My Worst Book Reviews Ever: “Author Needs a Shrink.”

worst book reviews

Stephen J. Cannell put me in my place.

About 20 years ago, I was having lunch with Steve at Bistro Garden, his favorite place in Studio City, and somewhere between the gazpacho and the cheeseburger, I boasted about a glowing book review in The Miami Herald. The legendary television writer and producer replied, “If you believe your best reviews, you gotta believe your worst ones, too.”

I didn’t want to hear it.

Worst  book reviews have to be believed, too.
Steve Cannell was responsible for “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” and a couple dozen more shows, and also became a best-selling novelist late in his career.

Sure, I have lots of newspaper clippings filled with glorious words like “riveting” and “breathlessly exciting,” but with the advent of reader reviews on Amazon, I’m also the target of some double-barreled smackdowns from folks who leave no unkind word unsaid.

Here’s the entirety of a 1-star review of BUM RAP.

“I must have been drunk when I downloaded this book.”

In my defense, I was quite sober when writing BUM RAP, which was briefly the Number One bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. But wait! That’s being defensive. I want to take Steve’s advice and listen to the criticism and learn from it. Consider this scathing remark from a female reader:

“This is nothing but rubbish written by a horny man. The story seemed decent, but the characters were unable to accomplish anything because of their animal attraction to anything that moves.”

Grrrrrr! That’s my animalistic growl. The inspiration for BUM RAP was a federal racketeering trial in Miami, known locally as the “Russian Bar Girls case.” Some of the testimony was as racy as anything in the book. Here’s a brief exchange from the transcript between the prosecutor and a Russian bar girl:

Q: Did you zip down men’s pants?

A: Yes, touch them, kiss them, anything you can think.

Q: Giving them hope that they would have sex with you?

A: All my behavior was inclining to this.

“Giving Men Hope” became a chapter title, and men’s idiotic conduct around women moved the story along, as it does in real life.

My favorite review of BUM RAP contained this curt dismissal:

“I didn’t even finish the first chapter.”

Ouch! The first chapter is exactly seven sentences long. (CLICK HEREand scroll down the page to “Read an Excerpt” to find that chapter. I hope you finish it).

Many one-star reviews make no literary judgments. Witness this short but not sweet doozy concerning FLESH & BONES:

Worst Book Reviews: Flesh & Bones

“I did not order this book.

Fair enough, but I didn’t send it to you! Then there’s this brief put-down of THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI:

“There are no hummingbirds in Germany.”

Fine. There also are no hummingbirds in THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI, which is set in the Florida Keys and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award.

worst book reviews alibi
Worst Book Reviews: “The Deep Blue Alibi,” nominated for an Edgar , has 3% one-star reviews, and all of them sting.

Some readers take the time for actual literary criticism. This reader gave one star to TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, the first of the Jake Lassiter series:

“The book is ludicrous and with a completely unlikable so-called hero.”

Whoa, that’s my meal ticket you’re talking about! She goes on:

“I also read three of Levine’s Solomon and Lord books and they got steadily worse. I give up on this guy. He not only writes badly, I’d say he needs a shrink.”

That upset me so much, I had to tell my shrink.

Another reader of TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD also questioned my mental state in this one-star put-down:

“Maybe 25 pages worth reading. The rest just stupid people and porn. Had me wondering if the author was a sex addict. Disgusting!”

Okay, so there are some bedroom hijinks, but “porn” is a little strong. The story is about a surgeon who’s having an affair with his patient’s wife. The patient dies suspiciously following surgery, and the surgeon and widow continue to get it on. The book is loosely based on a famous Florida murder trial that, like the bar girls’ case, had some titillating courtroom testimony.

worst book reviews, first novel
Worst Book Reviews: “To Speak for the Dead” introduced Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned lawyer.

Am I being too thin-skinned? Should I toughen up? Every author gets slammed. There are more than 200 one-star reviews of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, including this little ditty:

“Gives little, if any, guidance on the killing of mockingbirds. False advertising.”

Okay, that may be tongue-in-cheek, but here’s an apparently serious, punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness one-star review of the Harper Lee classic:

“It was terrible I didn’t like it at all i was so bored and stressed reading this awful book ugh”

It’s sometimes said that there are no wrong opinions, but facts are indisputable. Here’s a reader’s curt analysis of FALSE DAWN:

“One of the longest books ever.”

Hmm, the hardcover was 303 pages, about one-fourth the length of WAR AND PEACE. This reader would have given Tolstoy one star: “He should have stopped with WAR and saved PEACE for the sequel.” But maybe my book only seemed long, which means it’s my fault. Maybe I should write shorter books. Then again, when I wrote LAST CHANCE LASSITER, a 25,000 word novella, I got a blistering review under the headline:

“More like Lassiter Light.”

bum deal the final chapter

My two most recent books are BUM LUCK, which has 92% four and five star reviews, and BUM DEAL, which has 96% and garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Now get this: neither has a one-star review.

