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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wanted: A Few Good Editors

(Image from Amazon)

So, I'm just curious: Is there a book editor's strike going on or something? Embittered Justice by Michaela Riley is the second book I've read in the last week or so that could have been an okay read if only the manuscript had reached the hands of a thorough editor before its publication. In Riley's defense, her book was published by the controversial Publish America, a company that's been accused of operating a vanity press (click here for Wikipedia article). If it does employ editors, they should probably be fired, considering the kind of crap they let fly in Embittered Justice.

The short novel (novella?) stars Jennifer Campbell, a former Army nurse, who moves to Norfolk, Virginia to start a new life. She's got a good job, a fun-loving fiancee, and now a house near the beach. It's a bit of a fixer-upper, but Jennifer believes a little elbow grease will turn it into the perfect family home. The only problem is the oddball owners, who turn on her when she insists they move out within the time frame they originally promised. Her angry eviction of the couple earns Jennifer persona non grata status in her new neighborhood, but she's unperturbed. If her community won't welcome her, she'll just spend more time at the beach.

Things are beginning to look up when Jennifer spies a box by her front door. Even though she hasn't ordered anything, she opens the package. Shocked, she discovers a pile of firearms and ammunition inside. Unsure what to do, she calls her special agent fiancee, who advises her to keep the box until someone shows up to claim it. Suddenly, all kinds of people are turning up on her doorstep, including a nervous neighbor and a trio of men claiming to be Norfolk police officers. Fear keeps Jennifer from admitting she has the guns, which lands her in jail for grand larceny. Detectives pointedly ask how her fiancee is involved, even as Jennifer insists that he isn't. As Jennifer tries to make sense of the whole thing (Are the former owners of her house getting their revenge by framing her for a crime? What happened to the guns the police insist are missing from the box? What, if anything, does her fiancee have to do with all this? And, most of all, why her?), her life spins rapidly out of control. A series of bumbling lawyers and cold-hearted judges do not help her case in the least. To top it off, Jennifer's fiancee refuses to see her, her co-workers start stirring up trouble, and she fears her house might be haunted. Jennifer's new start has turned into a nightmare. Can she find justice from a system that keeps letting her down? Will she, an innocent person, really face a prison sentence? Or will her lawyer manage to clear up the whole, convuluted case?

Okay, there were some plot twists I found pretty unbelievable, but basically the story has good bones. I really do think it has potential. However, it needs some major cosmetic surgery before it can be considered a "good read." Riley sent me a "first print" edition of Embittered Justice as well as a PDF file containing considerable revisions to the book. Although the revisions took care of editing problems (like typos and Riley's penchant for changing tense several times in one paragraph), they left plenty of problems uncorrected. For one thing, the characters have no substance, no personality. We get descriptors like "tall," "balding," "arrogant," but no real depth. Even the heroine comes off as whiny and dull. She seems to have an interesting past (there are hints of rape, abuse and divorce), but Riley never expands on Jennifer's former life. This only makes the character seem more unformed. Awkward sentence and paragraph structure also plague the novel, making it flow about as well as rush hour traffic. Passages like these are both clumsy and confusing:

"Officer Burtrant did not tell my son about the dog food as promised. It seems funny that they seemed concerned about calling animal control and not even give important information for the dogs" (67).

"I have always had a hard time talking when I was upset. My dad could always tell from the sound of my voice if there were something wrong. The person before I was before the whole home invasion ordeal was strong and unemotional, stress-free; I just dealt with it. My dad, though, could ask me that one question, 'What's wrong?' And the strong, stoic woman instantly became a daddy's girl" (71).

There are other problems, but my biggest beef with the book is the ending. Although Jennifer's future is decided satisfactorily, we never get answers to all our questions. The case is never solved. Riley concludes the book with a generic, disappointing "Love conquers all" message that summarily dismisses all of the drama that took place in the previous 195 pages.

I do think Michaela Riley makes it clear how passionately she feels about her subject. The anger and cynicism Jennifer feel seem authentic. Riley's biography mentions she had "the misfortune of spending time in a local court house," so I'm guessing she has some firsthand experience. Her patriotism also comes across loud and clear. I also found myself chuckling over Riley's Norfolk-bashing, since my sister complained about the city for the whole time she lived there.

So, although I admired some things about the book, it mostly just annoyed me. I truly think the story could have been really compelling (although it seems bizarre and unrealistic, despite the fact that it's supposedly based on a true story) if it had been edited well. Mere editing wouldn't have solved all of its flaws, but it would have made Embittered Justice a much better read. The book really does have good bones - it just needs an extreme makeover. Let's hope that editor strike comes to an end sometime soon; it looks like more than one author needs a good one.

Grade: D


  1. Just wanted to drop in and say how much I love your blog... still. I especially love the entries where you give low grades. :) I adore reading the book excerpts where the author demonstrates just how inept he/she can be. Do you scream in frustration like I do when you find them? I had a vision of the publishing world having such a strict editing process! Guess that's not a universal virtue.

  2. I think you are so funny - especially when you talk about bad books. I am really glad with how honest you are in you reviews. And, I agree that poor editing can ruin a good book.


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