Review guidelines

As of May 6 I’m reviewing again. Being listed as Kindle Book Review’s first contact–and as their only nonfiction contact–certainly has its advantages. But after declining several New Age books and two consecutive success/wealth building books, I realize it’s time to be a little more specific with what authors should expect.

I have previously reviewed fiction: Love by Lucille Redmond was unbelievable, as was Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth. That said, I do not believe a relatively obscure fiction writer should offer reviews to another. There is too much temptation for review swapping: cooperatively, in the form of positive reviews, or punitively, in the form of negative ones. Ultimately neither of those would do us any favors, so please, do not submit fiction of any type.

Given the opening paragraph, hopefully you are already discouraged from offering texts on New Age, success, self-help or investing. I have very specific, long-established views on the subjects of economics and cosmology, and they are not likely to change. It would be unfair to subject you to my biases. Please do not contact me for reviews on these subjects.

Politics or current events?  Maybe.  Is it well-researched and well-considered?  Or does it offer the reader little more than a glass of Kool-Aid?

Ultimately you should know a reviewer’s tastes before submitting anything, so by all means feel free to follow and interact with me on Twitter.  That’s more than some authors are willing, so here are the links to all of my nonfiction reviews, per category: music (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), history (1, 2 and 3), science, philosophy and biography (1, 2). Aside from Lucille Redmond’s anthology of short stories, my favorite of these books was Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev: “If anything the pages turn too quickly, the story is too familiar.” Morrison forms a deep emotional attachment between reader and subject within the first few pages of the book.

A caveat: typographical errors and its/it’s mistakes are significant turn offs.  The well-written argument does not require huge font, red font, SHOUTING, slammer arrays!!!, or other visual delights to get its point across.  Clever interior page design is great, but if want a fourth or fifth star, the narrative needs to be content edited, copyedited, proofread and compelling.

One last request: patience.  As you can see I average about one review a month.  It will take me a week to consider your pitch, therefore a full PDF or ePub copy of your book will speed things along nicely.  Depending on length, I’ll need another two weeks to read and, finally, a week to write the review.

If you’re still reading, that’s wonderful.  We’re half-way there.  Reach out to at ASongForMagsa [at] gmail dotcom and we can discuss further.

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“Deadly Nevergreen that bears Fruit All Year”

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After eight months off (writing and editing 70,000 words will do that to you) I’m reviewing again. Our return to the format looks at Stephen Hart’s Cant: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Language of Rogues in Georgian London. From my review:

Consider the sheer number of synonyms for the word “steal”: Cloy, Do, Filch, File, Fleece, Give it to, Heave, Knap, and a dozen others. Or the myriad ways of referring to gallows: Chates, Crap, Gregorian Tree, Morning Drop, and the riotous mouthful Deadly Nevergreen that bears Fruit All Year. The cant is counter-intuitive, enlightening and—at times—wholly disgusting. Did you know that a concoction nicknamed All Nations is made from “the drainings of the last drops of all bottles collected in a single bowl”?

Cant would be an excellent reference book for writers looking to perfect the jargon of the era, or the vocations, avocations, rogues and spirits behind the jargon. But it is much more than dry reference, namely an eye-opening history lesson and a page-turning good time. I fully recommend it. Read the full review here.

–C.E. Alexander
May 6, 2014

Reviews

Our favorite reader of all time (Dave K.) writes us about Book of Constants and My Wounded Specular:

The stories are, of course, great. Very deep, but subtly so. They’re the kinds of stories that teachers refer to in Philosopy classes. Like for instance, the way that past and present are like specular reflections of each other. (I admit I had to look up what specular meant.) And they both worked together really well, both being about how the past and future interact. I loved the idea that fortune telling would be the big taboo for C8s–and the bit about [SPOILER REMOVED!] was striking, and creepy. And it resounded with Vincent’s mute son as well–that he was the one that revealed the secret–or at least brought it to light–the actual revelation having to be done by Vincent himself (shades of Oedipus there!). And that his only word was Yes. There’s really a lot for a reader to dig into in these. And they’re touching too. Very cool.

