Saturday, 30 September 2017

Sharing their views on reviews: Sonja Anderson and Tonia Parronchi

Last week, Stephanie Parker McKean told us all what she had learnt from the reviews she has received on her books. Continuing with the same theme, Sonja Anderson and Tonia Parronchi have also shared with us some of the great and useful feedback they've received. Here are their comments!

Sonja Anderson
Sonja Anderson
"One of the things I appreciate the most about book reviewers is that sometimes they make a comparison to other books or authors that I would never dare to make myself! When the reviewer below compared my book, Sophie’s Quest, to classics like Wind in the Willows and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it completely made my day!
The reviewer said,
It contains elements of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Talking animals with anthropomorphic ways are central as in Wind in Willows and the Christian faith is central (though more obviously so) as in Lion Witch and Wardrobe. It’s hard to compete with CS Lewis and Kenneth Graham. Nonetheless I give it a good four stars for the writer does well.
A blogger also once compared my writing to that of the wonderful children's author, Kate DiCamillo! It makes me feel proud of my work, even if it will probably never be considered a classic in the same way as those illustrious authors’ books for children.
The sequel to Sophie's Quest

Importantly, these types of comparisons by reviewers can also really help readers figure out if the book is written in a style and about characters that they will likely care about. I’m so grateful when a reader takes the time to write such a thoughtful review." 
Sonja against the backdrop of Seattle harbour, her home

Such comparisons can also be very inspiring when writing sequels or new stories, so yes, very helpful and constructive for the author and the reader.

However, although it often seems as if Amazon and Goodreads reviews are the only ones worth having, there are other types of review that are just as valuable to the author, as Tonia Parronchi points out.
Tonia Parronchi:

"Reviews come to me in different ways, not only on Amazon but also as e-mails from my web site. These tend to be more personal, with a reader reaching out to the writer because something really resonated with them. 

One man e-mailed me after reading my memoir about sailing adventures, "A Whisper on the Mediterranean", to say he had bought my book because he was learning to sail and reading everything he could on the subject. He had thought my book would be more technical but in the end reading about our real life adventures inspired him even more to continue with his dream. Another man liked the recipes best and was getting his wife to try them out at home!

At times a reader's comments make me realise how I could have improved my work. For example, this review made me realise that a map would have been a great idea. I wish I'd thought of that!
"A very well written book about sailing the Med with the couple's one year old child aboard....The author does an excellent job of painting a picture of each island and town they visit. My only criticism would be that the book doesn't include a map showing the paths they took" 

Tonia and Guido on Whisper
It is of course always a relief when the reader is kind about a book. I am very lucky because most of my reviews have been positive but of course you cannot always please everyone. One reader gave me a 3 star rating for my novel "The Song of the Cypress". 
"The descriptions of Tuscany in this book are well-done, and part of the story-line is okay, but that's the only reason I gave this book three stars. The whole deal with the cypress tree and the old woman is just too new-age for me. In fact, it's just odd... I could hardly wait to finish it and just get the whole weird thing over with. Sorry, Ms. Parronchi. I really did want to like this book."

Fortunately it is the only 3 star review I have had, but it makes me smile a bit. The reader made herself read and finish the book and felt quite fed up about it. Maybe she could have just left it unfinished! However the majority of readers have had a different reaction and have felt a sense of place, feeling Tuscany come alive for them. 

Tonia's Tuscany

One review that I treasure was from an Italian reader. (I'll translate it for you)
" Compliments on your lovely, poetic book. I liked the descriptions of Tuscan life, the people and nature that I recognise because I live here too. I was pleased to read a book about Tuscany where the people and place are described with love and respect."
I loved the fact that my treatment of Italy was seen as being true, respectful and caring. It seems this is not always so. But if my words can inspire a reader to visit Italy, to explore my beautiful Tuscan valley or take a sailing holiday to the exquisite Italian islands, then I have done my job well.

That said, I am extremely grateful for every reader who takes the time to comment on what they have read. Thank you all!"

Many thanks to Sonja and Tonia for sharing their review experiences with us. Reviews of more than a few sentences, both critical and positive, can leave the author with some points to consider for their future writing and they can assist other readers in deciding whether a book will appeal to them! Next week, Janet Purcell and Val Poore will give their response to both verbal and written reviews of a different sort.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Oh, For the Love of Reviews!

