Paul Marlowe author of historical and science fiction SF
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Etheric Airship

The Other Reviews

It's tempting for authors to think that there are no bad reviews, only bad reviewers. Of course this is unfair, and even authors have to admit that reviewers often find legitimate problems with their books. Occasionally, though, one sees reviews that are simply so lazy, vituperative, wrong-headed or obtuse that it seems in the public interest, or in the author's interest --or at the very least, amusing-- to poke a little fun at them.

For example, in November 2007, Jen Waters (a teen services librarian at the Red Deer Public Library in Red Deer, Alberta) wrote in a CM Magazine review of Sporeville:

"The year is 1886. Elliot and his doctor father have left Kingston, ON,
to take over the medical practice in Spohrville, NB

OK. It's the first line of the review, and already she's misspelled the central character's name (it's Elliott, not Elliot), and has gotten the name of the province wrong, despite four references in the book to Spohrville being in Nova Scotia... Kudos for getting the town's name right here, though.

" part to escape the terrible memory of Elliot's dearly departed mother whose ship recently sunk..."

As the author, I feel I have to say that this (rather sarcastically and ungrammatically-phrased) motivation for the characters' move comes as news to me. Marks go to the reviewer for creativity, I suppose, for inventing it.
In the book (as opposed to Waters' imagination) the reasons for the move are a) ‘professional opportunities’&‘change of scene’and secondarily b) Elliott's health (as Waters rightly points out later). No-one ever mentions escaping the dead mother's memory, as far as I know. Of course, Elliott's father's actual motivation for coming to the town is one of the mysteries that is solved at the story goes on, and has nothing to do with any of these supposed reasons.

"this is almost certainly the first time in fiction I have witnessed a villain control the people of a town by using a machine to pump out poisonous mushroom spores (hence the name of the town and title of book)"

Actually, as noted above, the town's name isn't Sporeville, but rather Spohrville. The title is a play on words. See for example in chapter four, where Paisley says

"One of the garrison that served under Colonel Spohr.
The town’s named after the colonel.
I believe he’s a relative of the composer, Ludwig Spohr."

Also, the countless uses of the name Spohrville throughout the book.

"questions are left unanswered (such as why are all the clocks and watches in the town stolen, and how and why did Strange orchestrate an entire ship sinking just to kidnap Eliot's mother and take her back to his mysterious house?)" says Jen Waters.

One might suggest that the reason the questions seem to be left unanswered is that someone didn't read (or understand) the answer. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Waters (Watters? Wotterz?) has decided, for reasons unknown, to change Elliott's name yet again by losing another letter, why, she asks, have the timepieces disappeared? Might it have something to do with Strange's comment in chapter seven:

"The modern man is lost without his watch, isn't he.
Disorients a fellow. Like being in the woods without a compass. "

Or possibly the unfortunate doctor's terror of "missing time"?

Or Elliott's realization in chapter ten, that:
"if the people he saw were really in a daze of some sort, they might well lose track of hours without knowing what had transpired, with nothing to tell the time but the sun."

" and why did Strange orchestrate an entire ship sinking just to kidnap Eliot's mother and take her back to his mysterious house?" the reviewer wonders.

Waters seems to have missed the fact that the ship was merely stolen by Strange for his own use, rather than actually sinking (the prologue of the book answers her question "how" by showing Strange actually doing it, while you can tell the ship didn't sink by the fact that it re-appears at the end of the book, and Elliott explains the history of the ship in the final chapter for those who weren't paying attention, hint, hint...).

As to the kidnapping, perhaps Strange has some creepy
infatuation for Elliott's mother? Could that be why he abducts her and keeps calling her "my dear Jessica"? And why he has been carefully brainwashing her to admire and respect him? And could that be why he lied and told her that her husband was dead? And why Strange is so desperate to get her back when she escapes? I left the details of their relationship to the reader's imagination and, well, enough said.

...and Elliot (who is highly educated for a 15-year-old in 1886, well versed in astronomy, acts as his father's medical intern and is familiar with such words as somnambulism and heterochromia iridum).

Notwithstanding Waters' knowledge of 19th century adolescent social history - I won't speculate as to what the source of that knowledge is - it was not at all uncommon for someone of Elliott's age and class to have studied the classics in their original Greek and Latin, and to have had some familiarity with the corpus of English literature from Chaucer onwards. See, for example, any biography of any late Victorian figure, or works such as those by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Teens of that era could often be more literate than many of today's graduate degree holders.

he remainder of Waters' review mostly deals with a TV show I've never heard of, named Deadwood, though she admits that, compared with the show, Sporeville is

...a little less interesting (probably because there is a distinct absence of sex, excessive violence and profanity).

Now, too often when a reviewer resorts to comparing a book with a TV program or movie, the reason is either that they're more interested in watching TV than in reading books, or else it comes from some craven desire to tar the author with implications of having plagiarised a TV show, while avoiding the messy lawsuits that might ensue from bold-faced libel. But we won't assume that that was the reason. Especially since Sporeville was written before Deadwood aired (I just checked). No - given Waters' evident difficulty in detecting facts, spelling, interpersonal relations, motivations, historical norms, clues, or even extremely broad hints, we shall be charitable and assume that the digression into television --and in fact the review as a whole-- is merely evidence of that sad, sad reality of modern life: that watching television is bad for the attention span.


Another example of this genre of review is Karyn Huenemann's in Resource Links. She says, for example, that "The focus of Knights of the Sea is more socio-political, incorporating issues of eugenics, suffragism, slavery, judicial corruption, and Imperial and European economic and political relations..."

All this comes as something of a surprise to the author, who thought he was writing a comic novel. Granted, these things are there in the background, but to use only this ponderous litany of serious issues to describe the focus of a book that one reviewer called "hilarious", and another called "a fairly light and laugh-inducing read" does seem to miss the point, rather.

Karyn Huenemann goes on to complain about the "gratuitous addition of a werewolf with the very un-Victorian name of Paisley as the teenaged protagonist's love interest", missing, apparently several facts:

1) Paisley is actually herself one of the protagonists, and half of the book's narrative is from her perspective, during most of which she's infatuated with someone else entirely;
2) Paisley is a real surname, and the Victorians were not immune to turning surnames into given names (or to inventing names);
3) it's hard to see how a werewolf is a gratuitous addition to a book that obviously (even on its cover) includes ghosts and other paranormal elements, especially when the werewolf is also a character from the preceding volume of the series, and when her lycanthropy is central to the plot. Did Karyn Huenemann, one wonders, find J.K. Rowling's books marred by gratuitous wizards? And does she find Mary Shelley's Frankenstein marred by gratuitous Gothic monsters?

The stereotyping by Karyn Huenemann - "Paisley as the teenaged protagonist's love interest" - comes, one assumes, from a overzealous attempt to slot the story into some preconceived pattern, regardless of evidence to the contrary in the story itself. But perhaps Huenemann missed something because she had trouble with the big words? Karyn Huenemann says, "The language, on the other hand, demands that even the adult reader keep a dictionary close at hand."

To which complaint perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien had the best reply: "A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one's age group. It comes from reading books above one." If Knights of the Sea was above the vocabulary for Karyn Huenemann's age group, it is the author's fond hope that she benefitted from it.

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