Complaints and Reviews

I’m just back from a trip to Belstone, talking on video about BELLADONNA AT BELSTONE. And while talking about BaB, I was struck by some of the things that stick in my mind.
It’s not the usual old rant. There are people, generally, who love to point out errors in an author’s research, for example. I’ve spoken about these lovely folks before. Some of them are well-meaning. I well remember the very pleasant lady who told me that my modern language in one novel really did put her off.

Looking past the for

Looking past the for

Now, I could wax lyrical about language. After all, if I were to be accurate, and I mean really accurate, I would have to write in a mixture of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Celtic, and God knows what else. And to be really authentic, I’d have to write on vellum. In ink, of course. One copy at a time. So, no one could possibly read whatever I wrote and it would be hard to make enough money to teach myself how to read Latin, let alone all the other languages.
The word she complained about? “Posse”. When I mentioned my fellows gathering together as a posse, she said that it brought her to the present day and distracted her from the book. Which is fine, except that “posse” is an ancient term. The posse comitatus was an old legal term for the collection of men sent to serve the county as set out in the Statutes of Winchester, 1285, for example. Posse is an ancient English, perfectly correct and authentic term.
However, while thinking about the research (and not just her, but all the complaints about my horrible, unkind and unjustified treatment of the Church in the fourteenth century), I began to wonder what people thought the period was actually like. After all, Belladonna got me more complaints than any other book, mostly from people who believed me to be irreligious or worse.
I have no axe to grind about religion. Yes, religion has caused more wars over the centuries than anything else, but that doesn’t mean I believe Christianity to be evil any more than I believe Shintoism, Islam, Druidism or Shamanism to be. After all, taking Christianity, I doubt there could be any religion more committed to peaceful coexistence with all other faiths.
And yet, I am fairly unkind, apparently, in my treatment of religious people in Belladonna.
Well, of course I am! It’s a crime novel, and that has to mean death and naughty motives for many of the people involved! It wouldn’t be much of a crime book if everyone was kind to each other and no one got killed, after all.
The other point is, that almost all the issues I mention in the book are culled from the visitation reports of Bishops Stapeldon and Grandisson. These two dedicated prelates travelled widely all over their diocese and investigated all the major establishments, and they reported their findings in great books. And it was clear that the female convents did have great failings. The women were said to be ignoring many of the instructions of their Orders. In part it was due to the usual problems of women not being able to generate the same income as their male counterparts. Women couldn’t hold services in the church, so they didn’t gain the same sort of bequests as, say, the Benedictines and others, where a dying man would donate large sums in order to have Masses to speed their passage up to Heaven.
I have, in twenty years of writing, had many letters from fans. From the very first, which listed what the author thought were twenty one factual errors in THE LAST TEMPLAR (he was wrong and I took pleasure in documenting his errors), to the most recent Goodreads and Amazon comments, I’ve been surprised by how many people are willing to anonymously berate me for perceived mistakes. Obviously I do make mistakes, but these tend to be (politely and kindly) pointed out by people whom I know. Generally, the louder the complaint, the less justified the comment! For example, I know of one reviewer of a book who gave the novel one star. His reason? The book arrived late because of the US postal service.

North tip of Belstone Tor

North tip of Belstone Tor

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment. A lousy review because the post was late. Not entirely justified as a comment on the book and its readability or otherwise.
Most recently I’ve had two complaints about FIELDS OF GLORY because those “readers” didn’t like the cover. Neither has read the story, and in fact they couldn’t have, because they commented on the cover within a day or two of publication. They had not had time to touch a copy and glance inside. But both felt justified in giving it one star because they didn’t like the cover.
I consider that unforgivable. Many writers have no control over the covers of their books. To give a book one star will have an impact on that author’s income. Amazon will work automatically to push low-reviewed books down the chain, so it won’t be seen by a large number of potential readers. That’s why I never give poor star ratings to books. If I don’t like it, I won’t review it. It’s very easy. After all, a writer whose work I dislike to the extent that I’ve never been able to finish a single book by him, is James Patterson. I have nothing against the guy, but I just don’t like his work. However, just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean other people won’t. And my opinion is not valid. We all have opinions, and all reflect personal bias. An opinion about a book is, by its nature, subjective.
So, I won’t give a bad review about any book. Hopefully not too many will be wanting to review mine unkindly as well!

15 Responses to “Complaints and Reviews”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Ah armchair critics, don’t you just love them? We all get various shades of them from the pedantic to the plainly ill-informed and often mistaken…


    • You need a thick skin as an author, don’t you!


      • Jack Eason says:

        And then some. I have lost count of the number of times when I would dearly have loved to give the commentator/reviewer a blasting. But that would be exactly what they want. Far better to ignore the twits!


      • There are some you’d like to thank by gripping them warmly by the throat, aren’t there? But the thing is, you and I have survived so far by the quality of our writing, Jack. That’s the thought I keep trying to remember … sometimes it’s not so easy!


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Yet another example of a writer being taken to task by by the ill informed and pedants…


  3. Carole-Ann says:

    I am coming to the idea that whenever there is a review where it is obvious the reviewer has NOT read the book, that that comment should be removed. Amazon can, and do do this (for other reasons); and I’m certain GoodReads could as well.

