Winter Games by John Lacombe

Winter Games is a thriller, a “gripping tale of military cover-ups and international crime,” according to the description on the back cover. The novel blurs the edges between science fiction and thriller with the use of a female, and very helpful, robot named Sarah who comes to the aid of the human protagonist, Tim Sutton.

I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries written by such authors as James Lee Burke, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, Craig Johnson, and others, so I was looking forward to reading Winter Games. I have to confess to not being gripped.

The back-cover plot synopsis says, “Mild-mannered 24-year-old Tim Sutton runs a humble comic store in a small New Hampshire town.

“But he receives a mysterious message on cold winter morning that turns his simple life upside down. Tim suddenly finds himself racing against the clock to find his long-lost brother Eric. The perilous quest soon sweeps Tim around the globe and across hostile borders into a deadly landscape where laws are ignored and life is cheap.

“As Tim quests for his missing sibling, he is forced to ally himself with jilted government agents, hardened criminals, and other shadowy figures whose backgrounds are as nebulous as their motivations for helping Tim. Tim is gradually forced to question the true identity of the brother he is desperately searching for.”

There, on the book’s back cover, lie both the central problem and its cure. Ground between the passive writing and excessive detail, the exciting concept of the story does not hold a reader’s interest. At least not this reader’s interest.

For example, after his long search, Tim finds his brother. On page 100, he sees lighted windows in a building: “Someone was inside.” After 67 lines, in which Tim enters a room and the narrator describes the room and its contents, Tim sees a “table surrounded by twelve chairs, all of which were empty.

“Except one.

“At the far end of the table, leaning over a laptop computer and a mess of paperwork, sat a single man. When he saw Tim standing at the far end of the room, the man jumped up from his chair in shock. Frozen, his eyes focused on Tim.

“The man was about five-feet, ten-inches (sic) tall. He was Caucasian, with a slender, unimposing frame and pale-white (sic) skin. The man’s cleanly-shaven, brown-eyed face was capped with a crop of short, neatly cut blond hair.

“Tim exhaled. A cornucopia of emotions flew through his head: joy, satisfaction, fear, trepidation, validation, and of course, curiosity. Tim’s legs seemed ready to buckle beneath him as he slowly approached the conference table. When Tim reached the table, the two men stared at one another in silence.

“Then, with the best smile he could muster, Tim spoke.

“’I’m here,’” Tim said, “’Little Brother, I’m here.’”

A character – or a person – who has just found his long-lost, beloved sibling does not pause to count the chairs and note that there are twelve of them. The more logical behavior would be to realize that his brother is present in the room, then look around to be sure it’s safe to approach – if he had the presence of mind to do that after coming on his brother unexpectedly. And listing the various emotions does not work for me, either. It’s the old recommendation for fiction writers: Show, don’t tell. Show the reader what the character feels by the emotion’s effect on him. Don’t tell us that he feels a cornucopia and then dump the thing on the page. How do you feel a cornucopia, anyway?

That sentence tells us that a cornucopia flew through the character’s head. Think about it. The emotions are secondary and come in the list of what’s in the cornucopia.

The English language works in a very simple manner. Its basic pattern for action is: Subject-Verb-Object. To write strong sentences, don’t clutter the pattern with adjectives or adjective phrases. The cornucopia didn’t fly through Tim’s head, obviously, but that’s not what the sentences says. The emotions are stuck off in an adjective phrase, or as English teachers used to tell us, in a prepositional phrase used as an adjective.

The author has endowed the robot Sarah with less emotion than a rock. But before anyone reading this review jumps up yelling that robots are machines and can’t experience emotion, let me site two of the most famous robot characters in science fiction: R2D2 and C3PO. They have no facial expressions because R2D2 doesn’t have a face, and while C3PO has a face, he has no muscles to work it. He can blink his eyes and move his mouth and gesture with his arms and legs, and he can talk in various tones. R2D2 can only tilt, chirp and waddle. They are lovable. Our introduction to Sarah tells us that she can function effectively well below anyone’s radar or motion sensors, that she drinks coffee to warm herself, and she “never smiles.” Rational and emotionless, Sarah may be one of the heroes of the story, but I didn’t find her particularly appealing. And I wanted to. A super-human female robot is a fine invention.

This novel could have a lot going for it. The story is original, and the main character, Tim, is engaging. I found his naïve willingness to undertake this bizarre adventure a bit of a stretch, based as the whole story is on a translated comic book that purports to be his brother’s plea for rescue. He is so naïve that Sarah has to remind him to prepare for a week in a sealed container and sends him off to buy food and toilet paper. Tim has made no preparations for food or potty needs but is willing to travel in a sealed container bound for North Korea.

Thank goodness for Sarah, whose robotic practicality makes up for Tim’s naïve lack of thought. Together they could make a good team, and sometimes do.

  • Elaine

    Every book has its fans and its detractors, so I have no problem with the reviewer’s personal opinion here. There are some legitimate critiques. However, I do have a problem taking this review completely seriously due to the fact that the reviewer seems to be under the impression that one of the main characters, who is in fact human, is a robot. I am an English teacher who has read Winter Games. I also had many students last year who read Winter Games for Independent Reading. Although an integral part of Sarah’s character is her lack of emotion and her extreme spy skills, I’ve never heard of anyone thinking that Sarah was a robot, and I haven’t found that view expressed in any other reviews. Given such an error in reading, which doesn’t seem to be duplicated by others who have reviewed or read the book, it makes it difficult for me to take this review as a whole seriously.

  • My reasons for thinking Sarah was a robot rather than a human arose from her characterization in the novel. We first meet her when she is slipping through a freezing stream that humans would find intolerable. After leaving the stream, Sarah navigates a snowy field slowly enough that the sensors around her do not go off. By the time she reaches shelter, one of her hands is nearly frozen. Even if she could stand extreme cold, which she does, the human body has rules for how long it will tolerate cold, and a person’s mental control cannot overcome those rules to the extent that Sarah’s is portrayed as doing.

    Second, she has little or no emotion. “Sarah never smiled.”

    Third, she is able to leap to the ceiling of the container and squeeze through small holes. As I recall, these are smaller than the human body is normally capable of. While there are recorded instances, I believe, of people being able to dislocate their joints and accomplish similar tasks, the human pelvis does not operate that way.

    Considering these facets of Sarah’s characterization, I concluded that she is a robot because, as a human, she is too weird to be a believable character.

    It is the writer’s responsibility to create believable characters. If our characters have super-human skills, we must endow them with qualities that the reader can identify with and believe in as being part of our common humanity. If a character has no emotion, something else about him or her must resonate with the reader on a human level.

    I found nothing about Sarah to sympathize with. As a robot, she is believable. As a human, her characterization needs much more work.

  • Christopher

    I’m sorry, but in your review, you clearly state that Sarah is a robot. Further to that, you even launch into a full explanation about how you think that despite being a robot, she should have emotions, because other robots have emotions, etc etc. You believed this character was a robot and your review of the character was based solidly on this perspective. You can’t simply turn around now and say that you merely “concluded” that she must be a robot because she’s not a believable human character. If that really were the case, you should have gone through this reasoning in your review, explaining the reasons why you didn’t buy Sarah as a human character and maybe she’s a robot… that’s the sort of thing us readers would be interested in knowing.

    As a reviewer it is your job to have adequately read and understood the book in order to give us potential readers an accurate portrayal. It is completely irresponsible of you to simply point fingers after the fact and accuse the author of “poor writing” when the problem may entirely have been your poor reading and comprehension. After all, it seems that other people who have read this book had no problems with Sarah being human.

  • Kalidah

    Steven Reynolds, another Self-Publishing Review contributor, reviewed Winter Games back in April and gave it a very positive review. He was working for The New Podler Review of Books then. You can read his review at: http://thenewpodlerreviews.blogspot.com/

  • He writes, “The scenario is outrageous, but that’s just what the genre demands. Suspension of disbelief is required – and rewarded.” I suppose the suspension of disbelief went a step too far for CB.

  • Elizabeth

    Hmm. . .Lacombe’s WINTER GAMES just took the grand prize at the Hollywood Book Festival. Here’s what’s posted on their official website.

    “Lacombe’s page-turning thriller mixes international intrigue with an unlikely hero – the 24-year-old owner of a New Hampshire comic book store. His journey into the heart of North Korea to rescue his brother captivated the judges for the festival and is full of great roles for actors who are looking for an action-adventure vehicle beyond the conventional.”

    It seems that just about everyone but Carol Buchanan has enjoyed this book. Perhaps the book wasn’t her cup of tea; however, her review suggests that she did not grasp nor absorb the complexities of the characters in WINTER GAMES.

    Further, she apparently regards WINTER GAMES as “science fiction.” Clearly, the novel is a thriller and no one but her has made this ludicrous leap.