But wait a second. Those books will be on Amazon long after Jake Lassiter tosses his briefcase into Biscayne Bay and long after I’m gone. So strike my earlier comment. I should have said: neither book has received a one-star review…yet. It’s only a matter of time.

# # #

“ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” Ruined My Trip

All the Light We Cannot See

By Paul Levine

Anthony Doerr ruined my vacation. He also destroyed the confidence of blossoming writers and set an impossibly high standard for other novelists.

What’s the matter, Tony? Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t enough?

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE author
Anthony Doerr, author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the lyrical, compassionate, hauntingly gorgeous novel that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

And it’s kept me indoors on vacation. Fleeing the Miami heat and humidity, my wife Marcia and I escaped to Boulder, CO. My intentions were sincere. I’d hike, bike, sample the local brews. But instead of enjoying the glorious Colorado outdoors, I’ve been hunkered down on the porch, immersed in All the Light We Cannot See, reading and re-reading many of its elegant passages.

“All the Light We Cannot See” an Epic Tale

The novel is an epic masterpiece of fate and love, myth and imagination, humanity and inhumanity, tenderness and cruelty, and what happens to dreamers during the utter insanity of war. It’s the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy and how they’re destined to come together during the darkest of times. Indeed, it’s a novel of light and darkness.

All the Light We Cannot See
“All the Light We Cannot See” is a Masterpiece.

The portrait of 1940 Paris, on the eve of war, rings true. SPOILER ALERT: Germany invades France. SECOND SPOILER: The French put up as much resistance as an éclair to a butcher’s knife.

All the Light We Cannot See overflows with melodic phrases, magical imagery and dazzling wordplay. Of the blind girl who learns to navigate the streets from scale models lovingly built by her father: “She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

Most writers struggle to describe characters’ voices in original ways. Not Doerr, who floored me with this: “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

There is even a rumination on the possibility of life after death. In less than a page, the author posits a theory more persuasive than a thousand Sunday sermons. HINT: Souls travel on electromagnetic waves.

Oh, the Damage to Writers’ Fragile Egos!

So here I sit – on the front porch – entranced as I finish this unforgettable novel. But I complain not just on my behalf. Consider the young writers studying their craft at Stanford, Iowa, and the back booths of countless Starbucks. Does Doerr comprehend the fragility of their egos? The plenitude of their neuroses? Even without this daunting book, they fear their work will just add to the tsunami of swill, the endless tide of mediocrity pouring from laser printers and overflowing publishing platforms.

So, yes, I blame Doerr for nipping the buds of blossoming writers. And what about the environmental damage? The hardcover I purchased is from the book’s 37th printing. That’s a lot of felled trees, Mr. Doerr. Consider that, too, the next time you sit down to work your literary magic.

Paul Levine

Paul Levine’s “Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

Best Books Ever…My List or Yours?

"Rabbit, Run" tops my best book list

By Paul Levine

A “Best Books” list is inherently flawed.  Just as with “best teams” or “best movies” or “best pizza,” beauty is in the eye of the blogger.

A meme has been spreading through Facebook — as memes are inclined to do — asking people to name the ten best books they’ve ever read.  Or the ten “most influential.”  Or the ten that have “stayed with you.”

Using those standards, two of my choices were easy. Without these books — both Florida novels I’ll discuss below — I never would have become a writer. I wouldn’t have sneaked home from the law office to secretly write a spec manuscript that became “To Speak for the Dead.” That’s right. I’d still be wearing fancy suits, billing time at enormous rates, and eating stone crabs at the Banker’s Club instead of working in my underwear all day at home with a can of tuna for lunch!

Let’s admit it.  Any best books list is intensely personal and changes over time. When I was a teenager, I was mesmerized by “The Fires of Spring,” by James A. Michener, a coming-of-age novel based on the author’s impoverished childhood. I haven’t gone back to the book, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t find a spot on my best books list. And in fact…it hasn’t. Instead, I chose “Back Roads” by Tawni O’Dell, the least known author on my list. It’s a heartrending coming-of-age novel set in the slag heap poverty of rural Pennsylvania.

My Best Books List

To ease the task of compiling my best books list, I chose only fiction. Even then, I could only pare the titles to an even dozen.