A few weeks ago, we published a blog post about the value of reviews to both readers and authors. The post received a large number of views, so given the apparent interest, we decided to ask our own authors what they gain from reading reviews of their books. The response was so interesting, we are now presenting the first in a series of blog posts from our authors giving us their reactions to their readers' opinions

Our first post is from Stephanie Parker McKean:

Every author loves reviews, especially 5-star reviews, but if they are honest – all reviews are valuable. Of course, all authors wish that all their reviews would read like one posted for the first Texas Miz Mike mystery-romance Bridge to Nowhere. “This only allows you to give five stars, but I would give it 100 if I could!” You can imagine how good that made me feel!

Stephanie Parker McKean at
a real life 'Spanish tile', the Three Prongs
restaurant featured in her books

Sadly for the author (me, in this case), not all reviews are complimentary. While reviews for Bridge to Nowhere, and the second Miz Mike, Bridge Beyond Betrayal, have received four or five-stars – I got saddled with a one-star review on another book. Some of the criticism seemed senseless, but after reading it, I accepted part of it as constructive criticism and changed the Amazon blurb.


Another (positive) review that I found helpful was one for Bridge Beyond Betrayal, which stated that the reviewer was in love with imaginary Three Prongs, Texas, and its just as imaginary zany characters and wanted to read more about them. Since the Miz Mike series had moved from Texas to Scotland, that review inspired me to bring Miz Mike back home in Bridge to Texas.

Scenes from Bandera, Texas, the inspiration for Three Prongs
Here are a few extracts from some of the reviews I've received. I've picked them because they've helped me appreciate that for some people at least, I've achieved some of my writing goals.

One goal was to write humorous books with memorable characters as imperfect and complex as real people. “What a fun and funny mystery adventure. The cast of characters is unique, each rich and strong, and the story flows at a fast pace. I love a book that makes me smile.” Bridge to Nowhere

“How to describe Miz Mike? She is not young, not the perfect weight. She is capable of great bravery, but also often makes misjudgments. Her imperfections and warm heart make her seem believable. By the end of the book I really cared for her.” Bridge to Nowhere

It was also important to me to share my Christian faith without preaching. “Jesus is quite a personal friend to Miz Mike, and while I’m not a practicing Christian, this was not a problem. It fits Miz Mike’s character perfectly.” Bridge to Nowhere.

For those out there who have read and enjoyed a book but never written a review, please do. Reviews need not be long. Consider these two, both for Bridge to Nowhere. “I loved the character Miz Mike and can’t wait to see what she’s up to in Book Two.”
“Stephanie Parker McKean tells a good story while bringing along an inspirational message.”

When an author writes a series, he or she wants each book to be as compelling as the first. Boring, dragging, or disappointing is simply not an option. Therefore, I was delighted and humbled to find good reviews for the second Texas Miz Mike mystery, Bridge Beyond Betrayal.
“A protagonist who is flawed, emotional, funny, and human.”
“This author’s Miz Mike stories have a unique voice and are full of laugh-out-loud dialogue and wit.”
“The author does a wonderful job of lacing her mystery with healthy doses of humor and interesting, quirky characters. I found myself laughing out loud.”
“I liked it there were no swear words and no sexual scenes, things that ruin a book for me.”
“Grabbing a Miz Mike adventure is more than fun. It’s like sitting down with your best friend, who although off her rocker, you still love.”

Okay, all of these were complimentary and to be sure, I like that more than anything negative, but I do find the reviews help me to gauge whether I am going in the right direction with my books. So to readers, I would urge – please leave a review when you finish a book (especially if you have something constructive to say).

To authors, if you ever feel as if writing a book is not worth the physical and emotional slogging – go back and read your book’s good reviews and be encouraged and empowered.

And for authors who have received a bad review,  remember that sometimes this can be a positive indicator for a different reader. So as Miz Mike would say, “Keep on keeping on. Make that rodeo an eight-second ride.”

Thank you very much Stephanie.  An inspiring post for both readers and authors!

