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Before Christmas I mentioned on my Facebook Page that I was reading an international best seller which had been awarded two prestigious awards & how I could not comprehend either the awards or the best seller status. I also promised that, when done, aside from getting around to posting my review on both Amazon & Goodreads, I wanted to fully explain my intended rating (1-star) here. Since then, I’ve also received 1x 1-star review for a piece of (short) non-fiction I wrote.
Given I was about to do the same to another author, I thought I’d not only explain my 1-star rating, but also discuss how I felt about my own 1-star review.
So here we go!
I should say from the get-go I’m expecting some negative backlash for my 1-star rating on Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book” novel. I’m expecting it because:
(i) people who are likely better qualified than me have raved about this book
(ii) this novel has won two awards
(iii) this novel is a best seller
(iv) it was written by a female author (not enough of us truly) with the main character being an Australian (again not nearly enough novels see the light of day with Aussie characters) and being a woman.
(v) I’m sure I am about to break some unwritten law about not supporting female Australian authors who write about Australia and have Australian main characters
Firstly, let me say, this is the FIRST time I have ever given ANY novel a 1-star review & I did not take this decision lightly, however, if I am to be honest in my reviews then I cannot be swayed by popular opinion.
Without giving the entire novel away, in order to demonstrate my issues, I will give a brief synopsis of the novel.
The main character, Hanna, is an Australian who was born and raised in an elite area of Sydney, attending the best schools (etc). Her mother is a world renowned neurosurgeon who lectures around the world (mostly US) in between doing the most complex surgery and saving lives. Hanna has double honours degrees in chemistry & ancient Near Eastern languages, a Masters in chemistry & a PhD in fine art conservation. She too is among the top in her field (she restores old manuscripts and saves pieces of historical and archaeological significance) and travels all over the world to do her work, write papers, give lectures etc. She is an only child and (almost until the end) she has no idea who her father is. Additionally, the relationship between mother and daughter is strained to say the least.
Hanna is given an assignment in Bosnia, just after the War of Independence, to save a magnificent Jewish document. She intends to not only restore this treasure but to try and work out where it has been (it’s over five hundred years old) and how it has survived so long in such war-torn and religiously and politically unstable climates.
Basically this book had everything I love in a book. It had a female main character. It had links to Australia. It was written by a female author. It had lots and lots of history, much of which touched on my own Croatian history. And it wasn’t the standard “girl-meets-boy” yadda yadda (they don’t appeal to me & therefore I neither read nor review them). In other words I was super excited to read this.
That excitement dwindled from Chapter #1 – onward.
Chapter #1 was so long-winded, with so much exposition (unnecessary exposition) that I ended up skipping ½ of it. Funny thing was (or perhaps not so funny), when I started Chapter #2, I found I’d missed NOTHING.
I should add that the novel is over 400 pages. That in itself was not an issue, I have read books in the 700+ pages and devoured them, but this dragged on, and on, and on, and on. There are three chapters that are (each) over 50 pages – no break. I found myself skipping page after page and getting more and more disillusioned. What’s worse is, when the author stopped waxing on and on with mind-numbing details that added nothing to the pace, there were some truly brilliant parts. Some of the pages brought me to tears – literally. This is what made it difficult to simply stop. Because there was brilliance beyond words, I kept going, hungry for more pages and passages like this. Sadly there was not enough greatness to out way the mundane & unnecessary.
Let me start listing my biggest hang-ups.
As I mentioned, the MC was from a well-to-do part of Sydney, yet, on occasion, she’d use terms which, as someone who has lived her entire life in the CBD (or near) parts of Melbourne, I’ve only heard used by Steve – The Crocodile Hunter – Irwin or the fictional character Mick “Crocodile” Dundee (is it a crocodile thing?). Now, don’t get me wrong, some people, especially in the country and even more so in the outback, do say G’day, but not city people (and that’s far from the worst of it – Bonza and other utterly cliché words were used throughout), and certainly not by someone with a doctorate, with a mother who sent her to the finest private schools (etc). But even this I was willing to overlook, some marketing ploy perhaps, except then the author goes ahead and uses American English. Words like TRAVELLED became TRAVELED (one L) and everything had a “Z” in place of an “S” – even her mentioning her honours degrees, the word honours has no “U” – any degree she got in Australia would 100% have the U. This sort of inconsistency DRIVES ME CRAZY. I found myself saying out loud things like “oh please!” referring to some of her language and rolling my eyes at USA English. Again, I have no issue with USA English, but this is AN AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR writing about AN AUSTRALIAN MAIN CHARACTER, one who has finished a hell of a lot of schooling IN AUSTRALIA. Franking it was annoying.
This is a biggie for me. If you’re going to write a historical novel, then please oh please check your facts. There are so many minor historical inaccuracies I could list, but I don’t want this to be a 10-page blog-post, so I’m going to identify two of them.
a) The author refers to the Habsburg Empire. That’s fine. Except she calls them HAPSBURG – with a “P” not the correct B. Now, I should say that the surname is often written as a P, incorrectly, and the Habsburgs accepted both spelling forms (this came about because of a miss-spelling centuries ago & has remained), however the correct spelling is with a B. Given the MC is supposed to be this big-shot PhD, a specialist in her field, someone who details with history and antiquities and parchments and documents, (the MC even did her residency in Vienna FFS!), one would think she’d KNOW how to spell the name correctly, after all I and 1000s of other people do.