    WINTER GAMES is obviously Lacombe’s first novel. It isn’t perfect, but it’s one heck of a good read. Buchanan’s review is entirely misleading and quite undeserved.

  • Marion

    I question Ms. Buchanan’s credentials. What makes her an expert on the English language? The word “cornucopia” simply means an abundance. Further, Lacombe built incredible suspense by delaying the revelation that the man Tim finally encounters is his brother Eric. This totally worked for me. I was on the edge of my seat. Lacombe has mastered the cliff hanger.

    The manner in which CB attempts to dissect John Lacombe’s writing ends up reflecting poorly on her. I mean, what respectable reviewer DOES that? When one reads a novel, it is generally for enjoyment. Sure, a reader occasionally notes a typo, but few readers embark on the reading of a thriller, only to stop to ponder its grammar. Maybe Buchanan thought this is what a review entails. Perhaps she was so busy dissecting the author’s writing style, that she:

    a. Misguidedly thought the work was science fiction
    b. Thought Sarah was a robot
    c. Totally missed Number 238, one of the most intriguing characters to appear in a thriller.

    Moreover, Lacombe portrays the Chicago drug scene with incredibly vivid flair. I could see a grandmotherly type such as CB being offended by the language; or, perhaps a tad jealous that she could not produce such parlance, herself. Given that Lacombe wrote this novel a couple of years ago, he demonstrates remarkable prescience, given meth’s subsequent explosion in the United States. The author more than likely didn’t have a cadre of researchers working for him as many established writers do. He’s young. Given that, his depiction of scenes in Seattle, Los Angeles, inner city Chicago, China and North Korea are remarkable.

    In conclusion, Carol Buchanan neglected to mention most of what makes WINTER GAMES an incredible thriller–the nail-biting action between Sarah and Number 238, and the covert military operations. Based on the fact that she doesn’t even mention these, one wonders if she even read the book.

  • Grandmotherly? Wow. Saying that I can’t appreciate a book because I’m a woman pushing 70 is both ageist and sexist. What? People would take my reviews seriously if I were 35 and male? Get off it and treat what I write, if not with respect, at least as a piece of writing to disagree with. And don’t call me names because at my age I’ve forgotten more cuss words than anyone under 50 has had time to learn.

    That’s out of the way. Now for the real stuff.

    Congratulations to John Lacombe for winning the grand prize at the Hollywood book event. I mean that. I’m delighted for him. It does not change my opinion of the book, but I’m truly glad that someone appreciates it because I can’t. I don’t. My regard for Winter Games remains unaltered. But it doesn’t change the fact that he won the prize.

    Ironically, his experience and mine are nearly exactly parallel. My own novel, “God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana,” came out about 14 months ago. Like Lacombe’s, mine is a first novel. Like Lacombe’s, it garnered some appreciation and one really bad review on POD Peeps. It received other, glowing, reviews, and went on to win the 2009 Spur Award for Best First Novel. The Spur is a national award given annually by the Western Writers of America, and includes such authors as Larry McMurtry for “Lonesome Dove,” which went on to win the Pulitzer, Tony Hillerman’s “The Shape Shifter,” and Stephen Harrigan’s “The Gates of the Alamo.” (I wish I knew how to put the book titles in italics on this comment form.) This year’s other Spur winners in fiction include Craig Johnson’s “Another Man’s Mocassins,” and Thomas Cobb’s “Shavetail.” All these other fine novels (all of which I’ve read, some more than once) have been traditionally published by such as Little, Brown, Scribner, Viking/Penguin and others. It’s not common that a self-published novel enters that realm.

    So Lacombe and his defenders should know that one adverse review does not end a writer’s career. The reviewer at POD Peep disliked my novel because it contains a love story in the subplot, which he decided made it a romance. It is most definitely not a romance. But I figured trying to argue him out of his opinion would be pointless, and besides, he had a right to write and say what he thought. Bless him for that.

    For the record, I didn’t like “Lonesome Dove,” either, but it won a Pulitzer and the Spur.

    My credentials? Not only the Spur, and some very good reviews, besides comments from readers that they love the book, but other tangible credentials also. My last nonfiction book, before I decided to write fiction, is titled “Wordsworth’s Gardens,” was published by Texas Tech University Press in 2001, and was a top ten finalist for the 2002 Washington State Book Award. I hold a PhD in English Literature and taught English on the college level for 8 years before I decided to get a real job. A short story, “Fear of Horses,” won first prize in the 2008 short story contest sponsored by Women Writing the West.

    I’ve read Steven Reynolds’s other reviews here on SPR and respect his opinions. That we came to different conclusions over Winter Games does not make either of us an idiot.

    I’m not under any illusions that being a good writer myself and academically qualified will put a stop to this controversy, but it won’t be the first time people have disagreed about a book.

    Of course “cornucopia” means abundance, but a cornucopia is also a physical object. “Cornucopia” came to be a synonym for “abundance” because the object was taken as a metaphor for abundance and gradually the metaphoric usage of the term faded. And yes, I did catch the action between Sarah and 238. And yawned.

  • Steven Reynolds

    In Carol’s defence – not that she needs me to defend her – I actually agree with her comment about the Eric/Tim reunion scene. The reason it doesn’t quite work emotionally is the odd blend of narrative positions: we’re told about Tim’s feelings, but we see the scene from the viewpoint most often favoured by young writers of action-thrillers: the TV camera. You can actually “see” the shot in your head, can’t you? We move through the door, the table comes into shot and we see the twelve empty chairs, then we tilt up and see “a young man” at the end of it. We don’t who it is. But we take in his physical appearance – 5’10”, Caucasian, slender, blond hair, etc. Cut to Tim’s face with its legible emotions before he delivers the line that confirms what we now suspect, “I’m here, little brother. I’m here.” Music soars. Cut to commercial.

    There’s nothing wrong with this kind of writing, and it’s a natural result of our televisual culture. Most people born since the 1960s learned their storytelling from TV and movies, not from the novels of Henry James. Contemporary action-thrillers are deeply informed by the screen. Read interviews with writers of this kind of fiction and they often say of their technique: “I just run the movie in my mind and write down what I see…” It works. But Carol’s review picks up on what it often leaves out: a realistic depiction a character’s inner life. That’s not always essential in this kind of novel, but it would’ve helped in a scene like this one. It’s clear John was shooting for something emotional because he describes what Tim feels. But it doesn’t quite gel with the narrative viewpoint.

    As I said in my own review, I wanted more about Eric’s childhood and motivations. I wanted to understand who he is, as a person. Carol just might’ve put her finger on why I didn’t get that: the persistent narrative viewpoint didn’t allow it. This doesn’t mean the novel fails, of course. I really liked it. It just means it might have been emotionally richer if “third-person indirect” narration, rather than “TV camera” narration, had been used more often.

    In contrast to Marion (see comment above), I value close reading/analysis of particular passages in reviews, especially reviews of self-published books. They usually need work at that level because they’re often launched without benefit of the editorial process. SPR is essentially a forum of enthusiasts: most people coming here are self-published or aspiring writers. So an SPR review that points out specific techniques or possible technical pitfalls is far more useful than one that simply says, “Man, it’s awesome. I give it 5 stars.”

  • Marion

    With all due respect to Ms. Buchanan, what she wrote above further demonstrates a relative absence of clear reading. No where in my comments is she “called a name” unless she views “grandmotherly type” as pejorative. I’m a grandmother myself; and frankly, don’t care much for vulgar language, unless it’s in the context of a well-written novel. I think John Lacombe conveys inner-city dialogue with unparalleled realism.

    When I questioned the author’s credentials, I meant something akin to. . .say. . .a PH.D in English. I notice that another comment was written by an English teacher who uses the novel in her classes. Having written several books, does not make one an expert on the intricacies of language. If it did, then surely John Grisham and Stephen King could be regarded as sages. By their own admission, they’re not. Neither professes to be a stellar writer; but clearly, their books sell and transform into movies.

    Ms. Buchanan clearly didn’t enjoy the negative review of her work. Perhaps it was justified; perhaps it wasn’t. What any author would want, I imagine, is a fair review. One that recognizes the positive while offering helpful suggestions as Mr. Reynolds does. I can certainly respect that. But the degree to which she trashes John Lacombe’s first novel, without offering any constructive comments, defies comprehension.

  • Diego

    Wow. I find the above discourse fascinating.

    I happened upon Carol Buchanan’s review, after Googling John Lacombe, in a quest for the latest positive review. Imagine my surprise upon reading what she wrote! I do agree with one sentence she penned, however, “The story is original, and the main character, Tim, is engaging.”

