R.E. Donald

author of the Hunter Rayne Highway Mysteries series


In praise of the independent book reviewer

You know who you are.  You’re the reader who takes a few minutes to post a review of something you’ve just read on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever you “hang out” to buy ebooks.  You are not doing it for yourself (or maybe you are, because you like to keep track), but you are helping millions of readers make that most important decision of what to purchase to read next, and helping one writer at a time learn what he’s doing right, or what he’s doing wrong.  Both readers and writers appreciate your comments, but …

There are over 400,000 fiction books for Kindle on Amazon.com,  some 53,000 of them are in the Mystery & Thrillers section, and over 11,000 under the Mystery category.  At 12 books per page, that means a mystery junkie like me who wants a mystery fix has over 900 pages of mystery novels to browse through when making a selection.   (And you thought zeroing in on the right book on the many shelves at Barnes & Noble was hard!)   Thanks to the reviewers, we decide we can narrow that down to the ones with the best reviews.

But wait!  Over 6,000 of those ebook mysteries have a rating of 4 stars or more!  That’s still some 500 pages of books to browse through.  A reader’s got to consider herself (or himself) lucky to have such a great selection, of course.  But sometimes a selection that size can be overwhelming.  I don’t know about you, but even on the bestseller racks, I tend to stick with the authors I am familiar with.  I’ve been burned many a time when I’ve tried to judge a book by its cover, including the cover blurbs.  Granted, many ebooks, especially those by independent authors and publishers, are much more affordable ($4.99 or less) but impulse buys can add up quickly.  (I know that of which I speak.)

So if a reader is in search of a new, affordable independent author and feels overwhelmed by the multitudes on Amazon or other ebooks sites, the next step might be to narrow the field by visiting an independent ebook review or promotion site that specializes in fiction, and perhaps even in the genre you like the best.  I’ve come across several, which I can share with you, in no particular order.  (If you know of any others, please feel free to post them in the comments section below!)

Goodreads:  A site made for readers!  If you aren’t familiar with Goodreads, check it out.  You can connect with other readers who share your passion.  It may, however, expand your list of potential books to purchase instead of narrowing it down.

The Independent Author Network: a sprawling site that incorporates a Book Directory, a weekly Featured Author, The Avid Readers Cafe, and a Blog site as well as a store.

Kindle Mystery Authors: with reviews, descriptions, excerpts and bios of two to three new mystery authors per week.  Great for us mystery junkies.

The Paranormal Romance Guildanother large site with reviews, author interviews, giveaways and more.   (Not just Paranormal Romance, by the way – ahem – my own mystery novel received a five star review from reviewer Linda Tonis on that site.)

Indies Unlimited: A site that features well-reviewed books, and provides Sneak Peaks complete with reviews and excerpts.  There are lots of interesting items on this site if you take time to browse.  I especially enjoyed reading Ed’s Casual Friday  from Jan. 20th.

World Literary Cafe:  Another site with something for everyone – readers, reviewers & writers.  Lots of reviews and book recommendations, a forum for you to post & discuss reviews.

Digital Book Today: “Helping Readers Find Authors in a Digital World.”  Features a lot of free Kindle books available for reading and review.

Celebrating Authors: Another site dedicated to bringing readers and authors together.  It very handily breaks down the reviews and interviews by genre.

5- Star Books:  Easy to navigate site that essentially provides a filter for books in a multitude of genres.  Updated regularly, the site features only 12 of each genre at a time, so you don’t have to wade through piles of them.

IndieReader.com:  Just discovered this comprehensive site with reviews, including Kirkus reviews, and information on ebooks as well as independently published print books in a multitude of genres.  “Independent books for people with independent minds.”

Not all of the above sites include reviews, but they can narrow the field and direct you to Amazon.com or another purchase site where you may find a review.  So if you do read one of the books that you find on these sites, and you like it, let the author and future readers know by giving a review.  It doesn’t have to be a long review (although I heartily admire reviewers who are able to give a tightly written synopsis and comprehensive critique – wow!).  Just a few sentences that say how much you liked it and why will do.