Click on the titles here for the links Stephanie Parker Mckean's Bridge to Nowhere and Bridge Beyond Betrayal

Monday, 18 September 2017

The sensory inspiration behind Michelle Heatley's Fish Soup

In the last weeks, we've read published several back stories to our authors' novels, and these have proved to be very popular. However, this isn't the first time we've done this and looking into our archives, we found some earlier posts that we feel are worth re-posting. Gaining an insight into the strands that have brought a book together can reveal a lot about it and give you a new perspective on it. This one by Michelle Heatley about her lovely book, Fish Soup, would inspire anyone to read it. Read on to find out about what inspired her to write it!
About ‘Fish Soup’
In the magical and esoteric atmosphere of the Greek Islands, sisters Isa and Chloe fetch up on the shores of a very special haven, each searching for more than just the pungently fragrant recipe of a heady Mediterranean fish soup. They come for the weekend, bringing their baggage with them: both kinds. Cecelia, their mentor, helps the girls wend their way through not only learning to make the soup, but also through a cobweb of emotional healing. Unexpectedly she discovers that the compliment is returned.
Here's what Michelle told us:
Inspiration can take hold of an author when least expected.                                                                               
It could be as simple as the scent of the air as a breath of wind blows across the sea carried by an easterly wind, the vibrating high-pitched call of cicadas on a hot Mediterranean evening, the sight of the evening sun glowing on pastel coloured houses or as delicious as taste of fish soup on your tongue. Sight sound, smell and taste, all awaken the soul of a writer it makes and makes me want to capture them on the page.
‘Fish Soup’ began with taste. A spoon dipped into a bowl of rich Portuguese Fish Cataplana, a fish stew filled with the flavours of the land and sea. I tried so many times to recreate this delicious fish stew at home without success, until I eventually realised that some tastes can only to be savoured in the country that named it.
After the intense taste, came the sounds of cicadas battering my ears on sultry Mediterranean days and the sight of white painted fishermen’s cottages, glowing pink, bathed in the evening sun.
But, it is the sea that inspires me more than anything else and it awakens all of my senses.
I live in South Devon where the sea is a constant presence. I am lucky enough to be able to walk to the shore, where I can breathe in the heady mix of scents swept in on a warm summer wind, taste the salt on my lips after a winter storm, see the colour of the water change from pewter grey, deep cobalt blue to tropical azure and hear the waves chuckle and chatter on the pebbly beach. With each different sensation my fingers itch to capture it all on the page.
There are so many senses that have inspired my novel ‘Fish Soup’ but the sense that is most important when dipping into a bowl of delicious fish soup is taste, always taste.
We loved this post and are delighted to be able to bring it to you again in this updated form. Fish Soup is a lyrical and lovely novel that is worth reading twice as well!

If you are interested in reading it, here is the link to the book on Amazon

Monday, 11 September 2017

Back to the back stories: the inspiration behind Just One More Summer

What do you think of when you hear the name ‘Cornwall’? Family holidays? Beautiful beaches? Smuggling? Cornwall lies on the south west coastline of England and includes the UK’s most westerly point. It is well known for its 300 miles of stunning coastline and is a very popular tourist destination that has a special place in many people’s hearts.

The extract below was originally published in an earlier Sunpenny blog and is Julie McGowan's touching back story on why she wrote her poignant and evocative novel, Just One More Summer, which is set in Cornwall. With summer coming to an end in the northern hemisphere and just beginning in southern climes, we thought it would be fitting to re-publish this post.

Porthcurno north Cornwall, England This reminds me of that level on MarioKart64
Over to Julie:
Whenever I think of ‘escape’, wanting to throw off the shackles of everyday life and experience a sense of freedom, I’m drawn to the wide open spaces of Cornwall and its dramatic, untamed coastline bordering an ocean that could, indeed, carry one across the world.
So when my character, Allie, in ‘Just One More Summer’ feels the desperate need to get away following a painful divorce, it made sense to me that she would head for Cornwall.
For her, though, whilst the turbulence of her life is reflected in the  Poldark-type wildness and unpredictability of the region, it’s that other aspect of Cornwall that she’s drawn to – the well-remembered childhood holidays when the days were long on endless beaches, the sky was blue and the sea becalmed. Many ‘Enid Blyton’ holidays with my own family were spent in this way and it’s a comfort we all turn to when our lives take a difficult turn.
Then there’s the mystical Cornwall, of  King Arthur and Merlin at Tintagel, smugglers’ tale and Celtic legends, along with the beautiful light, which appeals to artists and free spirits. It was this Cornwall that drew my other main character, Marsha, to it over thirty years before, and kept her in its thrall ever since.
So much variety in one region makes it the perfect place to write about in a novel, and the fictitious Tremorden in ‘Just One More Summer’  is an amalgam of Bude and St. Ives and a few coastal villages in between.
The Celtic connection is also evident in my two other novels, ‘The Mountains Between’ and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, but in Wales this time. There too, the ‘separateness’,  the myths and the history, even down to the mining (tin in Cornwall, coal in Wales)  produce a strong sense of identity and community in its people, which is a major theme in my books.
I think you have to have strong feelings about a place  – preferably love, but sometimes hate – to draw an adequate word picture. My love affair with Cornwall, its dark mysteries and compelling coastline, started long ago, and is surpassed only by my love of my homeland, Wales.