    I think the story is the most original I’ve read. Tim is entirely engaging, and I appreciate his naiveté. That a character could be naïve is refreshing. A small town country boy embarks on a global quest. It’s believable that he wouldn’t have thought it through. Any parent, who has gone off in the middle of the night to assist a child during a crisis, as I have done, rarely thinks logically. Tim is just a lad. I didn’t expect him to think of toilet paper. The truth of the matter is that there are many a young, intelligent men who lack common sense. To me, that made him real. He reminds me of my own boy.

    There were parts of WINTER GAMES that brought out my emotions, such as the scenes with the boys’ father, Will Sutton. He lost his older son, Eric, but never stopped caring about, nor loving him.

    Mr. Reynolds makes an interesting point. I, too, wanted to know more about Eric. I gather that the death of his mother, the only person besides Tim who truly understood Eric, deeply disturbed him. But again, the world has its share of diabolical geniuses and Columbine comes to mind. Public schools are ill equipped to deal with kids like that. And they should be well equipped. Eric is a fascinating character and when I read the ending, I nearly cheered out loud. I so want to read more about this esoteric young man.

    If Mr. Lacombe reads this, and I could understand that he’d want to forget a review like the one Carol wrote, I have this to say. Keep writing. You have a gift. Let me be the first to buy your next novel.

  • Part of me doesn’t want to do this, but when people are talking about “a fair review” I think it bears mentioning. Both “Elizabeth” and “Diego” have email addresses with the last name of LaCombe – but neither have the name “Elizabeth” and “Diego.” And “Marion” has the same first name as “Elizabeth.” I understand wanting to come out in defense of a relative, but it seems a bit harder to claim the higher ground when you’re being dishonest. If you revealed yourself as relatives of the writer, you could still get your point across, while still being sincere about your position. And “grandmotherly” was a low blow. I’m not a grandmother and I felt that.

  • As a book reviewer, I’ve been exactly where Carol Buchanan is today – as have many, many other reviewers everywhere.

    I think the review was fair. It was honest. It was tactful. It offered examples of the reviewer’s dislikes. She isn’t a reviewer to just give a terrific review to everything she readers; she gives honest insight.

    You don’t need a PhD to write a book, to review a book, or heck, to be just a plain ol’ READER of a book. You just need a good story to keep you captivated. CB just wasn’t that into this book. It happens. Get over it. Part of being an author is developing a thick skin. If you plan to take on every reviewer who hates your work – or the work of a relative – prepare to be bruised and bloodied constantly until reviewers just stop bothering to read your work.

    Don’t follow Alice Hoffman’s recent example of trashing a book reviewer like a child throwing a tantrum. Use the critiques of your work to write better for your readers in future books.

  • Betty

    Well here I go jumping into the fray. I don’t think it’s a matter of Carol Buchanan’s review being fair or unfair. Personally I didn’t care for the way it was put together. I’m curious. How many reviews has she written?

    What matters is that John Lacombe’s book is an excellent read and I wouldn’t want anyone to be discouraged from reading it. I couldn’t put the book down.

  • George Bernard

    I guess it’s okay that other reviewers are coming to the defense of Carol Buchanan. Sort of like doctors defending other doctors. Henry (see above) reviews books. Maybe he knows Carol personally. Hard to tell, because he doesn’t say. Should Henry state that he is a reviewer of self-published books on the same site where Carol posted?

    Mr. Baum seems to be in favor of full disclosure, and apparently monitors this site somehow. Interestingly, he doesn’t say that, outright. In fact, the site says that mail will not be published. Isn’t “outing” someone’s e-mail address, when that person wants to be anonymous pretty underhanded? Talk about being “dishonest.”

  • Jared Mason

    Whoa, Henry. Talk about low blows.

    It seems to me that reviewers are coming to the defense of Carol Buchanan. The question I have is whether they have read John Lacombe’s book. Because really, how can anyone make a comment about her review, and its merits, without having read the novel. How would anyone know it was a “fair” or “honest” review?

    Imagine if a food critic ate spaghetti and said it was turnip. (thriller vs science fiction) And the whole review was about how it was pretty bad turnip. And then, people took the food critic to task and pointed out that wait, she was actually eating spaghetti. Delicious spaghetti. Maybe she had just taken a painkiller and it dulled her taste buds! And then, a whole bunch of other food critics defended her without even tasting the spaghetti, like if she thought it was turnip, maybe it was.

    I kinda agree with Henry Baum about disclosure. For one, why doesn’t anyone on this site reveal whether or not they have read WINTER GAMES. Maybe there could be a box to check, such as read the book, or didn’t read the book, just coming to the defense of the reviewer.

    One thing I’m certain of. And I’d bet my paycheck on this. Every single comment coming from someone who is defending Lacombe’s novel read the book. Some probably read it twice or three times. I know I did.

    And for the record? I love the guy. But I didn’t use my real name. John wouldn’t want anyone to respond to Carol Buchanan’s review. And if he found out we did, he’d be pretty upset. But you know? It has to be done. I can’t see how anyone who has read John’s book could “yawn.,” during any of it.

    Winter Games is a sit on the edge of your seat thriller. One reviewer wrote “It was page 91 before I looked up.”

    If it’s not too much to ask, let’s please focus our comments on the book and/or the review of it, from actually having read it.

  • George, I’m the editor of this site, and most people who come to this site know that. Go to contributors to find that out: http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/contributors.

    It doesn’t matter if I’ve read the book. What Carol wrote may very well be “wrong” in my estimation. It’s her opinion, and it’s fine to disagree with her, but do it honestly. And if you don’t like how her review was put together, you haven’t seen some online reviews. It’s well-reasoned, even if you disagree with that reasoning.

    Ultimately, this whole controversy is good for John Lacombe because I’m guessing more people will be interested in checking out the book to see who’s right.

  • Steven Reynolds

    For the record, “Jared”, I have read the book. You know that line you like, “It was page 91 before I looked up”? That was me. So I think I’m entitled to express an opinion.

  • I sympathise with Carol. Good on you for being honest, Ms Buchanen.

    As for the author, here’s a tip. You will get more negative reviews. Either accept them with good grace or STFU. The internet is a big place. By making a fuss, you just highlight your inexperience and arrogance, and deter potential readers from every picking up your work.

  • Angela Wilson

    Let me be VERY CLEAR about something: You do not need to read a book to tell whether or not a review is well-written. You also don’t have to be a book reviewer yourself.

    Think about how silly it is to say you have to read a book to understand a review. How many people read reviews to determine whether or not they want to read a book? Most are not reviewers or editors or former journalists or hold PhDs. They are just readers who want to know if a book is worth their time and money. Reviewers have tastes, just like anyone else. When I visit Amazon for review recommendations, I know the reviewers I trust and those that don’t have my same taste.

    It is good to note that several people who review on Amazon – and who offer good thoughts on books – are not professional writers, journalists or book reviewers. They are people who felt compelled to share their opinion on a particular book.

    For those with questions about credentials, since that seems to be a problem for those in disagreement with this review:

    I am a 10-year journalism veteran who now works in social media, blogging and podcasting for clients. I write reviews and conduct interview authors. I also blog about marketing for authors at Market My Novel – where I took this particular issue to task in How Big is Your EGO? I am also in my 30s, so you cannot call me “grandmotherly.” I also do not know Carol Buchanan personally.

    Buchanan was extremely nice in her review. When I don’t like a book, I am quite blunt about it.

    Jared, you mentioned that the author would be quite upset if he knew that you responded to this review. Perhaps someone should tell him, so he understands exactly how much you are damaging his reputation with other reviewers.

  • Let me just say one thing to all those staunch supporters of Mr. Lacombe: If Carol’s review didn’t encourage me to skip this book, your snappy, biased and completely unprofessional comments did. You have done your friend no favor.
    And I agree with a comment posted above: you do not have to be a professional literary critic to appreciate a good book. As a matter of fact, regular readers and bloggers are the ones who go out and buy most of the books. Literary critics just read them for free.

  • Christopher

    None of this bickering changes the robot thing.

    I have nothing to do with the authors.

  • I think if a reader misinterprets a character as being a robot, rather than human, then perhaps the author should look at the portrayal of that character. Ms Buchanen gives reasons for her interpretation of Sarah as a robot, and they make sense.

    Regardless, the flaws pointed out in this book (and clearly pointed out, with extracts) make me think the reviewer was spot on in her analysis.

