associated with the feast day for St. Vitus and quickly became an annual event. The dance continued until as late as the 17th century but grew less severe with each passing year and eventually disappeared altogether.

The upheavals of the later centuries, the Protestant Reformation in particular, wiped out many of the clergy records of medieval Germany.  That plus the fact that physicians rarely treated or commented on the mania has caused the outbreaks to fade from cultural memory. Few history buffs today even remember that they happened.

So what was the Danse Macabre? Was it a form of mass hysteria? A group of charlatans looking to entertain a crowd? A protest movement against the church?

Quite likely it was a bit of all of these, depending on the dancer. The Black death had tore the social fabric apart and 20 years later many regions of Europe were still trying to weave that fabric back together.

Peasants who had fled from farms or villages may not have been able to go back even if they wanted to. The penalty for disobeying a lord could easily be death. For others, they didn’t want to go back and face the traumas that they had left behind. European forests of the day were often filled with these people, giving rise to the later folk tales and myths of outlaws in the woods. They scraped by and possibly the dance macabre gave them some tiny legitimate way to earn some much needed cash.

In the years of the plague, debauchery was common. Faced with the imminence of death people drank, fornicated, robbed and killed each other. No doubt many of the peasants felt remorse and regret for the things they did. Like the flagellants, the dance macabre provided a way to atone.

Human nature being what it is, for everyone feeling remorse there were probably others who miss the good old days. For them the dancing was may be a way to recapture some of the wildness of those days.

The medieval church was the cornerstone of social order and during the plague years it had largely failed the peasants. Priests often fled their churches or holed themselves up inside and refused to see anyone for fear of catching the plague. It is very likely that the peasants felt a deep sense of betrayal and anger at the church in the years following. It was in anger they could not express. Speaking out against the church could easily lead to an accusation of heresy, followed quickly by torture and death. The Danse Macabre provided the perfect outlet to disrupt and get back at the church and later claim you had no control.

Whatever the reasons for dancing the Danse Macabre provides a unique glimpse into the lives of a group whose story is almost never told, the medieval peasant.

How to Post a Review (4)

Amazon:

Amazon makes it easy to post reviews. They have numerous ways to submit your review. For starters you can find any product on their site and find a button to submit a review. You don’t have to have bought the book through Amazon to review it on their site. However if you did purchase it on Amazon they will flag your review with “verified purchase” so readers will know. How much weight that carries I couldn’t tell you.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 12.31.07 AM

In their quest to get reviews, Amazon Kindle apps will also prompt you to write a review at the end of each book. It can be convenient but sometimes you aren’t ready to review the book. (You want to think through what you are going to say, like a good reviewer.) Or typing on a device keyboard isn’t ideal. You could always post a short, simple review and then come back later on your home computer and edit it to something more substantial.

IMG_0620

You can also check your order history under the account tab and see a list of all the books you’ve bought from the site. You can add a review from that list as well.

Goodreads:

Search for a book in this box

Search for a book in this box

Once you’ve set up a Goodreads account, search for a book. Once you find the book you are looking for you can click on the box that says “want to read” and edit it to “read.” Or you can simple click on the number of stars you would give the book. Either will add the book to your read shelf. Once you’ve rated a book you will be prompted to “add review.” Click on that and you will be given a text box to write your review. That’s all there is to it.

Add books here

Add books here

A lot of Goodreads veterans get creative with their reviews, adding Gifs and what not. If you are tech savvy, there are plenty of help sites that will tell you how to do that. It’s not necessary.

Other ebook retailers:

While none of the other ebook retailers are invested in reviews the way Amazon is, they all have some sort of button to add a review. And even if the company behind the site doesn’t use the information, they are still valuable to other readers.

Most ebook retailers have some button to make it easy to post a review.

Most ebook retailers have some button to make it easy to post a review.

Book blogging isn’t difficult but setting up a blog is beyond the scope of this article. There are plenty of good resources out there for those that want to set up a blog.

Conclusion

That’s all there is to doing a book review. To recap you should write reviews because it will help you and your fellow readers find the best book. It will also give you a way to contribute to the wider culture of our society.

There are many sites that allow reviews but Goodreads and Amazon are the two that encourage reviews the most, and are the easiest to use. Reviews on other ebook sites are useful and you should consider writing reviews on whatever website that you buy books from.