1. RABBIT, RUN by John Updike.
2. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler
3. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe
4. PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow
5. BACK ROADS by Tawni O’Dell
6. MISERY by Stephen King
7. ANATOMY OF A MURDER by Robert Traver (John Voelker)
8. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck
9. THE LOCK ARTIST by Steve Hamilton
10. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith
11. TOURIST SEASON by Carl Hiaasen
12. THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY by John D. MacDonald

Breaking Down the Best Books List

I was in my 20’s when I read “Rabbit, Run” about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who was my age and living not far from my hometown. Updike, Michener, and I were all raised in small Eastern Pennsylvania towns.  (That is the only time you will see us mentioned in the same sentence. Tawni O’Dell and John D. MacDonald were raised in western Pennsylvania, but I swear I have no geographical bias!)

I could just as easily have chosen two later books chronicling the older Angstrom. “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” After all, both won Pulitzer Prizes, but I’m sticking with the first of the series.

On the theory that every list should include one book of “Required Reading,” there’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Why not “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  It was listed by too many Facebook friends! But for fans of courtroom fiction — and yes, I know, “Mockingbird” is far more than that — I have three other choices. “Presumed Innocent” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are splendid murder trial sagas, and “Bonfire of the Vanities” has some of the most spectacular and hilarious courtroom scenes ever written.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker brought realism (and skepticism) to the legal thriller in “Anatomy” while Scott Turow’s “Innocent” and Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” are works by master wordsmiths.  Yes, I’m giving away my biases, as we do when we create lists. I’m a former trial lawyer and the author of legal thrillers, so you have to give me a pass on all the courtroom tales.

My Best Books List Must Include Noir

I’m also an admirer of noir crime fiction, so there had to be a Raymond Chandler novel featuring hard-boiled P.I. Philip Marlowe. That’s where “Farewell, My Lovely” comes in.  I could have chosen “The Big Sleep” or “The Long Goodbye.”  All three are classics.  Who could forget this ditty from “Farewell…?”

“It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

best books, Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart portrayed Philip Marlowe on the screen.

My last two choices, “The Deep Blue Good-By” and “Tourist Season” had profound influence on my life. I never would have written “To Speak for the Dead,” my first novel, without them. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, a self-described “beach bum” and “salvage consultant,” furnished the inspiration for my “Jake Lassiter” character, an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things.” Carl Hiaasen’s ability to bring humor to Florida crime fiction was a revelation. His deceiving ability to make the writing look easy also suckered me into writing that first book.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Paul Levine

“Lassiter” — Number One Mystery Reviewer Has Her Say

Lassiter cover

By Paul Levine

Usually, my blogs are on diverse subjects. They range from a comparison of two movie stars’ military records: “Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and My Dad” to my endless search for a lawyer-hero: “Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?”

But today I’m turning the blog over to  Oline Cogdill, widely regarded as the top crime fiction reviewer in the country. (She’s won the Raven Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, to prove it).

Review of “Lassiter”

I’m simply re-printing Oline’s 2011 review of “Lassiter,” which marked the comeback for the linebacker-turned-lawyer, who hadn’t been seen since 1997’s “Flesh & Bones.” I might add that I’m doing this without asking Oline’s permission or that of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel or The Miami Herald, or the written consent of the National Football League. So sue me.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine brings a certain symmetry to “Lassiter,” which marks the return of Jake Lassiter, a Miami Dolphins linebacker turned hard-nosed lawyer.

Levine’s series launched in 1990 with “To Speak for the Dead,” named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by the Los Angeles Times. The Lassiter series came at the start of the wave of Florida mysteries that shows no sign of slowing down and earned Levine the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

Lassiter number one
“To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Lassiter novels

Now Jake is back after a 14-year absence in the aptly named “Lassiter,” and it’s as if this wise-cracking, renegade lawyer never left. “Lassiter” works as a gripping legal thriller, a story of self-discovery, and a look at corruption set against an insider’s evocative view of South Florida.

And it seems fitting that Levine reintroduces his attorney by having him look into an incident that occurred early in his career.

Like many people, Jake has regrets, especially about his wilder days. One regret is that he didn’t do more to help Kristin Larkin, a teenage runaway.

“Back then, I had yet to develop the empathy for others that marks the passage into manhood,” he says. Today, Jake is a different man and he’s caught off guard when Amy Larkin shows up, accusing him of being involved in her sister’s disappearance 18 years earlier.

Amy, who was only 11 when her sister ran away, had always believed her sister dead until her father recently told her on his deathbed that he didn’t know what happened to Kristin. The obsessive Amy targets Jake since he is the only link she has to her sister.

Lassiter cover
Jake Lassiter is both suspect and investigator in the disappearance of a young woman

Jake’s investigation leads him to Charlie Ziegler, a former pornographer turned philanthropist; Alex Castiel, a Cuban-American prosecutor who is one of Jake’s best friends; and Miami’s history of organized crime.

Lassiter Serious, Witty, and Sardonic

Levine’s energetic storytelling works well in “Lassiter” as the author manages to make his novel serious, witty and sardonic — sometimes even in the same sentence. Levine steeps his plot in realism, making Jake’s look into an 18-year-old trail seem plausible.