If you don’t like a book you’ve read, please review it anyway but don’t be unkind.  You may not see their faces, but writers have made themselves very vulnerable by putting their work out for anonymous readers to judge, and a nasty review can cause sleeplessness and even (sob!) tears sometimes.  Constructive criticism is good, however, and may help the writer to do better next time.  (Note to writers:  Don’t cry!  Check out the one star reviews for your favorite authors or read Ed’s Casual Friday .)

One more note: the beauty of a book is in the eyes of the reader.  If the reader is having a bad day, she (or he) might not like anything!  To be honest, some days when I read something I’ve written, I think my own writing totally sucks, but the next day, reading the same passage, I’ll be bursting with admiration for my deathless prose.  So sometimes if you’re having trouble “getting into” a new book, switch to something else and go back to it again a few days later.  You – and the writer – might be glad you did.

When I’m bummed out about my writing I just think about what some of you, my precious readers, have said in your reviews of my novels, and I know I’m on the right track.  Hey!  There are readers out there who can’t wait for me to finish my next one!

Thank you!


The Reader

I am a reader. That’s what made me a writer, and I may choose one day not to write, but I will never stop being a reader. My 94 year old father is in a home, and cannot carry on an intelligent conversation, but put words in front of him, and he will read them aloud. My uncle is 96 years old. He can hardly see, and hardly hear, but he always has a book going. He is still a reader.

It was my uncle who introduced me to the mystery.  I was on my way to becoming a teenaged literary snob, hooked at the time on the classic Russian, French and English novels, but whenever I went to visit my uncle at Shuswap Lake in British Columbia’s Thompson-Okanagan, I would devour the mystery novels he had by the hundreds on the bookshelves in his cabin.  Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis – my days sitting on the dock watching the waves dance and listening to the call of the loons were filled with mysteries.

My family has always shared a passion for mysteries, although our tastes may have changed and diverged over the years.  In the 80’s, I discovered Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Georges Simenon and Tony Hillerman.  In the library, I always headed straight for the mystery section looking for new series.  After my mother’s death in 1990, my father and I used to buy and share their books with each other.  My favorite writers were Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George, then John Grisham and Michael Connelly were added to the list.  We exchanged “The Cat Who …” novels by Lillian Jackson Braun (we had a Siamese cat at the time!) and my father loved the Sue Grafton series.  I was also a fan of Minette Walters and Edna Buchanan, and read many novels by Canadian crime writers Laurali (Bunny) Wright,  Laurence Gough and Peter Robinson.

My current favorites, although I still read all of Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George’s novels, are John Lescroart, Michael Connelly and John Grisham.  John Lescroart is probably at the top of my list. There are writers that I’ve read and admire, like the Kellermans, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais and Patricia Cornwell, but for one reason or another, their novels have less appeal for me.  Perhaps because I am not fond of “fantasy”, (although all fiction is fantasy, isn’t it?)  I most enjoy stories that seem real to me.  (The subtitle on John Lescroart’s website is: “Real people…real suspense”.)  When there’s an overload of violence, weird villains or too perfect heroes, my “too far-fetched” alarm goes off and I’m thrown out of the story. (Sorry, but I don’t like horror or vampire stories for the same reason.)

“Write what you like to read.” Or as Toni Morrison said, “”If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  I’ve also heard it said, “Write what you know.”  I took both suggestions to heart, and created a mystery series set in a world I’m familiar with, featuring characters that seem real to me, characters that have flaws and foibles, loneliness and self-doubt, loves and hates and prejudices that they must learn to deal with.  I try to craft a mystery that will keep the reader guessing, and hopefully surprise him or her at the end.  My characters could be you or me, your brother, your husband or your father, your co-worker, high school pal or your boss. In the end, I hope my main characters will be your friends.

I’d love to hear what you, the reader, think about my main characters, J. Hunter Rayne and Elspeth Watson, as well as Dan “Sorry” Sorenson, the jolly biker from Slow Curve on the Coquihalla and Russell Kupka, the L.A. County cop, from Ice on the Grapevine.  I’m writing the next book in the series for you.

