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Here's a snipped-up version of a review of an anthology I wrote a while back (full original review here). Most of the stories were pretty good, a few were superb, and there were a few poor ones. For an anthology, I consider that to be nothing short of spectacular, but some tepid responses gave me the sense that maybe that bottom-line recommendation was less than clear - more "some stories are good and some are bad" than "like most anthologies, some stories are better than others, but there's some good stuff and great stuff and it's worth your time."

I'm leaving in more of the criticism than the praise, because if it seems overly harsh, I want to know that. I'm also cutting out all proper names, since I don't want this question to come up on searches for the actual anthology or its author.

Let's begin by saying that this is a strong, solid collection. Almost every story in the anthology is, at very least, an enjoyable read, and many of them do a lot more than that. Let me focus on the stories I found particularly fascinating.

The strong trio that, IMHO, form the backbone of the anthology are [Story 1] [10-word description], [Story 2], [10-word description], and [Story 3], [10-word description].

Each of these stories is superb. [Story 1] effortlessly submerses us in a different age and a different mindset. [Story 2] combines a very neat science-fictional premise with human pain and hurt; couching it all in the familiar geeksome pastime of collecting makes for a powerful and unusual story. And [Story 3] conveys perfectly the uncertainty and desperation of its characters, while bringing them to life - in addition to a stunning conclusion which is sure to leave readers gasping for breath.

One thing this trio of stories has in common is that they are firmly rooted in an element that is firmly mundane - yet unfamiliar, lesser-known. [Elaboration on this point.]

The other crucial element of these stories that I'd like to touch upon is: suspense. You're doing it right. [Elaboration on this point.]

The rest of the stories may not reach the mark set by [three awesome stories] but many of them have intriguing premises and interesting ideas. Many of these stories are of the simple, one-note variety - but they're interesting, unfamiliar notes. [Examples.] The remaining stories are mostly solid, well-written tales involving familiar tropes; most of these are on the enjoyable-but-forgettable side, but I particularly enjoyed [Story 4] for its creatively odd choice of details and plot twists.

The anthology is not flawless - [Story A] which shuffles back and forth between three unrelated characters, and [Story B named after a poem] which is constructed around the titular poem, both felt to me to be subjugating content to structure, and I didn't much care for the experiment. [Story C] on the other hand, was far too deep in familiar territory - when the novice travellers find their first transportation is the Hindenburg right before it crashes, it's not difficult to guess the pattern, yet the protagonists take forever to realize what's going on. Particularly aggravating was [Story D] which read as generic escapist juvenile urban fantasy. You know - the kind where the teenage boy is allowed to be obsessive and stalkerish because, oh-so-conveniently, his rival is actually a troll, and all the other characters are similarly Color-Coded For Your Convenience, forming a big, self-congratulatory mess. Clearly not a story meant to be given much thought.

In summary, [Book Name] is a fine and worthy single-author anthology, from an author certainly worth keeping track of. Only a few stories here are absolute must-reads, but a few of those and a full house of enjoyable, creative stories makes for a very pleasant collection indeed.

Thanks much!

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3 Answers

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Well, I do find it a little conflicting in terms of your praise. You seem to switch between enjoyable and forgettable. The impression I get from what you've written is that you're firmly in the middle. Words like "fine", "enjoyable" and "pleasant" are fairly mild in terms of their praise, in my opinion, and signify that the anthology is, on the whole, just average. It's like saying something is "nice", or "decent". It just doesn't excite me, nor does it convey to me that you found the anthology exciting or worth the time and effort.

Compare that to when you used the word "superb", which made me pay attention to those particular stories. I wanted to overlook the others in comparison.

Also, just to point out: in your question, you state "For an anthology, I consider that to be nothing short of spectacular", yet that certainly is not the impression you give in your piece. In fact, you don't say anything of the sort. You come across as sitting on the fence, and hedging your bets, almost as if you're being non-committal. If you had started by saying that "This is a spectacular anthology for the fact that the majority of stories excellent, solid and well-told", it would utterly change the tone.

And one other point: be careful of the pink elephant. Don't put negatives in my head. For example:

The rest of the stories may not reach the mark set by [three awesome stories] but many of them have intriguing premises and interesting ideas. Many of these stories are of the simple, one-note variety - but they're interesting, unfamiliar notes.

The problem with the language you've used here is that you've put it in my head that:

  • The majority of the stories are not as good as the other three
  • The majority of stories are simple, one-note stories

It doesn't matter that you qualify your statements afterwards, you've made me think of those two facts, and that's what I'll remember.

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Your thoughts and reactions are the important things. Yet you camouflage them:

"Let's begin by saying that this is a strong, solid collection. Almost every story in the anthology is, at very least, an enjoyable read, and many of them do a lot more than that. Let me focus on the stories I found particularly fascinating."

May I suggest?

"Let's begin by saying that t
This is a strong, solid collection. Almost every story in the anthology is , at very least, an enjoyable read. and many of them do a lot Many are much more. than that. Let me focus on the stories I found particularly fascinating."

More than half your words are distracting ornament, imo, and weaken your message. The para reads like your first timid draft.

You're convinced about this anthology; please let me hear your conviction.

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My reaction to the review was:

"There are three good stories, four bad ones, and a bunch of OK ones."

I'm not sure how many stories the collection contains, but if only three of the bunch are noteworthy, I might not think it worth the cost (in dollars or energy) to read.

The rocky part really starts in the 6th paragraph. The first two sentences are set up as [negative words] but [good words]. Putting the negative stuff first weights it more heavily in my mind that they positive words. The real message is the third sentence: "The remaining stories are mostly solid, well-written tales involving familiar tropes". I think this sentence is an example of the tone you're looking for. It starts positive and explains the shortcomings with gentler vocabulary.

As a person generally unfamiliar with the content of anthologies, three good stories in the whole bunch doesn't seem very appealing. If three out of x is actually a spectacularly high number, mention that in the review.

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