Jake knows who he is now as well as who he once was — “the egotistical jock with all the trappings of stunted male adolescence.” He knows that rich and famous clients aren’t about to come through his door. Still, he’s a good lawyer and trying to be a better parent to his young nephew he’s raising.

Levine demonstrates that he knows Miami by following Jake’s travels on the myriad causeways, along South Beach and through Coconut Grove. In the story as in real life, no trip to Miami is complete without a visit to Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.

Although Levine put his attorney on hiatus in 1997, the author has been quite busy, writing the humorous Solomon vs. Lord legal series set in Miami and working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, including writing 20 episodes of the TV series JAG.

“Lassiter” makes us remember how much we enjoyed Jake’s company. It’s good to have him back.
**************************
And to that, I say, thank you and return to work on my next book!

Paul Levine

Best Novels vs. Favorite Novels

 

By Paul Levine

Did anyone ever ask Herman Melville which was a better book, “Moby-Dick” or “Billy Budd, Sailor?”

No, I’m not comparing myself with Melville. For one thing, he had a big, bushy beard. For another, I get seasick.

Still, I’m always fascinated when readers ask, “What’s the best book you’ve written?”

(Sticklers will likely say that no one asked Melville that question because “Billy Budd” was unfinished at his death and not published for another 30 years, but you get my point).

What were Herman Melville's best novels?
Herman Melville: What were his best novels? Who is to say?

When asked about my best novels or favorite novels, I usually give a smart-ass reply. “Who’s your favorite child?” That either gets a laugh or a promise never to buy another of my books. So today, I’m going to be serious and talk about the issue of best novels versus favorite novels.

First, disregarding the question about my own work, I have lots of “favorites,” including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Big Sleep,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Presumed Innocent,” and a bunch of others I can’t remember off the top of my head. Are they the best novels I’ve read? I can’t say. But they’ve stayed with me…in some cases for more than 40 years.

"The Grapes of Wrath"  Is it one of the best novels of all time
Is “The Grapes of Wrath” One of the Best Novels of All Time…or Just One of My Favorites?

What Are the Best Novels of All Time?

Now, what about the best novels of all time? Oh, there are lots of lists. The Modern Library names 100, with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – the bane of students everywhere – at the top. Library readers have their own list, naming Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as the greatest novel of all time. So much for popular taste! (I might complain that “Don Quixote,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “David Copperfield” aren’t on the list, but this is the “Modern Library.”)

My point is this. No survey of readers or poll of academics can choose the “best” novel, any more than they can select the best pizza in town. It’s all personal. You may love Margaret Mitchell’s iconic melodrama, “Gone With the Wind” (number 24 on the reader’s list), while I prefer Vladimir Nabokov’s satiric comedy “Lolita,” (number 4 on the board’s list). Neither of us is right or wrong.

I apply the same reasoning to literary prizes. Many years ago, on a self-improvement kick, I decided to read every novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1980.

Are the Pulitzer winners of the 1980’s the Best Novels of the Decade?

Here’s the list:

“The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

“Rabbit Is Rich” by John Updike

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

“Ironweed” by William Kennedy

“Foreign Affairs” by Alison Lurie

“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

“A Summons to Memphis” by Peter Taylor

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

“Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler

Is "Lonesome Dove" one of the best novels of all time?
“Lonesome Dove” is a Pulitzer Winner, but is It one of the Best Novels of All Time?

Who can dispute the quality of these books? At the same time, we might ask what made “The Executioner’s Song” better than Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” nominated the same year. Or “Lonesome Dove” better than Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” also a finalist. The answer is that the Pulitzer Committee says so. The choices are, by necessity, subjective. Bluntly stated, the Pulitzer winners aren’t the “best” novels of the year. They’re simply the committee members’ “favorites.”

There’s even an entry for “great American novel” in Wikipedia, which defines the term as:

“[T]he concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen.”

And yes, Wikipedia lists “Moby-Dick” as one of the great American novels.

So back to my original question. Which novel of mine is my favorite? The answer may surprise long-time readers and friends. Most expect me to name “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Jake Lassiter series. Or “Solomon vs. Lord,” the first of that series. But my favorite is “Illegal,” a tale of human smuggling, loosely based on a true story. The plot involves a harrowing midnight crossing of the Mexican/U.S. border, a child separated from his mother, and a down-and-out lawyer’s attempt to reunite the pair after the mother is held against her will as a sexually abused migrant laborer. Unlike my hard-boiled legal thrillers or my lighter capers involving bantering lawyers, there’s more meat on these bones. I like to think that “Illegal” delivers an empathetic, layered story with strong thematic material that was treated seriously by the critics. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite…for now.

Paul Levine