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Save a tree, read a Kindle

Since publishing my first two mystery novels as ebooks on Amazon.com and Smashwords.com, I’ve given a lot of thought to the whole digital publishing concept.  Of course, originally I was trying to get published the way everyone else was doing it, back in the mid to late ’90’s when the Kindle was just a twinkle in cyberspace. My first novel got shipped to New York in manuscript form a number of times, and I was rewarded for my weeks of nervous anticipation with mild encouragement from a number of agents and publishers.

A few Bouchercons, writers’ conferences, and a weeklong novel writing workshop with Elizabeth George at the Book Passage in Corte Madera, California and it was back to the computer for a complete revision of Slow Curve on the Coquihalla, with a better understanding of how to construct scenes that rewarded the reader with enhanced entertainment.  Off it went to a few more agents, with less enthusiasm on my part as I worked on my second novel.  More rejection letters, but soon my second novel was also ready to be sent out into the world to seek my fortune.

Ice on the Grapevine, in my own humble opinion and that of most of my new readers, was better than my first novel, more dynamic somehow.  (I owe that to Elizabeth George and Diana Gabaldon.  Although I don’t always enjoy their books, they know the craft and teach it well.)  Again, some encouraging remarks from some very successful agents:  “I like your writing.”  “I like your protaganist.”  “I like your idea.”  “You write good action scenes.”  “I enjoyed reading your novel but I couldn’t sell it.”  “I just don’t feel excited enough about it.”  … but again, no takers.   It made me wonder what I was doing wrong.

I’ve often seen it written and heard it said that fiction writers should write the kind of books they love to read, and also write about what they know.  I’m a woman, but often feel that I was blessed with an androgynous life view.  I write about characters and stories that appeal to me, and try to create mysteries complex enough to keep the reader guessing.  That’s what I like to read.  What do I know well enough to write about?  I’m not a lawyer, I’ve never been a police detective or a private eye, but I did work in the transportation industry for a couple of decades and was married to a special man who, at one time, was an undercover operative for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Driving a truck was his cover.  Great concept for a character!  Or so I thought.

Perhaps it came down to dollars: a long novel is more expensive to publish than a short novel, and I like a novel you can sink your teeth into.  Perhaps the truck driver character was too much of a novelty to take a chance on.  Perhaps there were just so many other mystery novels that used a tried and true formula so were less of a risk.  Perhaps the agents (mainly men) who liked the truck driver idea wanted more action, more of a thriller, and those who like character driven mysteries (mainly women) didn’t like the idea of a trucker hero.  Perhaps I just didn’t get my query letter to the right agent at the right time.  Or perhaps I just didn’t write as well as I thought.

Enter the Kindle and all the e-readers that have followed.  There would be no expense to publish my novels, so no financial risk to take (only my ego).  No trees will die in order for my stories to reach interested readers.  My story and my characters have not been modified to suit the tastes of an editor (which may be a bad or a good thing) so they are mine all mine from beginning to end.  I like that.  I like it a lot.  I am sharing something I have labored over and cared about with people who are like me, and who like to read what I like to read.

Do I care that my books won’t ever be published on paper?  At first I did.  I thought that digital publishing was a second best outcome, that it was an admission of failure.  (Although my novels would still be languishing in my virtual desk drawer because I’d long ago grown tired of sending out query letters and waiting weeks for what would sometimes be no answer at all, and I’d stopped writing, which was truly a failure.)  I do admire authors who have become successful in print, and the agents and editors who have carved out careers in the traditional publishing industry – they have paid their dues and they all deserve a cut of the $15 or so that a pbook costs a reader.  However …

The more I think about it, the happier I am with being one of the legion of pioneers in the brave new world of digital self-publishing.  Yes, there are many self-published works available on-line of the unpolished quality that used to reside solely in student notebooks.  Yes, there is an ever swelling ocean of stories out there that will make it difficult for my novels to be found by the readers who will appreciate them.  But when my books do reach the right readers, it’s a joy to hear back from them how much they enjoyed my novels and how much they are looking forward to my next one.

After several years of lying dormant, my characters are coming back to life and the joy of writing has come back to me.  I feel like I’m doing what I was born to do, and I am grateful for the chance.