b) Still in reference to the Habsburgs, the MC gives us a history lesson on the final stages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, explaining that it included parts of Croatia, Bosnia & Serbia. Correct. But then she goes on to say that this ended in 1908. INCORRECT. How do I know this? Simple. Once upon a time Croatia was 3-4 times the size it is now, covering what is now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and parts of Serbia. (If you don’t believe me google the First King of Croatia King Tomislav & you’ll find he was crowned in Bosnia – part of Croatia – & you’ll also see reference to The Battle of the Bosnian Highlands in the 10th century) In the middle ages, most of Croatia, Bosnia & Serbia were ruled by the Habsburgs (from Vienna), up until (almost) the end of 1911. How can I be so sure? Easy. My grandmother on my mother’s side was born in 1911 in Croatia and my grandfather on my father’s side was born in Bosnia, also in 1911. Their birth certificates stated: Nationality: Croat Citizenship: Austrian. 1911 Ms. Brooks – why did your people not check their facts? Frankly it’s insulting.
a) The author makes an effort to use words (places, people, things) in foreign languages, primarily German, Croatian & Bosnian. Trouble is, she is not consistent. I have no issue with words being Anglo-fied, to allow the reader better ease to read them, but this author picks and chooses which words she will Anglo-fy. Some German words have “umlauts” others, which should have them, don’t. (an Umlaut is when there are dots over a vowel, eg: ä, ö, ü). Some German streets have the symbol “ß” while others, that should therefore also have them, don’t. It’s even worse with Croat, Serb & Bosnian words. For example I defy anyone from an Anglo-only background (who has not studied Slavic Languages) to correctly pronounce DŽEZVA or FILDŽAN (on page 68), the Ž is not pronounced as a Z, or any of the following letters: Š, Č, Ć, Đ – for example Đ makes a “kind” of J sound like in JACK but not exactly. Again, I don’t have an issue with this, EXCEPT that the Author chooses where she’ll use the spelling correctly and where she’ll put a C instead of a Č (which makes a CH sound) or she adds letters, like SH for the letter Š. On page 41 (for example) she spells the word RAKIJA (a very strong plum brandy) but then on other pages she spells it RAKIJAH – adding an H for no apparent reason. This inconsistency is not only frustrating for the reader (regardless of if you can’t pronounce the words or if you look at them and say “that’s wrong”) it’s unacceptable in an award winning, international best seller.
b) At one point the author refers to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his death at Mayerling with his mistress, 17-year-old Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera, who the author refers to as MARY VETSERA and doesn’t even give Marie the title of BARONESS. Again, choose already? Either both have their correct names or neither, surely?
c) Throughout the novel, almost to the end, the MC whines at not knowing who her father is. Yet, she has all these degrees. She has access to files and documents that allow her to discover that a white hair came for a specific type of cat. She can tell a document is a forgery by simply looking at it, with her bare eyes, because of the size of the pores. She even has access to Scotland Yard DNA experts at one stage, but she cannot figure out who her father is? WTF?
Yes, it’s clear her mother is an indifferent “mother figure” and is disappointed her daughter did not follow her into medicine, but Oh My Frigging God! Get over yourself! The MC is well educated, well travelled, (double LL as I’m in Australia), a leader in her field. Not every mother is “motherly” some are simply not drawn that way. I am so over 1st world country characters whining “Woo is me” when they actually have nothing to whine about. Was she homeless? Living in a car? Was she fostered out as a child? Abandoned? Molested? No, no, no, no… this sort of “I blame mummy” character I expect in someone who is perhaps 15-20 years old, who doesn’t know what they want in life, who is still growing up and who DIDN’T get a wonderful start to life and an extraordinary education. It’s insulting to people who have really had to struggle to survive.
OK, so I’ve had my say; well almost. There are some exceptional parts in this novel. The mix of countries and cultures, the mix of Jewish, Muslim, Christian Orthodox and Catholic, the historical elements are all wonderful. The trouble is, a lot of it is swathed in dull, over-written, exposition ridden, historically inaccurate, culturally insulting blah, blah. If I was BETA reading this, I would have suggested cutting about 150 pages, correcting the inconsistencies, fixing the historical inaccurate parts and cutting the massive chapters into more bite-size pieces. I am sure I will be hanged, drawn & quartered for expressing these views, however, this is how I see it, take from it what you will & remember, this is but one persons view.
Right at the beginning, I mentioned I recently got a 1-star review for my own writing. The piece in question is a short non-fiction I wrote. I wrote & Self Published it because I wanted to start a conversation on my hypothesis. I did it all in a few days, wrote the words, did my research, designed my cover & published it. I added in the prefix that this was not intended to be anything more than an opening to a larger discussion.
My first review was a 1-star review. One of the issues was “a few spelling mistakes” which I am sure are true, (evidently I wrote SEE in place of SEA). The reviewer also seemed to have missed that I wrote this to start a discussion (another issue was it was just under 30-pages and apparently this was not long enough). Some of the comments were justified and some hit me hard.
My first reaction was: “Oh God, I’m so super stupid & shyte at this”
My second reaction was: “I need to get in touch with this reviewer and explain that they didn’t really ‘get’ what I was trying to achieve here and maybe if I explained…”
My third and final reaction was: “Oh what the hell, he/she didn’t like it, so what? Is there still food in the fridge? Is the power still on? Is the earth still rotating around the sun? YES, Great! Someone I don’t know read my words & isn’t that the ultimate objective of all writers? YES, 1000 times YES”
My point is, 1-star reviews are harsh, no matter what the reasoning, but they happen. Don’t NOT read something that interests you simply based on one or two bad reviews. I will never, for the life of me, understand how People of the Book became a best seller when I know so many authors who I consider to have written masterpieces in comparison; will never see the same level of success. Some may never even get published.
Life sucks sometimes, that’s just the way it is, but if your field is the arts, whatever the area, you have to be open to 1-star reviews. Accept and move on.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
When life gives you 1-star reviews, make a smiley face and write & read something else.