Julie McGowan
Thank you, Julie. Your book is a lovely tribute to the wild beauty of Cornwall! For those interested in reading Julie's lovely novel, the link to the kindle and paperback versions of the book on Amazon is here
The link to the Book Depository is here

Monday, 4 September 2017

Reviews: what they mean to readers and authors

These days, the majority of books are purchased from online stores. E-books have taken a huge percentage of the market too, so how do readers find out if they want to buy a book if they don't visit a bookshop?

The advantage of buying books from 'bricks and mortar' stores is that you can browse through a whole range before buying one. Selecting novels from shelves, reading the blurb, seeing what the press have said about them and even reading short sections can be a very pleasurable pastime as well as a great opportunity to find out if you wish to buy them. Quite apart from that, the smell, feel and look of a real book are all part of that special pre-purchase experience.

Reader's Review of Sophie's Quest: "I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the characters and all the carefully researched details regarding their quest. This book would be a great read for children and also an excellent read-a-loud book. I highly recommend it." 

But what about e-books or books ordered online? We can certainly read the blurb and generally, we can read a sample of the first few pages, but how else can we decide whether we want to press that 'buy' button and go ahead with the purchase? Moreover, since e-books by known authors often cost as much if not more than a paperback, we usually want to have a little more evidence that what we are paying for is going to be worth our hard-earned money.

Reader's Review of Going Astray: "This story will make you really think about your beliefs and look deeply inside yourselves.The book is well-written and had me worried about its outcome, as I hoped that Laura would manage to find the strength to rebel against the cult and escape"

This is where reviews are so useful. With a paperback in a bookstore, we can skim all the way through the book, feel how thick it is, check the font size and make a pretty good assessment about what it is we are investing in. With a book ordered online, whether electronic or otherwise, we don't have so many possibilities and so, customer and reader reviews can be very helpful.

Reader's review of Rooster Street: "I started this novel on new year's day and was so glad to have read such a great book to mark the start of a new year. The story of Althea's brave bid for freedom seemed just right for emphasizing new starts. The modern story, of Jennifer who while investigating Althea's past begins to make some important discoveries about her own life, is also very well developed. I can whole-heartedly recommend this book. "

The more reviews a book has, the wider the range of readers it has probably had as well. If the majority of those reviews are positive and enthusiastic, and confirm that the book is what we hoped it would be, then the chances are that we will like it too. However, that doesn't mean a book with few reviews is not a good buy. The point is whether we as readers learn what we need to know from what others have written.

Reader's Review of Dance of Eagles: "This book is a gem that seems to have received less attention than it deserves. It’s a wonderfully crafted story, fabulous subject matter covering the time just before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe which includes a wealth of first-hand knowledge and thorough research from the author."

From an author's perspective, the ideal situation is to have plenty of good reviews and few, if any, poor ones. However, all authors know that they cannot please everyone and that some critical feedback is inevitable. This is not necessarily a bad thing as what some readers will dislike, others will love; it may well be that one person's criticism will encourage another to buy. One example of this is explicit content, language or violence. If reviewers mention these as dominant features, it could discourage a number of readers but appeal to others. There is also the matter of quality. Use of English, editing and style can be major purchasing points for certain readers, but unimportant to others. However, negative comments regarding such issues are useful feedback for the author to consider for the future. What is key is that a variety of reviews can help both the authors and the customers, which is why readers are encouraged to be honest and fair when writing their comments.

In the end, then, a thoughtful and constructive review is invaluable to everyone concerned, so the next time you read a book (and especially a Sunpenny book!), think about what you would tell someone else about the book you've read and take the time to write a review. You can be sure that if you do, both readers and authors will thank you - and of course, their publishers will too!