Reviews

From the Music and the Spires purchasing page:

Reading CE Alexander’s work is like walking through a beautiful, but dense forest. Being a reader of mostly YA fiction, The Music and the Spires is quite a change. While the plot and settings are sometimes not obvious, you can’t help but be completely drawn into the characters. While my brain worked out what was happening in each story, my heart fell in love with Magsa, the kids in Les Wodr, and dear Annette. A beautifully written work of fiction. Looking forward to Alexander’s next offering!

Thank you, Britt!

#currentlyreading

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Coming soon: C.E. Alexander’s review of Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, by Robert Haas. From the Amazon purchase page:

With National Socialism’s arrival in Germany in 1933, Jews dominated music more than virtually any other sector, making it the most important cultural front in the Nazi fight for German identity. This groundbreaking book looks at the Jewish composers and musicians banned by the Third Reich and the consequences for music throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Because Jewish musicians and composers were, by 1933, the principal conveyors of Germany’s historic traditions and the ideals of German culture, the isolation, exile and persecution of Jewish musicians by the Nazis became an act of musical self-mutilation.

Michael Haas looks at the actual contribution of Jewish composers in Germany and Austria before 1933, at their increasingly precarious position in Nazi Europe, their forced emigration before and during the war, their ambivalent relationships with their countries of refuge, such as Britain and the United States and their contributions within the radically changed post-war music environment.

Review: Simon Morrison and Anne Applebaum

Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, by Simon Morrison (2013)
Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (2003)

Cross-posted at Fluid Radio.

If anything the pages of Lina and Serge turn too quickly, the story is too familiar. We speed through Lina Prokofiev’s eight-year hell in the Soviet gulag like visitors on a short, cozy tour. Author Simon Morrison extracted what he could from the historical documents, but silence at both the individual and national level malnourishes the last two of this twelve-chapter biography.

The opening of the book reads like romantic historical fiction. Serge Prokofiev is an aloof genius, a master performer and composer; Carolina Codina–“baffling, compelling, disdainful, exasperating, flirtatious, humorous, stubborn and high-spirited”–admires his musical ability from the beginning. Carolina (“Lina”) never should have gone anywhere near Prokofiev, both on the face of things and in retrospect. Their marriage is ill-fated, their move to Russia disastrous, but even before that he was remote, arrogant, uninterested in commitment. “His lack of basic human feeling could be shocking.” As a suitor he was rude and unfaithful, and enjoyed emotional chess as much as he did the more conventional kind. By the birth of his first son, the reader is nearly numb to Prokofiev’s indifference, until an accident throws the three of them from a car. The addled composer frets, but for the lost manuscripts, not his injured family.

A reversal of the Quixotic journey takes the Prokofievs to Stalin-era Russia, where they expect windmills but find giants. The intrigue of 1936-1948 makes for quick, anxious reading. Compositions are banned, citizens vanish, phone calls are monitored. (Neither does this amount to the paranoia of a musical savant and his cosmopolitan bride. Morrison recounts an instance of an operator disconnecting a call and then stating flatly: “You were perfectly audible, I just decided to cut you off.”) The Joseph Stalin of Lina and Serge is a complicated villain: both amateur clerk and veteran enforcer. Morrison notes that naive economic ideology dries the Soviet Union of goods but not money, yet when Stalin briefly catches Lina’s glimpse at the Moscow Conservatoire, “His look was so piercing that she flinched.” Years later she will realize during her appeal for release that the case file contains only her sentencing record. History’s quintessential bureaucrats? Not so much. (Writer Lev Razgon would make similar remarks about his own file.)

Meanwhile the wartime bread lines return, and the dazzling, exotic Lina is reduced to single motherhood and ration cards.