Writing reviews can be as simple as saying you liked a book or did not. However the most helpful reviews often give some details about why they did or did not like a book. They reference similar books that readers might be familiar with. They help direct other readers towards books they will like and away from ones that they won’t. That means even negative reviews can be helpful, as long as you don’t try to use it as a platform to attack an author you don’t like.

So that’s it. Get out there and write some reviews.

How to Review Books (3)

I am going to break this down into two parts, how to write a review and how to post a review. I will start with how to write a review. If you are new to reviewing and it makes you nervous, feel free to write your review out in Word, OpenOffice or some other text program first and then copy it when you post it. If you are old hat at reviews, you can simply write it into the provided space while posting.

SONY DSC

How to write a review

1. How to write a simple review: Reviews don’t have to be book report. This isn’t high school. Amazon requires a minimum of twenty words. Goodreads doesn’t have any minimum requirement. If you are stressing about what to say a simple “I really liked it” or “it wasn’t for me” on Goodreads is better than nothing.

For Amazon here are several twenty word reviews.

“I liked this book a lot, it held my attention from start to finish. I would recommend it to others.” (20 words)

“It was a really good insert genre and readers who enjoy that genre will probably also enjoy this book. I know I did.” (23 words)

“I usually like science fiction books but I couldn’t buy into the premise of this book and that ruined it for me.” (22 words)

2. How to write positive reviews: One of the things that puts off many would-be reviewers is how to write a positive review. It’s ironic, it’s books we love that make us want to write a review, but figuring out what to say about them is often harder than reviewing a book we are critical of. Writing a positive review is an art form.

Many five star reviews are nothing but vague praise. This isn’t helpful to the next reader and often comes across as fake. You see glowing praise and assume the author got his/her best friend to review the book. What should you do instead?

Take a minute and think about what you loved the most about the book. Then write about that. “I really loved how the main character wasn’t the stereotypical heroine, but felt like an ordinary girl like me.” “I loved the way the author made the setting seem so real, even though this was a fantasy book.”

Mention similar books. Some of the most helpful reviews I’ve read, positive and negative, mention other books. “It was a gritty fantasy in the same vein as Game of Thrones” tells the reader two things. If they liked Game of Thrones, this might be a book they’d like. If they don’t like Game of Thrones, they should maybe pass on this book. When readers get directed to the books they will love, everyone wins.

3. How to write a negative review: Yes, I am going to tell you how to write a negative review. I am going to give you permission to write negative reviews, even if they are about my books. Because I believe negative reviews can be as helpful, or more so, then positive reviews. I’ve often been swayed to buy a book by a negative review, because the reviewer was angry about something that I personally like. Negative reviews direct the wrong readers (meaning readers that won’t like it anyway) away from a book, and that’s as critical to success as finding the right readers.

When writing a negative review it’s helpful to keep a couple things in mind, the first and most important is that it ideally shouldn’t be about the author. It’s about the book. Be clear about that. If you feel that the author is advocating something immoral or is offensive because of something they said or believe, it can be hard to separate that out. But if you use the review button to unleash personal attacks you will likely find your review flagged and removed. Instead focus on the book and why you didn’t like it.

We don’t all like the same thing. No book is going to be universally praised. And that’s okay. You didn’t like this book, but someone else might. The more specific you are, the more this will come through. A lot of readers don’t like first person narratives, but then again, a lot of best sellers have been told through that point of view. So if that was what turned you off to the book, say so. Different readers have different tolerances for sex, violence, controversy, cliches or mediocre writing. Comments like “too much sex” will warn some reader away while bringing others to the table.

How to post a Review

Where to write a review (2)

There are lots of places that you can review books. The most obvious is Goodreads. Goodreads is a social media site designed around books. You can rate, review and list books. You can see what friends have read and compare your taste in books. You can start discussions about book related topics or about individual books. It integrates easily with Facebook if you want to share your latest discovery with your Facebook friends.

1454549160-1454549160_goodreads_misc

The other obvious place to review books is the site where you bought the book. Amazon is the biggest retailer at this point and many people review books on Amazon. But the Nook, Kobo, iBooks and other ebook retailers all have reviews as well.

If you want to take your reviewing to the next level, there are hundreds of sites that will allow you to host a blog about books. Checkout websites like WordPress or Blogger if you are interested in posting your reviews to a standalone site.

How to Review Books