  • Barbara

    A couple of people have commented on the issue of taking constructive criticism. Carol Buchanan’s review is poorly constructed. First, she makes the erroneous and ill-supported statement that Sarah is a robot. Then, she writes an entire paragraph as a segue from that mischaracterization, launching into a comparison to R2D2 and C3P0, which in my view was just plain silly. She doesn’t consider valid reasons for Sarah to be emotionless, such as the fact that she went through the military ranks and was sexually assaulted. Historically, there have been more than a few sexually assaulted women who have turned into cold-blooded killers. I think Sarah’s seeming lack of emotion makes her intriguing, and I rooted for her during every physical triumph she has over men. Too few thrillers put formidable women in the lead. I commend Lacombe for doing that. But there’s more that I think Buchanan missed. While Sarah appears to be cold-blooded, she has a quiet compassion for Tim Sutton, and spares the life of a CIA operative in California. In other words, she doesn’t kill randomly and isn’t a sociopath. John Lacombe has developed Sarah masterfully. If she survives, perhaps we’ll learn more about her. Something many readers, I imagine eagerly await.

    Now consider part of Buchanan’s review. “The English language works in a very simple manner. . .subject-verb -object, etc. etc. Compare her piece to an exceptionally well-written review, that of David Ulin’s commentary on “Bright Shiny Morning” by James Frey, which he calls one of the worst books he’s ever read. Ulin writes, “But you have to give James Frey credit for one thing: He’s got chutzpah. Two and a half years after he was eviscerated by Oprah Winfrey for exaggerating many of the incidents in his now-discredited memoir A Million Little Pieces, he’s back with this book, which aims to be the big novel about Los Angeles, a panoramic look at the city that seeks to tell us who we are and how we live.” Ulin goes on to cite a couple of short passages from Frey’s book, with detailed commentary of his own that’s both witty and intelligent. Most of Ulin’s review is his analysis, as opposed to lengthy quoted passages from the book or bookjacket (see Buchanan’s review above.) David Ulin’s review demonstrates how one can pan a book, yet do it with aplomb.

    David Ulin also points out the success of “Bright Shiny Morning,” noting that it is (was) Nov. 52 on Amazon.com. Some research had obviously gone into his review, and he adds that HarperCollins paid $1.5 million for it. That background makes Ulin’s review that much more interesting. Had Buchanan done something similiar, she might have noted that “Winter Games” has been a top seller for AuthorHouse, in fact the number one selling work of fiction in April. Some self-published books come out with a bang, only to quickly fade. My own quick research found that “Winter Games” was a top seller in at least three recent months, and AuthorHouse deals with tens of thousands of books. Lacombe has also garnered, taking into consideration that his book is self-published, consistent, respectable numbers on Amazon.

    I hope that Henry Baum is right, and that all this “controversy” sells more books for him. John Lacombe is definitely a young writer to watch.

  • Gene Keyes

    It appears that friends of both John Lacombe and Carol Buchanan have posted on this site. I am neither. I also haven’t read the book and resent the notion that someone can’t post a comment unless they have. Carol Buchanan has joined the ranks of writers who review the self-published books of others, but also in order to promote themselves. It’s one thing to review a book either good or bad, and leave it at that. Its another thing to post information about your own book. That’s okay for your own website, but not when attached to a review of somebody elses book. It screams, “llook at me, look at me!” Not only does she post info about her books, but once cricism comes her way, she takes a whole paragraph to expoound on the awards she has won and how that makes her qualified to review the work of others.

    I think self published books deserve a chance to be reviewed. hats off to anyone who takes the time to do it. Sadly though, it looks like some of these people are trashing other writers books in order to elevate their own work. If you check out Buchanan’s website, you will see that she has a link to read what others have said about her book. She leads off with a quote from a review posted on Amazon, by Francis Hamit. She says she secured permission to use it. Hamit gives her 5 stars. Check out his other reviews and you find one, right above Buchanans book. He reviews James MacCay’s book and gives it 1 star. Hamit takes 4 lines to trash MacCay’s book. I haven’t seen many 1 star reviews. If the book is that bad why bother? Unless the intent is to juxtoposition it next to a rave review. Get this. He writes lengthy, glowing paragraphs about Buchanan’s book. And she leads off with his comments on her link. Coincidence or iplanned? But go ahead. Check it out.

    I hope that John Lacombe does not join the ranks of those engaging in shameless self promotion, or worse, the deliberate trashing of other authors work in an attempt to make themselves look better. It’s distasteful.

  • William

    I read John Lacombe’s thriller WINTER GAMES last April on spring break, after reading an online review written by Dr. Al Past for PODRAM.

    It is a well-written comprehensive review. PODRAM doesn’t assign stars, but on Amazon, Dr. Past gives the book four stars. Here’s how he describes two important characters, including Sarah: “two almost mythologically adept super-warriors, the kind who render themselves invisible, are immune to fatigue and environment, and are unexcelled in the use of every weapon known to man, with a familiarity with cutting-edge technology thrown in at no extra charge. As an added plus, the American agent of lethality is a smallish woman with red hair.” Past goes on to say the text is smoothly edited and reads easily. He also points out some style flaws, with which I don’t disagree. I got a little confused and thought the flashbacks, as Dr. Past did, could have “been integrated more smoothly.” But then Dr. Past writes these off to” first-time novelist rough edges. . .A lover of the genre would have a good time with this book.

    As a total lover of the thriller genre I DID have a good time with this book. I couldn’t disagree more with Carol Buchanan’s review.

  • Charles

    I don’t see how anyone could take offense at or say “grandmotherly” is a low blow. On her website Carol prides herself about her age and adds, “A great-grandmother lived into her 90’s, and my mother lived to be 106+. I think I’ll be around to write for a long time to come! What fun!”

    We are what we are.

    According to Beloit College’s latest “Mindset List” about what incoming college freshmen know and what they don’t have a clue about, here are a few. . .

    1. The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.
    7. They have never heard anyone actually “ring it up” on a cash register.
    12. Smoking has never been permitted on U.S. airlines.
    27. There has never been a “skyhook” in the NBA.
    43. They are not aware that “flock of seagulls hair” has nothing to do with birds flying into it.

    (Read the full list. It is great fun)

    Would a young girl be offended by the moniker “twenty something?” Would someone in his sixties be offended by “babyboomerish?” Personally, I do think a person’s gender and age affect her perspective. I don’t understand why young girls get tatoos. I also couldn’t write a “fair and honest” review of any book in the “Twilight” series.

    With respect to John Lacombe’s book Winter Games, Carol lost credibility by making the comparison to robots in Star Wars, as though she were stuck in the eighties. And I don’t respect any reviewer who says a story is original, and a character is engaging at the end of a bad review, without expounding on what, exactly makes it original, and why the character is engaging. Had she spent a paragraph or two describing the book’s merits, as opposed to a last minute “throw in” her review would more than likely be taken more seriously. Hopefully, the quality of her reviews will improve with experience.

  • Gene Keyes raises an issue that goes beyond agreeing or disagreeing with my review of “Winter Games”: the honesty or dishonesty of the review, primarily my motives for writing it. Had he agreed or disagreed with the review because he liked the novel or didn’t like it, that would have been fine. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

    However, he accuses me of “trashing” the novel in order to further my own ambitions. In that he’s much mistaken. I stated my qualifications for writing the review because one of the posts in this thread questioned that I was qualified to write reviews. Of course, one does not have to have a PhD in English Lit to review any book, and many fine literary critics throughout the history of English literature have not and do not. But I do, and it was on topic to cite it when answering the charge. Citing the books and awards I’ve won was for the same purpose, to prove that I know good writing when I read it. And far from having an ulterior motive for writing the review of “Winter Games,” I called it as I saw it. Any review I write is always that.

    Second, Mr. Keyes raises the issue of “shameless self-promotion” and takes an unfair swipe at Francis Hamit, which I consider totally uncalled for because Mr. Hamit is not involved in this discussion, and is thus not present to defend himself.

    On the subject of “shameless self-promotion,” self-published writers and most traditionally published writers must take on the job of promoting their writing. It goes with the territory. But that’s another subject that should be covered in another essay, either by me or another writer.

  • Greg

    I’ve read a fair number of self-published thrillers and John Lacombe’s novel “Winter Games” is by far the best. The problem with many self-published books is editing and proofreading, because it costs more to have that done. Lacombe’s book is almost flawless, and that’s probably due to his journalism degree from Northwestern. John Lacombe can write. When a book is loaded with mistakes, it’s sometimes hard to focus on the content. But that’s not the case with “Winter Games.” it reads like a best seller and it’s hard to comprehend why publishing companies passed it up.

    Buchanan is right about the story being “original.” That originality starts when Tim Sutton receives a mysterious comic book written in Korean, and ventures to the Dartmouth library to figure out a translation. After successfully deciphering it, largely due to his vast knowledge of how comics work, he realizes that his brother, gone missing years ago, is in danger. This takes Tim on perilous journey including a stint holed up in a cargo container aboard a shipping vessel. That was highly original. But where originality hits pay dirt is in North Korea, and the military operation therein. What Tim’s older brother Eric is doing there and why, as well as what the North Koreans had done previously, is one of the most original story lines I’ve ever encountered. James Patterson cranks out several novels a year sometimes, and few are as good as “Winter Games.”

