Robert’s Roundup #24 (Oct 2021)

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Abbreviations: KU means Kindle Unlimited, LE means that lending of this Kindle title is allowed, and APUB means it was published under an Amazon imprint.NYP means “Name Your Price” (that’s an option on Smashwords and other booksellers).

Here’s an interesting bit of news to indie writers. When you submit your ebook to Amazon, previously you were given a choice about whether to make an ebook lendable or no. For some reason, Amazon has changed that policy and now requires that all submitted indie ebooks be lendable. I think this is a good thing, because the lending feature is very good and time-limited and more people should allow it. Instead, it seems that a lot of books have opted out of that. Very few people used the feature anyway, which is sad — if only because it reveals how few readers are out there. Here is the kicker. Almost none of the Big 5 publishers enable lending for their Kindle ebooks. It’s outrageous! The Big 5 do it to protect their product; instead, you merely deprive a way for avid readers to share a title with their friends. Mostly when I want to borrow an ebook, I end up buying a copy anyway. Incidentally, I’ve been using book digital borrowing to temporarily access out of print books. Often I do this to check copyright information, introductions, etc., but most often I check it out in order to decide whether I ought to buy the actual book! This month I bought two books (a poetry book and a literary reference guide) only after borrowing a digital facsimile through .

Oh, yes, forgot why I brought that up. Up until now I had been using LE by the book title to indicate whether a book is lendable or not. However, generally now I think we can assume that all new self-published ebooks and most ebooks in general are lendable, and ALMOST ZERO BOOKS BY BIG 5 PUBLISHERS ARE LENDABLE. So maybe this will be the last month that I put that acronym by ebook titles.

A Personville title, Minor Sketches and Reveries by Alberto Balengo has been priced at free for almost 2 weeks. Get it while it’s still free.

I keep meaning to say this. I’ve joined a book reviewing service called Book Roar (which I recommend for authors). I agree to review random ebooks, and in exchange someone somewhere agrees to review mine. These are books I wouldn’t normally read (much less review), but actually it is a bit fun to discover new books outside of your comfort zone. I’ll be posting my reviews at the bottom of these roundups.

A few years ago I have started compiling a list of tips for publishers and authors. I have been adding a lot of useful information on this blogpost and updating it often. This might be useful for indie authors.

Indie Author Spotlight

I wanted to call attention to Diane Donovan, ( a freelance book critic who has reviewed/worked with over 50,000 books) and usually writes capsule reviews for a fee with Midwest Book Review. The reason why I mention her name (besides the fact that I have used her service for 2 Personville titles) is that now that you know her name, you will certainly see her name on blurbs for lots of indie books on Amazon Her personal website contains most (all?) of her reviews over the years (either here or here). Here’s a nice 15 minute podcast interview with Donovan on Youtube.

Under the Radar

Undergrowth: A face-paced ecological adventure set in the dark woods where glowing mushrooms live by Ellen King Rice (website).

Taxi: Harold Chapin Story by Peter Morton Coan KU, LE (Author’s Amazon page and Twitter). (Free). Chapin sang the song Cat’s in the Cradle.

Meiselman: Lean Years by Avner Landes. 99 cents. Here’s an interview and a book review calling the protagonist  “an aggravating, ridiculous being. He’s no one you’d want to know, but he’s a lot of fun to laugh at. There are even moments when the odd reader might find some of Meiselman’s shenanigans familiar, but those moments are best not admitted to. Best to keep them to oneself, or learn to do the opposite.” Here’s another interview,

Zoolinguist: A Humorous Crime Fantasy by S.A. Adams.  Original and quirky story where Mario finds himself in prison, but also possesses the ability to communicate with animals, which talent he intends to use to escape.

Chipless by Kfir Luzzatto. (Author website and blog). Here’s his smashwords page. Diane Donovan praised this, saying it is “ultimately designed to make readers think about the roots of tyrannical impulses and freedom. Chipless is very highly recommended both for its strong characterization and a deeper action that revolves as much around ethical questions as it does upon individual choice.”

