Some months ago, I began a crowd funding project through Pozible to have my novel "Gifts of the Peramangk" reviewed by two of the United States most recognized books review journals - Kirkus and the San Francisco Book Review. Both journals offer a sponsored review service where, for a fee, you can submit your work and have it reviewed by a 'professional reviewer' which you can then have published and use in promotional material going forward.
There has been a debate around paid book reviews going on across the internet for a while. I weighed up the pros and cons of that debate and decided that by being transparent in my decision to pay for a review, there could be little criticism in that decision. In any case, the crowd funding project was successful and I was able to submit to both publications.
The turn around time for the reviews from both Kirkus and the San Francisco Book Review was always going to take a while. It was a couple of months from the time I submitted. In the past couple of weeks, both reviews have come in for the book and the results are - interesting - to say the least.
I have wrestled with what to do about the Kirkus review, in particular. However, after giving long consideration to it and talking with a couple of people involved in the project, I have decided to share both reviews here.
First up is the Kirkus review:
In Mayes’ (The Hambledown Dream, 2010) novel, a young aboriginal girl fights to pursue her extraordinary talent for the violin in spite of the racism and violence that have dogged her family for generations. In the 20th century, Australian welfare agencies forcibly removed many children from their homes and families under the pretext of “assimilation.” Virginia Crammond is one of them, taken from her mother in 1951 and made a ward of the state. She lives as a virtual slave to a sadistic landed farmer who beats his help with whips and axe handles.
From there, the narrative hops forward several decades to the present day, where Virginia is a tough but tired matriarch with a glass eye and an unspeakably cruel past. She has a family that’s barely hanging together, as she and the rest of the Delfeys live in bleak governmental housing in the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia. A drug dealer has raped and murdered Virginia’s daughter, and her grandson Jeremy is slipping into gang life. Meanwhile, her alcoholic son Rex beats his wife, terrorizes his children and, just to complete the checklist of blight, gambles too much. In these brutal circumstances, Virginia’s 8-year-old granddaughter Ruby finds solace in music, just as her grandmother did, and with the same violin. Ruby sneaks off to a nearby conservatory to eavesdrop on rehearsing performers and copy their classical renditions. The story alternates between the past and present, revealing how Virginia was taught to play by the wife of the Pastoralist—the landowner who’s such a caricature of evil that he doesn't even receive a name.
A music professor soon recognizes Ruby’s talent, granting her the opportunity to compete for a scholarship at a prestigious music recital. Mayes’ portrayal of Ruby’s love of music gives her character a solid core. However, the rest of the characters feel more like victim archetypes than people, and the villains all but twirl their mustaches. The story also suffers from a stylistic choice to leave no verb unmodified; on a single page, characters “whispered fearfully,” “snapped chillingly” and, oddest of all, “queried…malevolently.”
An uneven novel that reads like a sociology textbook crossed with a soap opera.
And here is the review from the San Francisco Book Review;
Gifts of the Peramangk
By Dean Mayes
Central Avenue Publishing, $15.95, 334 pages, Format: eBook
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Delfey family is struggling. Rex, the nominal head of the family, takes part-time work when he can find it and drinks the rest of the time, terrorizing his family. His wife, Belle, works successive twelve-hour shifts that leave her exhausted with little time to do more than sleep. His mother, Virginia, is slowly slipping, becoming inattentive and absent-minded. His oldest son, Jeremy, is angry all the time and has gotten involved with a local gang. His niece, Ruby, doesn't understand why her aunt and uncle dislike her and worries about what will happen when her grandmother and guardian Virginia can't take care of her any longer.
It all comes down to history. A happy child in an aboriginal family, Virginia, was taken from her mother on the slimmest of pretexts by the Aborigines Welfare Board and delivered to "the Pastoralist" on a remote farm, essentially becoming a slave. Homesick and afraid, Virginia finds her only solace in violin lessons given to her by the Pastoralist's wife. Fifty years later, she relives these memories as she teaches Ruby, who has inherited her musical talents. Ruby is the heir to all this history, its sorrows and gifts, and she will be the one to save the family when her musical virtuosity lands her the chance of a lifetime.
I knew little about the history of Australia and was fascinated—and more than a little disheartened—to learn about the country's treatment of aboriginals and ongoing racism. Mayes's characters inspire sympathy, and I kept reading to learn more about them. The diction, however, made reading //Gifts of the Peramangk// difficult. Eight-year-old impoverished Ruby often speaks like an educated adult, as do the other children. The slang is jarring and awkward when used and detracts from the plot.
That said, I finished the book feeling uplifted and grateful for the Australian history lesson.
It goes without saying that I am hugely disappointed with the Kirkus review but, at the same time, I am not totally surprised by it. As I have said previously, Kirkus have a reputation for being particularly harsh in their reviews and, as it turns out, their treatment my novel was no different.
However, I do feel that their review was particularly harsh, bordering on being "cruel" and it offers nothing constructive to me as an author which I can take forward into future writing - something I feel a reviewer has a responsibility to do.
For those of you who have not read "Gifts of the Peramangk" however, I would ask you to consider the body of reviews that have been posted for the novel at Amazon - where the majority of the reviews reside.
You might ask why it is that I've decided to go public with the Kirkus review here. Well, I think there is some value in sharing the results of my endeavor despite the result and again, I felt that I had a responsibility - in view of my commitment to transparency - to share them. I am hoping that it might have some value as a discussion topic. My audience is undoubtedly quite a lot smaller than Kirkus in particular, so I don't feel as though there is any great risk in sharing it.
At this point, I have decided to publish the SFBR review at the San Francisco Book Review and I've been advised that it will appear in that publication's June issue. I feel that the SFBR review contains enough positives to make it worth publishing.
As for the Kirkus review - at this point, I have not yet given the go ahead for it to be published by Kirkus. As I said earlier, it offers nothing constructive. Rather, it is more a vicious take down of my work. It doesn't serve me anything of value nor, I would argue, does it cast Kirkus in a very good light. I would be interested in hearing what you think.
The project I undertook, was always going to have some risk in terms of the outcome. But I believe that by posting the outcome, I can rest now. I have seen the project through and I can move forward.