    Sarah is a specifically recruited and specially trained CIA operative who goes rogue. She isn’t a “robot” any more than Jason Bourne is. She has her reasons for going rogue, and again, it’s highly original. I didn’t expect what unfolded and was in total awe of Lacombe’s idea. What she seeks, and I don’t want to give more of the plot away, hints at emotion the reader might not initially detect. The author could have gone with the predictable ending, too, but he didn’t. It’s refreshing, and again, original. I actually laughed out loud and did a quiet “hoo hah.”

    I’m not surprised that this book took the grand prize at the Hollywood Book Festival, and suspect it will be turned into a major motion picture with someone like Renee Zellwegger, hair dyed red, playing the fiery Sarah. I also think this will be the last book John Lacombe self publishes. It won’t be long before some publishing company offers him a deal. And I can’t wait for the second book.

  • I’ve been on book tour with Hastings Entertainment stores again. (Is this ‘shameless self promotion? You betcha!!!. The book s don’t sell them selves. You have to get in there and work, self published or with a so-called ‘Traditional publisher”. — My 1993 book on Virtual Reality was brought out by a big tradtional publisher, but the book tour, such as it was, was my responsibility.) By the way, one customer drove two and a half hours just to meet me and buy a book.

    As for reviews of my book, Carol’s is one of more than dozen. You can read them at BrassCannonBooks.net/reviews.htm I reviewed her book after she read mine, but it was a quality presentation in all respects and I had no problem saying so. I suggest you read it yourself before you attack it….for that matter, have you read my book? No, I thought not.

    What we have here is a case of hurt feelings and retribution. A review is one person’s opinion. And reviews, while important, don’t really drive book sales, or so my my friends who work in retail tell me. So get over it. Suck it up and move on.

    By the way, I was a paid book reviewer for several years for The Los Angeles Daily News. You can look those old reviews up at your local Public Library on the Newsbank database. See if you think I cut anyone any slack or did anyone any favors. Carol wrote a terrific novel and , improbably, won a major award. I say “improbably” because such things are usually reserved for the big guys.

    The reason it was self published and not picked up by a traditional publisher is that no one would read it. They missed it, as they did mine.

    One agent told me that he couldn’t present it and wouldn’t read it because “no one is doing Histroical Fiction anymore. The last Best Seller was ‘Cold Mountain’. ”

    Attacking a reviewer because you don’t like the review is simply a sign of your lack of professionalism. Stop whining.

  • Gene Keyes

    Look, I don’t have a problem with writers on this site befriending and supporting each other. But who’s whining here, really?


    You’ve written a number of pieces promoting Ms. Buchanan and that’s your right. You obviously admire her. And I guess you were miffed that she hasn’t gotten more notice; i.e. “This begs the question where was amazon.com?”

    And I don’t have a problem with people promoting their work. But rarely do you read a review in a major news publication, especially one that totally trashes a book, and have it attached to the reviewer’s own work with mention of his own awards. Like it or not, that’s what I call shameless self-promotion. If you’re going to review a book, review a book. But don’t trash one and say, “Now look how much better my friend’s or my work is.” Self published authors have enough trouble establishing themselves without their peers trashing them in order to promote themselves. You just give yourselves a bad name and do the industry a disservice. Writers like Piccoult and Coben blurb each other positively. But they don’t vilify other authors and then say, “But hey. . . read my much better book instead.”

    Maybe you can learn from them and develop a little more class.

  • Potsam

    I do agree that it’s important to focus on the review and not the reviewer. The review Carol Buchanan wrote above, is very poorly written. It has 996 words, 296 of which–or roughly 30%–either come from the book jacket or the scene where Tim first meets Eric. It’s as though Carol was rushed and couldn’t do an adequate summary in her own words, so she just copied from the book jacket. She then bases most of her critique on the one scene she quotes from at length. It’s just shoddy writing, showing no depth or creativity.

    Now compare that to the one written by Steven Reynolds. His review is 959 words with 5 taken from the actual book. Do the math. His quote from the book “Screw freedom, I have power,” is then powerfully elucidated. Steven writes, “At different times, this may well have been the battle cry of both the US and North Korea.” His review is comprised of his own insightful commentary, as well as some very constructive criticisms, which any author could respect and take to heart. Steven employs rich expression and poignant thought. I use his reviews as a guide for many of the selections I read. Based on his review entitled “best of its kind with one annoying flaw” I am now reading “Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature.”

    And based on HIS review, I read John Lacombe’s book Winter Games. Reynolds is spot on. I encourage anyone perusing this site to compare Buchanan’s and Reynold’s reviews, read the book, and then make your own judgement about the quality of both the novel and review above.

  • We are not obligated to “lie for the good of the cause”. That way lies madness, or at least more opportunities for people to claim that we’re not as good as the mainstream. Quoting from the book reviewed is fairly common and legitimate when used to illustrate a point. Again, I speak as someone who used to be paid a hundred dollars a review by a major newspaper. (Ah, those were the days!).

    Seriously, you are reviewing the reviewer, in an attempt to overturn her analysis. but all you are doing is drawing further attention to the fact that she gave the book a negative review. Think about it. Is that necessary or wise?

    Unlike my previous gig the reviews here are unpaid, voluntary and undertaken at the Editor’s request as a member of the SPR community. Someone has to do reviews. Do you want to assure that we will never review another book by this author because we don’t want to be second-guessed or hassled? The only thing worse than bad reviews is NO reviews.

    You can’t sell a book no one knows exists.

  • Francis –

    Terrific points. I am quite blunt if I don’t like a book. I don’t hold back.

    People keep mentioning an award the author won. I gave a self-published book a lukewarm review – which angered the author. It won an award for best self-published mystery novel that year. Big deal. I read a lot. I write a lot. I review a lot. I know my genre. The book wasn’t up to par with the genre market and did not deserve a raving review.

    I also think a few people on this thread do not understand that in publishing, promotion, promotion, promotion is key to success. It doesn’t matter what you are doing – reading, reviewing, guest blogging – you are constantly promoting. Lancombe has the opportunity to do the same thing Buchanan and hundreds of other authors do every day. It seems counterproductive to take her to task for daring to share a link to her Web site and previous reviews, when Lancombe should be doing the same thing to promote himself and his work.

    What is interesting is that we have two different reviews cited in the comments. One reader liked it better than another reader. Uhm, you do realize this happens, right? Check any book on Amazon and get examples of this. We are not the Borg, so we don’t think alike – thank God.

    There will always be the good, the bad and the ugly in reviews. The trick is to be professional enough to accept that, learn from the comments and move on.

  • Sam Rutting

    I loved Winter Games–it’s an awesome thriller with no robots and nothing to suggest it’s science fiction. Carol Buchanan is entitled to her opinion, but please, at least get the story right.

    I want to commend John Lacombe for his professionalism, in staying clear of the vitriolic blogging above. No shortage of reviewers are weighing in, it seems, and some are quick to blame Lacombe for the actions of his readers. The fact that the name LANCOMBE (sic) appears above, suggests that, in more ways than one, people don’t bother to check their facts.

    Is this a new trend? If you don’t like what his supporters have to say, blame the author? At some point that’s going to become a bit ridiculous, don’t you think?

  • Well, even if it’s not the author’s fault, passionate fans quickly make the transition to liability from asset when they attack people for expressing an opinion they disagree with. Defend ,yes. Attack, no. Don’t make it personal and don’t insult people by calling their credentials into question. There are no credentials to be a book reviewer. Anyone can do it. Let me put it another way. We have about forty times more books than can be reviewed. Why should we put up with this behavior, regardless of who’s responsible? .

  • Sam Rutting

    You shouldn’t have to, Francis. And some of John’s supporters may have gone too far. The topic of “shameless self promotion” has been a hot topic on blogs. It doesn’t belong here. However, based on Henry Baum’s observation that a couple of responders had the same last name–but in fairness “Diego” said nothing bad about anyone–Angela Wilson has launched a web attack on John Lacombe. My observation finds that one “family member” may have written some pretty scathing comments. But any responsible journalist would attempt to verify his or her information before assaulting an author’s character and integrity. John can’t control his family, friends and fans, any more than an athlete can govern what happens in the stands. People boo and shout insults, over which an athlete has no jurisdiction, if he even notices what’s going on.