Peace of Music by Denise Kahn (Vol 1 of 3 volumes). (Author website). Historical fiction by world traveler/linguist)

Girl Named Dara by Tom Flynn (Author’s website) College student falls in love with a Belarussian girl who has more problems than he realizes.

Comedian walks into a funeral home by Dennis Kelley. (author website).

Dead Moon: Page Turning Space Horror Tale of Survival by Jonathan Maas. San Antonio born author who studied on East and West coasts, Peace Corps volunteer, comedian, plus a whole lot more. These sound like YA novels.

Departures by E.J. Wenstrom. (author home page and book page). YA dystopian novel about a 17 year girl who finds she is scheduled to die.

Before Our House Fell into the Ocean: Stories of Love and Death by William John Cook. (author website)

Auctioneers by Florian Schneider. California-based photo-journalist (not to be confused by the Kraftwerk band member with the same name). Political novel about an El Salvadorean social worker living in Los Angeles while gunmen open fire at a LA shopping mall.

Snow White and the Wicked Queen by Regina Grimm (author website). (Great pen name!)

Sylvie: Novel by Sharon Kreider. (author’s website) A teenage girl is bullied, and how her family responds. Author is a therapist and suicide prevention trainer (giving her credibility); unfortunately book description sounds vague and wishy-washy. (The reader reviews are better though).

Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg. 1.99 (6 selected novellas) I am really liking this sci fi author’s novel Dying Inside. I consider Silverberg to be a Tier 1 sci fi author (up with Dick, Butler, Bradbury, etc).

Torn Veil by George R. Marshall. KU(Here’s a video interview). Also Fables of Failure. KU, so I’ve gotten them for free.

Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh. (Author’s Website).

50 titles from She Writes Press/Spark Press are priced at 99 cents until October 25. A lot of memoirs, some fiction written by interesting people. Will report back.

  • Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction by Ruth O. Saxton. (Author website) A great and timely exploration of how old women are depicted in fiction. Saxton cofounded a woman’s studies program at Mills College. I liked this study so much that I’d even want to read her 1998 work Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women.
  • Journalist: Life and Loss in America’s Secret War by Jerry Rose. (website). Memoir about Vietnam war journalist.
  • Poetic License: Memoir by Gretchen Cherington. (author website) Daughter of Pulitzer prize winning poet Richard Eberhart reveals that he molested her as a child. Jay Parini gives this blurb, “Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Richard Eberhart was a close friend of many years, a beloved colleague. I loved his genial personality and admired his unique poetic gift. He was a generous man but, as his daughter shows, a difficult and complex person as well. This is a vivid memoir, flaws and all, and Gretchen Eberhart Cherington has crafted a narrative worth reading closely.”
  • Theory of Everything Else: Essays. by Laura Pederson. Personal essayist by former columnist for NYT. (author’s website) Fairly prolific writer though her books are never discounted.

 Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich: The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe by Lucas Delattre. Story of German bureaucrat who secretly helped the Allies during WW2. I love these kinds of stories.

Under a White Sky: Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert. (author website) I assume it is nothing more than a collection of Kolbert’s essays about climate. She’s a great writer and great at writing long form science articles.

Stories of John Cheever. 1.99 I used to own this book; am buying again!

Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. (author website). 2.99 Critically acclaimed essay about a subject dear to my heart.

Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted by Ian Millhiser (profile and Twitter) . 2.99 This year he published another book (not on sale) called “Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court is Reshaping America.”

Platformed: A Modern Dystopian Novel by Kelsey Josund

Library purchases/Printed Books

Goethe – The Poet and the Age: Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 by Nicholas Boyle. This is volume 2 when Goethe was in his 40s and early 50s. George Steiner reviewed it favorably, noting that Boyle is a “literary expositor and critic of vivacious perspicacity.”

Tune In : The Beatles: All These Years by Mark Lewisohn. I’ve been afflicted by Beatlemania in anticipation of Peter Jackson‘s upcoming documentary Get back. Tune It In is supposed to be the best and most definitive history of the Beatles. Here’s several long interviews on youtube: with Conan O’Brien (recommended) , and a 2 pt 2 hour interview from 2021 (Part 1, Part 2)

Two books by feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter (author’s Wiki page). Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle (1990) and A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (2009). She’s a prolific critic; certainly I have read essays or reviews here or there. JC Oates recommended Sexual Anarchy; with a title like that, how can I deny myself?

