Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Paid Review Reckoning - What The Big Reviewers Say About Gifts of The Peramangk.

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. 



  1. What a shame you had to pay money for that Kirkus review. It's mostly a synopsis of your book, with a number of harsh comments, and as you said, nothing constructive. As a teacher, I always feel that a negative comment needs to be constructive! The San Francisco one is much more balanced.
    Thanks for posting both of them! I reckon it'll be helpful for other authors when they are also deciding whether or not to pay for reviews.

    1. Hey Kristin! Thank you for commenting here. I decided to post these reviews here in part because I believe it will help authors who are considering doing what I have done. It's a risk for sure, but I hope that people will see, as you have, that I'm willing to add my experience to the wider discussion about these kinds of reviews.

      I'm glad you feel the same way about the Kirkus review. The absence of anything constructive in it is pretty telling and I expected much more in terms of the professionalism of their review staff.

  2. Dean ~ I unfortunately must agree with your position upon Kirkus. As for what both said regarding the speech within your book… I must disagree with both their points of view. I find your writing style to be touched with a poetic essence. That of which I thoroughly enjoy reading. Life is all about trial and error, and may I state that you my good sir are of much integral strength for you were willing to put yourself out there. That takes a hell of a lot of courage. You rock babe. x

    1. Thank you Tania,

      The point that SFBR made about the diction and use of slang is one that I can accept, simply because you have an American reviewer reading an Australian voice. It's understandable that they would have difficulty with the flourishes of speech I chose to use. In defence of those however, I would say that I spent a lot of time listening to people speak, particularly Aboriginal people. Thus, I feel my use of diction and slang accurately represent my research.

  3. I have to agree that the Kirkus review was nothing but cruel and without constructive criticism. I would have expected more from a service that you have paid for.

    I'm glad you shared as this is something that I have been looking into myself and now have decided against. While the San Francisco review was much better, I still don't see myself offering up money for someone to only offer one paragraph on their thoughts of the book.

    Thanks again for sharing. Wishing you luck in your future. :)

  4. The Kirkus review disappointed me firstly for giving me a synopsis of the whole book which I am sure a reviewer is not meant to do and secondly no constructive comments of value for any reader to take note of. Thank you for sharing Dean. Good luck with your writing and hopefully the San Francisco printing of their review will attract for you some new readers.

  5. I must take a similar stance here, concerning the position of this particular reviewer. I believe that the criticism is not only lacking in depth (since it contains primarily a chunky synopsis of the book) but is quite purposefully cruel. This is a book of deep spirit, on a level with novels such as The Poisonwood Bible and The Power of One, in that it tells a story of humanity and is in the end a celebration of life, an understanding of the balance between the horror and joy that exist simultaneously in the world, at all times. Of course it needs to be poetic to do so, to tell this story, and the heart of this story is music. And what is music but poetry? I'm glad you shared this review and weren't satisfied to let someone get away unchecked.

  6. I must agree with the position that this reviewer is taking an oddly cruel stance on this particular book. The review itself is primarily a chunky synopsis of the book, lacking in any real depth. This novel is truly a work on the level of The Poisonwood Bible and The Power of One, in that it tells a story based on actual events, which in the end, despite acknowledging the horror that exists simultaneously with the joy in our world, at all times, is truly a celebration of life. The heart of this story is music -and what is music but poetry? This story captures the essence of music and poetry, both.

    I am glad that you took a stand against what amounts to an off-base review of a book with tremendous heart.

  7. The Kirkus review is ridiculous. It's almost as if they've skimmed the book, nothing constructive has been taken from it and there's little to no depth in the tripe that the reviewer has written down. Absolutely shocking. Don't believe a goddamned word of it bud, people who actually read for enjoyment rather than monetary gain will love the book.

  8. Dean, thank you for going public with this. I decided, from the moment my first book was published, that I wouldn't pay for any reviews. Reading these two pieces confirms my judgement. You have every right to feel disappointed: the Kirkus review is disgusting in its lack of professionalism; and the SFBR gives too little opinion which, in any case, is mainly erroneous. Even the most popular book will find some detractors. Even those who love it may find some aspects faulty. I'm about 70% through your novel now, and I can say it is deeply compelling. I'll let you know my response in more detail eventually, but in the meantime please write on!