    In my opinion, attacking John Lacombe because of the actions of others is unconscionable. It stoops to the same level or even lower, than some of Lacombe’s most vociferous supporters. In no way would John Lacombe EVER suggest or condone what some of his fans have written. My sense is that he’s not even aware these postings exist. I’ve known John for almost ten years and he is an engaging, extremely personable, and principled guy, one who assumes best intentions on the part of others, and is sometimes burned because of it. Angela Wison has NOT assumed best intentions in her nternet attack, accusing John of soliciting family members to respond to Buchanan’s review. Not only is this unfair, irresponsible and unfounded, it’s downright malicious. John did nothing to deserve this, and he is entitled to a written retraction from Ms. Wilson, or at the very least, some attempt by her to contact him and verify the unsubstantiated accusations she saw fit to print in her recently posted on-line article.

    Are there any laws governing what people say in articles posted on the internet? If not, there should be.

  • William

    Sam, here are a couple of websites that deal with internet libel.



    As best as I can gather, internet libel consists of statements published on web sites that were known to be false, or could reasonably have been determined to be false by the writer, and that can be shown to have caused harm to the party at which they were directed. It is recommended that you track any subsequent Internet activity, such as blogging, that may go on in response to the libel. Presentation of such activity in court is a key way in which to show that the offensive content caused the person at which it’s directed harm.

    Hope that helps.

  • Phil Langley

    I met John Lacombe at a recent Borders book signing and found him to be a very sincere and personable young man. I purchased Winter Games, enjoyed it tremendously, and moved John to the top of my list of favorite authors. I look forward to following his success and am most disappointed to find these attacks being directed John’s way. Francis Hamit talks about “hurt feelings and retribution” as though he’s addressing John, which seems terribly unfair. I have read the above comments and find nothing Lacombe’s supporters have written to be hurtful. Some folks are criticical of the reviewer, that’s true. But she criticized his book and opened herself up to rebuttal. I believe the bulk of the comments “defend” John Lacombe’s book and do not attack. Buchanan admits to “yawning” which suggests she may have fallen asleep during her reading. That happens to the best of us.

    Angela Wilson says that she doesn’t “hold back” and can be “blunt” in her reviews, as though that should draw praise. Merilee says STFU, which if I’m not mistaken is quite profane. Interestingly, no one rebukes her or blames Buchanan. Ms. Wilson then, based on misinformation (in addition to getting his name wrong, she places a derogatory piece about John Lacombe on the internet, and yet she is quick to point out that she has been a journalist. Sam Rutting raises a very valid point. Did she bother to interview John and give him a chance to voice his perspective, before setting out to destroy this fine young man’s reputation? Any respectable journalist would not write a piece like that based on heresay.

    My sympathies go out to John. I enjoyed talking to him immensely and wish him the best. My last comment is directed to “Jared.” I loved your analogy about the turnip and found myself chuckling. Well done.

  • Frank Daniels

    After reading this review and all subsequent comments, I can’t help but go back to the first three posts and resume laughing my ass off. I haven’t had the possible pleasure (or perhaps consternation, as the case may be), of reading Lacombe’s book, so I cannot say whose fault it is that Buchanan thought one of his main characters was a robot when she was, in fact, just a emotionally damaged ice queen. All I know is that this is some of the funniest shit I have ever read, a reviewer mistakenly thinking a major character in a novel was a robot. A fucking robot! EPIC FAIL on somebody’s part (crappy writing or crappy reading? –the world may never know), and my Wednesday is better because of it.

  • Megan

    I hope no one ever comes to my defense like this when I get a bad review.

    How embarrassing.

  • Brian

    Christopher in position #3, this is an awesome sentence:

    I’m sorry, but in your review, you clearly state that Sarah is a robot.

  • Gareth Hayes


    I don’t believe people are coming to John’s defense because of the bad review but rather because Ms. Buchanan erroneously characterizes the thriller as science fiction and one of the main characters, a woman, as a robot. While missing fairly major points such as this does not necessarily invalidate Ms. Buchanan’s opinion on the novel’s writing it should, in my opinion, lead a rational person to question how closely she actually read the book. Her factual mistakes would have, most likely, lead to a retraction or statement of correction in any reputable newspaper and as such make this review somewhat suspect. Ms. Buchanan fired back defensively and insultingly on this page and, and as Mr. Langley notes in a previous post, her defenders are crass, careless (John never posted here and yet was pilloried by a number of posts for having done so) and somewhat irresponsible in their responses. Just as any novelist has to deal with negative reviews it seems as though a reviewer should respond to critiques of his or her review with corresponding silence or, at least, slightly more class than has been shown here. Initial posters wrote to correct a factual mistake, this caused some rancor and the conversation has obviously devolved to little more than name calling at this point but I don’t think anyone has tried to say that everyone must love Winter Games or that you must be stupid or tasteless if you do not. Either way, I do not think anyone would or should be embarrassed to have readers defend their writing in a forum like this.

    The review, in and of itself, is fine and conveys Ms. Buchanan’s take on the book well. She doesn’t like it, has her reasons for not liking it and tells everyone what they are. The problem lies in the fact that she leads the review with the baffling assumption that a female character is a robot (I am somewhat biased but don’t believe there is any possibility that the character in question could be confused for a robot by any but the most passive, and imaginative, reader) and continues to spend a good third of the review discussing the finer points of robot personalities with a bizarre comparison to Star Wars robots from the 70s and 80s. I don’t think anyone is trying to tell Ms. Buchanan that she should have given the book a stellar review if she found it to be mediocre or worse, just that she should not deride the book for elements that it does not include. It is akin to a reviewer of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” bashing it for being unbelievable as that sort of thing would never happen in Kansas when the protaganist of that book is in the USSR.

    A point of worry for me in these posts is that some reviewers (notably Merrillee, Francis Hamit and, to a lesser degree, Angela Wilson) seem to take the position that John’s next work could be reviewed poorly, or not at all, on SPR because of posts by his fans attempting to correct factual mistakes and, sometimes, making some fairly harmless comments in criticism of Ms. Buchanan. There are comments about, despite his lack of posting, arrogance and immaturity and yet the reviewers are, to my mind, the ones coming across as defensive and thin-skinned. If a review is anything but objective it loses all value and I, for one, will not rely on the recommendations of any of the above mentioned reviewers or Ms. Buchanan for my future reading needs. Reviews are of service to potential readers and all that are doing it pro bono should be commended for their generosity if, and only if, they are doing it objectively. This does not appear to be the standard with some of the people here, however, and some of the posts reek with the hint of quid pro quo being the status quo for reviews here.

    For full disclosure, I am friends with John. I can assure you he did not want this response to a bad review and, as his response (not in these posts as that would be, as many of the posters jumped to point out, inapproipriate but as requested by SPR in a seperate article) to this little brouhaha belie, is thick-skinned enough to handle criticism, constructive or otherwise, of his work.

  • Betty

    Based on her little snippet, I would not be at ALL surprised if no one comes to Megan’s defense in the event of a misguided and erroneous review of her work. Fans support John Lacombe’s book for all of the reasons Gareth so poignantly explains above.

    Anyone who interacts with John, quickly understands why so many fans rallied in unsolicited support of his work. Early posts following his “response to the controversy” commend not only his writing, but his character and integrity.

    Megan should be so lucky.

  • Steven Reynolds

    Gareth – There’s another post on SPR entitled “Reviewing the Reviewers” that might be of interest to you. As a response to the controversy, Carol Buchanan and I discuss standards in reviewing and what we think makes a “good” or a “bad” novel. Perhaps you’d like to join us over there and explain how a reviewer should be “objective” about a novel, and what the objective standards of quality might be.

  • Gareth Hayes

    Mr. Reynolds,

    I read the discussion on the other post and found it interesting. I am in no way qualified to determine what constitutes objectivity – I’m an engineer with, as my posts give away, the grammar of a C-average 4th grader – within an unbiased literary review and can definitely not argue with a reviewer’s right to focus on grammar versus plot versus any other element as the crux of their review. I think a set of standard rubrics, however objective, to grade a novel on various literary elements would likely result in some desultory and uninteresting reviews. As such, readers will continue to find a reviewer whose taste aligns well with their own and take their advice accordingly. My comment was not aimed at impugning Ms. Buchanan’s objectivity in reviewing Winter Games. I think she honestly didn’t like it and didn’t think it worthy of her praise and I think this conclusion was reached without bias. I don’t think she read the novel particularly closely and any objection I have to the review lies in the errors about the robot that I think were likely due to a somewhat passive reading. I strongly doubt Ms. Buchanan is the first reviewer to skim a novel before reviewing it as she and others likely form an opinion early and find the rest of the book unnecessary to complete a review.