102 Minutes : The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Pulitzer-winning Jim Dwyer (with Kevin Flynn). who died last year (Wikipedia page). I loved this compelling narrative about the fall of the World Trade Center, which conveyed the sequence of events, the haphazard nature of who survived and the obstacles which prevented people from being rescued. Lifted probably from numerous NYT articles and obituaries, it summarized the tragedy eloquently. Dwyer has written several other journalistic type books like Subway Lives, More Awesome Than Money etc. The great thing about people who win Pulitzers is that pretty much anything they write in any context are bound to be interesting.

Personal Accounts: New and Selected Poems by Robert Phillips (1966-1986). I bought this simply because it is longer than other Phillips titles (most of which were chapbooks) and because it was cheap. For a long time university presses have published most poetry titles and pricing them so high nobody can read them except from a library. Fun fact: I met this poet randomly in Houston (we talked for maybe 2 minutes). Then last week I stumbled upon his wikipedia page which looked like total crap. I spent a few minutes editing and adding stuff to it to make it look barely presentable but at least it no longer looks like crap.

Particles and Luck by Louis B. Jones.

Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia. I love Gioia’s criticism about anything, but his books are always expensive. This one I bought at a great discount. can’t wait to read.

100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read by Karl Bridges. (Recommended by NeglectedBooks). Update: I really love this reference guide. Have discovered a lot of overlooked books, and the reference guide is well-written, succinct and provides a good hint about what each book is all about.

The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen. Modernized fairy tales. Contemplating giving it to teens as a Christmas present. Undecided.

The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments. Compilation of NY essays by famous philosophers. Really big heavy book with heavy essays, but always expensive. Luckily bought it for next to nothing.

Creative Commons/Freebies

Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters by Tobias Boes. (Cornell U., free).

Literary Articles and Essays

Liza Featherstone writes that we need more radical climate fiction.

Yesterday on a whim I made significant improvements to the page for poet Robert Phillips. (which used to look like this). He’s an interesting poet, and there’s not much online information about him even though he’s published lots of books. Here’s a 2000 keynote address for the Whiting Awards which were humorous and insightful. Here’s a 2007 video lecture he delivered at American Book Review at University of Houston-Victoria.

Speaking of which, all the Whiting keynote addresses are available to read here.

Scott Bradford on why he hates Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (I touched upon a similar sentiment in an essay I wrote. )

Ted Goia on the rise of the fragmented novel.


Someone pointed out to me about bookstagrammers, so that gave me an opportunity to rant about it on reddit:

Wow, I didn’t even know that was a thing. After googling around, it seems that it consists of a lot of pretty people posing with printed books (and other props). I’m guessing that this phenomenon must have began when print publishers mailed pretty printed ARCs to pretty people so they can pose with them.

All this ignores that 1)ebooks are where most indies are and that 2)bookworms/authors like myself are really ugly people.

I’m sure there’s at least one bookstagrammer doing a decent job talking about the freebies they receive, but “posing with pretty freebies” doesn’t seem to be a major influence about which ebooks are being sold.

Intellectually I’m open to the idea of (free) social media, but I haven’t seen a great return on my time investment. Even reddit (which holds a lot of potential) has a lot of rules governing self-promotion. That’s a shame, because there are ways to allow self-promotion without things becoming spammy.

(After several author/literary types protested, saying that 1)well, bookstagrammers could pose with tablets with your ebook cover and 2)it’s more about the books themselves, not about the personality talking about it and 3)bookstagrammers are a great way to attract readers, I did a followup).

Indie publishers face a lot of hurdles when competing against the Big 5 publishers. One such hurdle is the availability and distribution of printed books. The Big 5 still distribute a lot of printed copies — both as ARCs and as titles which are later remaindered and discounted. To no surprise, the two titles you mentioned are from Big 5 publishers, and indeed, Penguin and Random House books seem to be all over the feeds of many bookstagrammers.