The final quarter of the book details Lina’s investigation, sentencing (all fifteen minutes of it) and detainment. Anne Applebaum’s account goes into much more detail; as mentioned, the state’s silence and Lina’s own reluctance to speak of her eight lost years necessarily leave huge potholes in Morrison’s narrative. By all means there are some heartbreaking passages to be had: Lina is feverish on the day she is processed, but is nevertheless forced into a cold shower with anti-lice shampoo. Next she is beaten and deprived of sleep, then later tossed onto an icy floor. She wears used undergarments and employs fishbones as needles. Her estranged husband and mother both die during her imprisonment.

In consequence Gulag: A History is the perfect companion work. Instead of leaving a dictionary on hand while reading Lina and Serge, keep Applebaum’s 2003 documentary book nearby. Each leaves the other whole: Morrison follows Lina from birth to death, while Applebaum does not once mention her name, or that of her renown husband. Lina and Serge spends a brief introduction and two full chapters discussing the Soviet labor camps, where Gulag devotes its entire length to the subject. Throughout the former, personalities rise and recede. In the latter, even names like Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky are lost among the multitudes.

Choosing only a few anecdotes in the interest of space does Gulag a disservice, but the review of a 700-page account requires a bit of selectiveness. Where Lina parented her adult children by letter, Applebaum offers a full discussion of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood within the confines of the gulag. That chapter includes a devastating tribute to a baby named Eleonora, born to a lonely political prisoner who was only desperate for a companion. Applebaum introduces Thomas Sgovio, who was arrested for simply visiting the American embassy. (It is telling that, of Lina Prokofiev’s two most serious crimes–allegedly passing a letter to a foreign diplomat and actively attempting to leave the Soviet Union–the latter was considered more treasonous.) Sgovio would spend ten years in the Kolyma camps and recount the events in his 1979 biography. Similarly Alexander Dolgun, a junior employee at the American embassy, was skilled at ducking his surveillance tails and imprisoned for eight years because of it.

Even the discussion of simple statistics is a challenge. Take the NKVD documents citing 1.9 million gulag prisoners on January 1, 1941. Applebaum notes the meaninglessness of the figure, as “Prisoners left because they died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences, because they were released into the Red Army, or because they had been promoted to administrative positions.” (The emphasis is mine, although Applebaum emphasizes the point elsewhere: “In 1938, more than half of the administrators and nearly half of the armed guards in Belbaltlag…were former or actual prisoners.”) She estimates that 28.7 million people were put into forced labor, and nearly ten percent of them–2.74 million–died as a result. To be fair, “In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.”

How many prisons within the archipelago? Applebaum cites “at least 476 distinct camp complexes” each “consisting of thousands of individual camps.” She devotes entire chapters to “Arrest,” “Punishment and Reward” and “The Dying.” The gulag system was vast enough that its recount offers 25 pages to the discussion of “strangers;” that is, foreign prisoners picked up in foreign occupancy, as opposed to those foreigners lifted from the streets of Moscow.

In time the madness subsides. By 1954 the economic fitness of the system is in serious doubt. Sustenance costs, strikes, empty camps and the almost cartoonish bureaucracy might have closed the gulag system on their own, without any internal party discussion surrounding simple justice. Mass releases were the result. Applebaum writes: “Prisoners who had expected to spend another decade behind barbed wire were let go on a day’s notice.” Lina expected twelve more years, but she was freed in 1956 and finally left the Soviet Union in 1974, largely putting the experience behind her over the next fifteen. She was always reluctant to tell her story and, in her dying moments, sadly believed the hospital staff to be “guards and wardens in disguise.” By this measure, “she never escaped the Soviet Union.”

Morrison has written a lively, loving, at times tragic biography, and Applebaum, the labor camp system’s authoritative history.

-C.E. Alexander (@CAlexanderRun) for Fluid Radio. His fiction debut The Music and the Spires is available now through Zidi Publishing.