    My comment on objectivity in the previous post was more concerned with a comment from Mr. Hamit that alluded to a chance that books could be passed on by reviewers due to comments by fans on a message board such as this. It has been pointed out that Mr. Hamit has reviewed Ms. Buchanan’s work very favorably in the past and there definitely appears to be some connections between reviewers and authors on this message board that could cloud judgement. I know that my few sentence review of Winter Games on Amazon was biased by my friendship with John and I am sure Ms. Buchanan’s high reader scores gains from similar, biased amature “reviews”. There is a level of intellectual dishonesty in these Amazon reviews, mine included – I liked Winter Games and gave it a 5 but it is currently given a better average user rating than Ulysses which is obviously a better piece of writing (sorry John), but I would argue that these semi-inflated Amazon scores are more on the level of a white lie. What is in some way intimated here, at least in my reading of some of the posts, is that reviewers on this site are in some way influenced by personal connections or dislikes of random internet posters. By objectivity I was not really referring to what you and Ms. Buchanan were discussing but, rather, a reviewers ability to write a review without being influenced by things outside of the work itself. I may be being naive in thinking that any critic approaches a work without looking at the author’s name and edging one way or another before reading a page but I do think that this sort of objectivity or honesty is needed.

    No one can account for taste and as you and Ms. Buchanan discuss at some length in the other post reviewers will choose to focus on a variety of different areas in a review. I don’t think that anyone would ever tell Ms. Buchanan her dislike of Winter Games or any other book is unacceptable and I don’t question her credentials at all. I am not claiming that Ms. Buchanan’s review of Winter Games wasn’t objective, simply that the discussion, again in my opinion, seemed to intimate that he, or another author whose fans disagree with a reviewer’s stance on a work, would not be looked at with that same objectivity the next time around. That, I think, is a fundamental problem.

    I don’t envy literary critics and think that what George Orwell wrote about his life as a book reviewer in the 30’s and 40’s (a difficult task described brilliantly by another author whose works are struggling to catch Winter Games and God’s Thunderbolt in user reviews on Amazon) is probably similar to what it is like today. Mrs. Buchanan made a few somewhat comical mistakes in reading and responded with apparent venom (or as angrily as one can appear to come across over the internet) when some of Lacombe’s friends and fans called her out on it. I think that without the robot error Ms. Buchanan’s review would be a legitimate counterpoint to your more positive review of Winter Games that would have provided potential readers two differing takes on the novel. As other’s point out, the rest of her review that focuses on sentence structure, word choice, etc, is still, to a degree, valid criticism.

    I really need to work on brevity – sorry.

  • Steven Reynolds

    Gareth – There’s nothing wrong with a long comment, so don’t apologize! I just re-read your previous post, and I realise now what you meant by “objectivity” in that context. I agree with you 100%: it would be quite alarming to think that a writer might have their future work attacked or ignored because of the furor surrounding an earlier review. I don’t think John needs to worry, though. Given the interest generated by recent events, there will be no shortage of people eager to read and review his next book. I know I’m one of them.

  • I have two things to say regarding this discussion so far.

    First, it does not appear as if some people read the review very carefully or they would understand why I took Sarah to be a robot. I had three reasons for that opinion, which I still regard as valid. 1. Her lack of affect. “Sarah never smiled.” 2. Her highly unusual athletic ability, including leaping to the ceiling of a cargo container and squeezing through a small hole. 3. Her imperviousness to either frostbite or hypothermia. Read the description of this condition at the Mayo Clinic Web site. It does not take many minutes to develop frostbite or for hypothermia to set in.

    Second, my review of the book in no way reflects on Mr. Lacombe’s character. From his excellent article in this e-zine, he appears to be a fine young man, and I sincerely wish him well in his writing career.

  • Laura

    With all due respect, Ms. Buchanah, you don’t actually explain your reasoning until after the review, in the thread that follows. I have read your review–quite carefully, in fact. Taking a character to be a robot, as in you came to the conclusion based on some characteristics you pondered, and saying so in the review, is quite different than stating unequivocally that a character is a robot, which is what you actually do. “The author has endowed the robot Sarah.” and “A super human female robot is a fine invention.”

    Few will argue that the story requires a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Sarah does manage some very extraordinary feats. She has never been, however, and never will be (regardless of how much “after the review” explaining you do) a robot.

  • Gareth Hayes

    Ms. Buchanan,

    I’m beating a dead horse here so I apologize for it but I think it is important to at least in part punch a hole or two in your opinion of Sarah as a robot.

    I think most of us read your reasoning as to why you believed Sarah to be a robot. Works of fiction, especially in the thriller genre, include characters with traits or abilities that the average person does not have. Discounting a character as human, without any mention whatsoever in the book to anything that would constitute typical “robot-like” behaviour such as, I don’t know, making repairs or something, and thus discounting a book altogether would result in a vast majority of written fiction, television, theatre, poetry and film being discarded as trash. Ask a veteran or police officer about how likely it is to hit a moving target with a pistol shot on the run, it isn’t really possible but we would lose half the thrillers written and every Bruce Willis movie without this feat. We have movies and books with super-human behaviour all the time. Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger includes a character, Domingo Chavez if memory serves, that can do things that your typical Army Ranger could not, and is extremely nonemotive but I don’t think anyone confused him for an automaton. In real life there are anomalous people with abnormal strength, weakness, size, sight, etc… and there are thousands of documented cases of adrenaline allowing people to do things, such as lift cars off of accident victims, that cannot be done by others or those individuals in normal situations. The body is a wonderful and complex mechanism that can adapt and develop resistance to any number of things. Literature is also filled with these sorts of things. One of my favorites is from A Princess Bride where the main character (the name escapes me) develops a resistance to a poison. If we refuse to allow our imaginations to be marginally stretched (and being able to temporarily withstand frigid water, I think, falls within this bound) we would enjoy little but history books (and even then, Sarah is more believable than Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephants or Admiral Nelson winning at Trafalgar without losing a single ship and dying the hero to boot). What Sarah did on the training field is not even that unbelievable. I went swimming in a lake in Norway last year that was ballpark the same temperature John describes in Winter Games and walked away just fine and I’m an out-of-shape guy with zero training. Hell, there is a whole category of chick lit books that require male characters to behave and speak in a way that men haven’t in ten thousand years.

    I think we all, or at least those of us who grew up in regions with cold winters, understand the dangers and realities of hypothermia. I grew up watching It’s A Wonderful Life where poor George Bailey damages his hearing pulling his little brother out of the frozen pond. The logic that Sarah has a top .005% (give or take a zero or two) of the population ability that she has developed over to time ergo Sarah is a robot doesn’t, to my mind, make a lot of sense.

    I think your jump to robot is also heavily flawed as no robot exists that can do the things, other than not smiling, that you claim led you to believe Sarah was a robot. Artificial Intelligence does not exist to the point that a automaton would be able to behave in the way Sarah does. Battery or power cell technology to power her for a trip across the Pacific and the rest of her adventures in the book do not exist and there is no mention of anything remotely robot-like. There are mentions of Sarah bleeding (as an engineer I can assure you that as expensive as it would be to design a super robot killing machine such as you claim Sarah to be one wouldn’t spend the extra money to build in some sort of circulatory system that would simulate bleeding. And also, if you’re going to make a robot wouldn’t you make it a little taller?). If you were going to suspend disbelief to allow for the development of a super-human, intelligent and autonomous robot why not simply allow that, I don’t know, maybe Sarah is a highly functioning sufferer of Asberger’s Disease or something like that? Or why not simply believe that Sarah, like millions of characters from Hercules to Beowulf to MacBeth to every Dickens character to Prof. Langdon was imbued by the author with some traits that require some creative license on the reality front?

    You also probably could have just said, after this little thread started, that you were using one of the lessor used Webster definitions of the term “robot” as an unfeeling, but human, being. That or just admit to having made a mistake with the robot angle, stick to your overall review of Winter Games and move on.

    So, in conclusion, I did read your comments on why you believed Sarah was a robot. And laughed.

  • Steven Reynolds

    If anyone is getting tired of hurling brickbats at Carol or declaring their love for John (for the record, I’m increasingly fond of both people), and would like to stretch their mind in a different direction, they might like to track down Roland Barthes 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”.

    In it, Barthes posits the notion that the interpretation and meaning of any text lies with the reader, not with the intentions of the author. Meaning is created in every reading. Writing defies adherence to a single interpretation or perspective.

    Lest I be perceived as part of a Global Conspiracy of Evil Reviewers closing ranks with my own kind, let me spell it out: I am not for one moment suggesting “Sarah is a robot” is a justified reading of John’s book, or that authorial intention is irrelevant and unrecoverable. This controversy simply reminded me of the Barthes essay. It’s a short but seminal work in twentieth-century literary theory, and I thought people might like to read it. Wikipedia has a nice summary if you can’t find the original.


  • Sam Rutting

    Hurling brickbats? I hardly consider the most recent posts harsh or unfavorable. Writers are challenging Buchanan’s interpretation, and some, rather well. You can try to bail her out with Barthes, but she really needs to defend herself sufficiently on her own. I don’t think she has.

    If I ever read “The Death of the Author,” I long forgot about it. So thanks.