A lot of critics still refuse to review ebook-only titles (indeed some literary awards require physical copies). More importantly, printed titles end up earning the author less money per sale than ebooks.

I can imagine graphic novels would be ideal candidates for being suitable selfie objects. Maybe Harry Potter books or what not. In my generation several high quality books had good packaging (I’m thinking Kundera books, Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, etc.) And on occasion I have done annotated selfies with long out of print titles (mostly from Africa and Europe) and annotated photos of bookshelves , so I get the appeal. (Actually here’s one I did in 2004 ).

Come to think of it, GLAS (Derrida’s masterpiece of intertextuality) might have found an audience if some instagrammers were around to talk about it).

I certainly enjoy using older books as prop for photos or home decor. But that is not what we’re talking about. Aside from Big 5 titles and graphic titles, I am not optimistic about a literary market driven by the need to include a printed book in a photo. Perhaps it is possible for bookstagrammers to include pictures of ebooks in their bookstagram photos (either by doctoring the photograph or including the cover on a tablet). But I expect to be waiting a very long time (perhaps an eternity) for an instagrammer to decide to turn my ebooks into a photo that can attract lots of likes.

As I said, I don’t have any problem with people using photos of books to talk about books. And I recognize that annotating photographers is a fun way to talk about anything. But limiting your discourse to photo-friendly books is not helping many writers.

Capsule Book Reviews


Book Roar Review

Two reviews today for Bookroar, the book review swap service.

Snow White and the Wicked Queen: Chapter 1: An Erotic Retelling of the Classic Snow White Fairytale (The Snow White Series) by Regina Grimm.

Regina Grimm has taken a well-known fairy tale and teased out its sinister erotic dimensions for a 3 part adult novel. “CHAPTER ONE” is kind of misleading, because this part actually consists of 7 chapters. These chapters are kind of intense to read all at once, and I actually think it’s more than simple publishing convenience that the author broke this up into 3 longish parts. (I think Anne Rice did something similar with her Sleeping Beauty stories). It’s certainly good to revisit a well-known tale and reveal the psychosexual drama bubbling underneath it, and Grimm does a decent job injecting new plot details (and not merely embellishing the original tale with sexual details). This part describes the birth of Snow White, how Queen Calista seduces the King and the strange and perverse relationship between the queen and the enchanted mirror. The inward subjective style sometimes can get slow, focusing a little too heavily on the emotional resonances and queen’s dark decadent desires. (I felt Anne Rice’s Beauty stories suffered from the same issues). To no one’s surprise, this PART is brimming with all kinds of sex (although the specific situations and people involved were unexpected). Sometimes the queen’s sexuality is paired too often with her evil power; I would have thought that the queen would be more adept at faking civility or human emotions rather than just ordering everybody around. For future parts I remain curious about whether the story will delve into Snow White’s sexual activities as a way to reveal her individual personality (going beyond the original fairy tale) or whether it will stick with using sexual desires as a way to illustrate the archetypal decadence of the queen.

SUMMARY: Although the prose can sometimes seem slow and introspective, this story/series is a must read for fans of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series.

PS. I only reviewed part 1 for bookroar, but in fact the author is breaking the story down into several parts. I generally did not like this — I would have liked to have it all inside one book. I have enough interest in this series to buy PART 2 — but not enough to buy the whole thing.

Barb the Bird of Hope by by Zowie Norris (illustrated children’s book).

This is a nice tale for children about an unusual bird dealing with change and turmoil in her life.

It is a challenge to portray an animal in a tale (even a tale intended for children). You don’t want the bird to seem too smart or chatty. A bird can physically interact with other humans and animals (and I think this book does that well), but it can’t really communicate; it can merely observe surroundings and occasionally have private thoughts. Also, a bird cannot really understand human structures (i.e., it can’t read words on signs). On the other hand, birds (like children) can instinctively grasp realities that adults might miss.

Several things stand out about Barb the Bird of Hope. First, the illustrations are incredible, full of eye-catching details, light rainbow colors and nice & crazy perspectives. The pictures of the birds were particularly lovely. The drawings seem to be done in pencil or crayon — a style that young readers could relate to easily. I uploaded two screenshots which demonstrate the nice colors and textures and perspectives. Actually most of the illustrations are much simpler than what I uploaded with this review — a lone bird flying down a road, a bird sitting on the same park bench as a doctor.

Second, the book portrays society during time of COVID — showing hospitals, deserted parks, humans cooped in their homes. The society portrayed in this book seems familiar even to the youngest of us; it maintains an appropriate balance between mentioning COVID and dwelling too much on it. In a way, the book will serve as a time capsule for that year or two where everybody (even children) had their lives upended by COVID. Because of this timeless quality, I could easily imagine this book being read long after COVID fades away.

Third, while the book does mention COVID without getting too melodramatic, one of the “scarier” parts of the book is having the park (and the laburnum tree) damaged by torrential rain and how the birds try to cope. This resonates with people of all ages — especially in places that experience flooding or other natural disasters. In fact, the book weaves the two “scary things” into the bird’s story, offering a way to see the pandemic in a bigger context of environmental threats. Environmentally-minded readers might view the loss of species habitat as another problem alluded to here; bird species are constantly having to adapt to changing circumstances. No wonder that the story has to end on a hopeful note.

The writing is conversational, although the vocabulary is certainly not dumbed down for children. (Ex. perching, exquisite, destruction, torrential, engaged, transform, symbolise). It’s a great story book to read with children. If I were to guess, it’s ideal for readers 5-8 years of age, but there’s enough complex story and vocabulary to interest kids up to the age of 11. It’s a pretty book to look at — to the point that all readers (even pre-readers) would love flipping through the pages.

My main “complaint” is that as an adult is that I had no idea what a laburnum tree looks like! I was genuinely surprised to find a photograph of one on the Internet — it’s beautiful! Although several illustrations show the tree, they were “miniaturized” to allow for more elements to be included together. Now that I know what a laburnum tree looks like, I wish it had been introduced earlier in the story — if only so readers could get a sense of what it looked like BEFORE THE STORM and AFTER THE STORM.

SUMMARY: With amazing colorful illustrations, this story dramatizes how two events (the COVID pandemic and the destruction of a laburnum tree in park) seem to a unique bird with violet tail feathers.

Laburnum Tree
Laburnum Tree

Multimedia/Podcasts, etc.

I have been a huge fan of Romanian-American dadistic poet Andrei Codrescu (website) — and a while back, I went on a massive buying spree of his books although I’ve read only a few. A safe place to start was Ay Cuba, delightful travel book about going to Cuba. The ebooks are too expensive.

A wonderful quote from a 1995 radio feature he did about virtual reality games and where he interviewed Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) and Rob Glaser (of Real Media networks). QUOTE: “In 15 or 20 years (they say) I won’t be able to tell the difference between reality and synthetic reality. Well, that’s what they said when they came out with fake fur, plastic flowers, inflatable love dolls, zircons and the Monkees. We’ve learned to enjoy these things, but did we ever mistake them for the real thing?”

Here’s a 1991 compilation of his video appearances after the Romanian revolution. It occurred to me this poet would be delightful in audio/podcast form. Here’s some podcasts and NPR has a ton of 2 minute radio essays by him.

I stumbled upon a trove of author videos: American Book Review (lots!) Here’s a bunch of interviews — many with Michael Silverblatt (of Bookworm). To my surprise and delight, I see that William Gaddis has also done some interviews (here, here and here). Also I noticed that Scott Bradford has been doing a lot of video lectures from his home.

Here’s an author interview video podcast called DIY Writer. Lots of writers I’ve never heard of, several sci fi, genre. Here’s the audio version of the podcast.

Personville Press Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. You can buy DRM-free ebooks and audio files directly from the Personville Press payhip store or from Smashwords. These two places generally have the cheapest prices because they offer a higher percentage of royalties to the publisher. Alternatively, you can buy cloud-based ebooks from GoogleAmazonBNApple and Kobo. Check them out! Fall 2021 Personville Press will have a mailing list to help people to stay informed about upcoming sales and promotions.






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