    In Henry Baum’s “dialogue” you’re asked “why the difference in reviews?” You write:
    “It’s because Carol doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Just Kidding.” If the “meaning of any text lies with the reader,” so is there “a little truth in every joke.”

  • Pearl


    Using the concept of intentional fallacy doesn’t mesh well in this case. Sarah is an enigmatic, complex character, and Buchanan’s assignation of robot is prosaic.

    If readers debate whether or not Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley Keeldar is a lesbian, for example, intentional fallacy fits. One could argue that the name Shirley was commonly assigned to men at the time, or that she carries her female friend, as a gay lover might. However, few reviewers would definitively write “Bronte’s LESBIAN character Shirley,” and so forth, without adequately defending their analysis. If Bronte did not intend Shirley as a lesbian, Barthes’ thoughts are germane.

    A reviewer who writes “the MALE character Shirley” need anticipate some heady criticism.

    Discussion of intentional fallacy could indeed fit with Winter Games, though. Did Lacombe choose the name Eric intentionally? Is Eric another example of public school failure (think Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) and is North Korea his Columbine? Is Lacombe suggesting that the United States is well aware of, yet powerless to defeat North Korea’s nuclear arsenal? Is his point that parents love their children unconditionally?

    Gareth Hayes does a thorough job rationalizing why Sarah isn’t a robot, and his examples of blood, batteries and engineering illustrate that Carol Buchanan did not give her interpretation enough thought.

    One must, in a sense, earn the right to use Barthe as a defense. Otherwise, students of today will claim Emma Bovary was a 19th century porn star and “Miss Piggy” is really Hilary Clinton. It has been done.

  • Steven Reynolds

    Sam, Pearl – Did I not just get through saying I didn’t think Barthes applied in this case, only that this discussion reminded me of his essay?

    Of course, you think I’m being disingenuous and trying to “bail her out with Barthes”. I couldn’t be less interested in defending Carol’s view of Sarah. Frankly, I think Carol made an error in her reading.

    Is that plain enough for you?

  • Sam Rutting

    I was just thinking of that courtroom scene with Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” where Colonel Jessup demands,


    “Are we Cul LEEE R?”

    And the Tom Cruise character says, “Crystal.”

    That seems more fitting than “Is that plain enough for you?”

    But yes. Thanks.

  • Kalidah

    That is a nice essay to be reminded of for readers and writers. And for the record, I appreciate all the intellectual points (on all sides) that have been brought up by Steve, John (on Author’s Response), Carol and many of the posters here. Questioning and considering the answers makes all better readers and writers. 🙂

  • Gareth Hayes

    Mr. Reynolds,

    The Barthes piece was interesting, I hadn’t read it before. I think it speaks to, partially, the art for art’s sake view of literature. I personally don’t like it and think it is impossible to look at any work save, perhaps, the most obtuse poetry (something well too sophisticated for my simple taste) wihtout considering the context within which the author wrote it. A work can stand alone but I think that Barthes’ take speaks to a simpler, rather than, as he implies, a richer or truer, interpretation of a novel. Words were put down based on what an author saw in his mind. To remove the importance of the influences on that mind is, in my opinion, disingenuous.

    I can in some way appreciate a good turn of phrase or elegant composition but personally don’t find that to be the most compelling, or important, facet of literature. I think literature is there to tell a story and that story has to be, at least in some way, influenced by the life lived by the author. Gulliver’s Travels isn’t what it is if Swift were sane and writing one hundred years before or after he did. Tolstoy isn’t Tolstoy without being in the military and aware of Napolean getting bogged down in a Russian winter. Camus’ post-war literature cannot be fully understood without taking into account his WWII experiences or his life in Algeria. There is a story told within the works of these authors that would not have been the same if they had not lived the lives they did. As such, how is it possible to read and consider their works’ by the content alone?

    I, in some way, can see what Barthes is saying but can’t agree with him. I understand that there can be beauty in literature apart from the story and apart from the writer. I also understand that interpretations of the written word can go on without any knowledge of the author. I read Animal Farm for the first time without knowing anything about Orwell (hell, I’m pretty sure my English teacher at the time told us he was a defender of capitalism and the American Way) and still enjoyed it. Reading it with a better understanding of the author and the context within which he lived and wrote, though, added to my appreciation of the novel and added a richness to it that the words alone could not. I do not think that it is possible to seperate the author from the work and gain a true understanding of what that author wanted to say which, in contrast to what Barthes seems to say, I find to be inextricable from the work. I, personally, enjoy a novel much more when I know something about where the author is coming from or at least the time in which he or she wrote.

    Not sure what your take on Barthes is but I think he is wrong to put interpretation of a work over the author’s original intent. I know that symbolism can be found where none was intended and readers can get different things out of the same novel but I think, at heart, a novel is a work that came from the author and therefore the intended meaning of this author is important. I just don’t think that what the words of a novel, in a vacuum, mean to me is as important as what those words meant to the author. My take is biased, to a degree, because I don’t really like art for art’s sake and tend to take a fairly simplistic approach to reading. I want to know what the author was saying and why he said it. My interpretation is less important to me. I also may be reading into Barthes more than is there. I disagree with him, however, whether he means that the reader’s interpretation of a work is more important than the author’s alone or if to this he also adds that the “beauty” in form of the text is of primary importance to the quality of a novel.

    Also, thanks for coming clean on the Global Conspiracy of Evil Reviewers.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I don’t think Barthes is saying context, biography and intent are uninteresting. He’s saying they can’t be objectively and unambiguously recovered from the text itself, as his example from Balzac demonstrates. And thank God for that. Literary studies would have ceased to exist as a discipline long ago if there weren’t competing readings of, say, Shakespeare.

    Personally, I quite enjoy exploring context, biography and authorial intention. One of my favourite writers is Philip Roth, and I think reading his novels is a far richer experience if you understand his personal history, and the history of Jews in America. Reading “I Married a Communist” is a whole different experience if you do it through the lens of Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom and her memoir that followed their divorce. But it’s a good example of Barthes’ point: none of that personal history can be gleaned from the text. It’s what the reader brings to it from other sources that allows a particular interpretation. This is why “the role of the reader” is elevated by Barthes.

    I still think intention is fascinating. I love reading interviews with writers where they discuss the process of writing a particular book and what they wanted to achieve with it. In the manuscript assessments I write for authors, I always include a section where I describe what I think their intention has been. They’re sometimes surprised to discover my interpretation is quite different. Gareth mentions Camus, which reminds me that Penguin’s “Selected Essays and Notebooks” of Camus includes some fascinating diary entries that trace the composition and reception of his novels “The Outsider” and “The Plague”. Check them out if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

  • Steven Reynolds

    Sam – Given Colonel Jessep was a vain and delusional villain who wound up destroying himself, I’m not sure I like that comparison! But I guess I’d rather be Jack than self-righteous Tom in his “faggoty white suit”.

  • Janet

    Ms Buchanan,

    In your review you write this about Tim:

    “He is so naïve that Sarah has to remind him to prepare for a week in a sealed container and sends him off to buy food and toilet paper. Tim has made no preparations for food or potty needs but is willing to travel in a sealed container bound for North Korea.”

    It was nagging at me, so I reread the pertinent section in the book and I believe you’re wrong. Sarah doesn’t REMIND Tim. Tim Sutton does go to Seattle, following the cryptic comic book message. Earlier, FBI agent Jeff Hutchins had promised Tim that he would have an operative’s help.

    When Sarah iinforms Tim that SHE is the agent who has been dispatched, Tim responds, “Whoa. . .this is all happening a tad fast for me (page 61) Tim isn’t exactly “willing,” at this point. He’s hesitant. He wants answers. Sarah tells him to go get supplies. But up until this point, he has no idea what’s expected of him. Sarah doesn’t have to “remind” him, as you state. Once he realizes an agent hasn’t brought the necessary gear, Tim gets it.

    While the “robot” issue could be open to interpretation, I suppose, your recounting of the events on page 61 are simply inaccurate. What makes this problematic, is that you use this inaccuraty as a springboard for further criticism.

    It has been pointed out that most folks accept a difference of opinion. Yet, much has also been written about whether of not you gave Winter Games a careful read. I find myself wondering if reviewers ever go back and check what they’ve written, against the facts as presented to them. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s nice to fix them.

    I think if would be fair of you, in this case, to reread the pages surrounding 61.

    I also note that in your continuing dialogue with Steve Reynolds, part 2, you state:
    “Quality,” that much over-used term, includes both the good and the bad. Aside from pointing out the book’s flaws, the reviewer should point out what the author did well. There’s always something to recommend a book.”

    I’m interested to know where you think you followed your own advice, in the above review of Winter Games. On the off chance that you don’t think you did, I’m wondering what you’d add or change.


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