    To me, it is totally beyond my comprehension that a person could even attempt to write a comment about a book without having first read it. And for the two reasons you give above, both those commenters should be banned :)

    Personally, I never look at reviews UNTIL I’ve finished the book, and then I compare my reactions to those already stated. Recently, two or three books I found intriguing (and thoroughly enjoyed) were mostly listed as “meh” by many reviewers. And this is how it should be. We all have varying opinions and are unlikely to agree in many respects. But for those idiotic, ill-informed, obnoxious people who can’t even be bothered to READ, I have no time.


    • Thanks for that, Carole-Ann – and I entirely agree. The real trouble is, so many reviews are meaningless now. There seems to be a huge amount of jealousy amongst reviewers, or plain spite. I’m rather blessed, I think, in having a lot of dedicated (and very kind) readers who take time to write up decent reviews – which is why the two complaining about the book because of its cover was really depressing. Especially since I think the cover does its job very well. I can think of at least two other covers I’ve had that have been considerably worse!


  4. ccastner says:

    I enjoy your books tremendously, and eagerly anticipate the next new one. My one and only response to any of your critics would be: oh, you are a published and prolific author with a world-wide fan base?


    • Many thanks, Catherine – I appreciate the comment! But I just wish people would realise how their thoughtless reviews can harm other people. I don’t think they consider how the algorithms that drive Amazon can grab their negative comments and ruin some writers’ careers. Hey ho – as you point out, I’m actually very lucky!


  5. Well, I just finished reading Belladonna at Belstone while I was off on silent retreat at a religious house in North Wales. So as an ex-nun myself I thought I would take the opportunity to berate you for all the mistakes you made in the book…

    Just kidding. :)

    Instead I wanted to ask about a couple of things that, shall we say, ‘surprised me’. In other words, if I didn’t know how much effort you put into historical research I would have just assumed you’d made a mistake. But instead I’m going to assume you’re right and express my surprise. :)

    Firstly, you make reference to veils covering the nuns’ mouths. I wasn’t aware there have been orders of nuns that wore a habit which included a veil across the face. The bible required women to wear head-coverings to preserve their modesty and my understanding was that female religious orders continued with that practice when society moved on. So I just wondered what order you were basing your story on that wore a habit like that? It sounds more Islamic than Christian. Again, *definitely* not saying you’re wrong, (far be it from me etc), just that I’m surprised.

    The second point was that you mention a few times in the novel that “nuns can’t hold services”. My understanding was that women (who can’t be priests in the Catholic Church) can’t celebrate *Mass* (which is the service that rich donors most wanted celebrating in their memory for the sake of their souls), but that they can (and did, and do) say the daily Offices (Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline) by themselves without needing a priest (ie Luke in the story) to be present. Am I wrong in that understanding? I’d be ‘surprised’ to discover that in that period only a priest could lead the Offices. Again, just wondering what your source was for that.

    Irrespective of my ‘surprise’, I really enjoyed the story. By the end I was beginning to wonder if any of them were actually innocent! I will try to get over to Belstone next time I’m on Dartmoor to have a look at where it was all supposed to have taken place. I think I would have quite enjoyed being in a monastery on the moors… though not without glazed windows or with leaky roofs.

    Now I’ve got to decide which of your books to read next…

    All the best!


    • Dear Tess,

      Sorry not to have responded sooner, but I’ve been very busy just recently. Thanks for your comments. To my shame, I cannot find the references I used when writing Belladonna, because it was some fifteen years ago now. With the veils, I have a recollection of a book mentioning them but the only comment I’ve found in the last morning of hunting was in Colin Platt’s book about monasteries and convents where he quoted a reformer saying that too many nuns were aping secular women and their fashions, specifically commenting on silken veils. However, I think I had a reference from the British Library that I was using when I wrote Belladonna. When it comes to Offices compared with Masses, I don’t know where that came from. I have a vague recollection of reading something about the Gilbertines (with the mixed male and female convents) and think I read that there the men read the Offices and there was a gap between the male and female chapels so that the women could hear them? It’s possible I extrapolated from that to all convents – but again, it’s so long ago now, I really cannot remember!

      I blame it all on my age. And trusting copyeditors!

      I’m going to have to keep searching now to see if I can find the relevant references again. Next up, the Oxford UP book of Medieval England. Wish me luck!



      • Originally, monks and nuns would just have worn a typical poor person’s attire, whatever was available where they lived. Later it seems to have become a uniform in its own right, with veils folded to a specific width and perfectly ironed. I suspect the Victorians were the pinnacle of that particular tendency to sartorial perfection. Could be wrong though. Our monastic tradition was rather obliterated from the 16th to mid-19th centuries, but it would be fascinating to know what they were wearing on the continent during that time. Was it still whatever they could find in the monastery stores, or did it have to look perfect?

        Very interested to hear what your research throws up – hope it’s not too distracting from whatever you should be writing right now :)


  6. I should also say that I don’t doubt at all the stories of what the nuns got up to. There were similar stories in the reports about the pre-reformation community at the abbey where I was a novice nun. The Church authorities couldn’t seem to get the nuns to stay in the place! There was even a secret underground passage (now sadly collapsed) in the abbey grounds that allegedly ran to the bishop’s accommodations nearby, so the abbess could secretly visit without being seen to leave the abbey! Heavens Forfend etc.

    Sadly the community I was part of was extraordinarily well behaved and scrupulously holy when it came to the supply of drink to the community. You’ve read St Benedict’s Rule from the 6th Century I assume?

    Chapter 40: On the measure of drink to be supplied to the monks:

    “We read it is true,
    that wine is by no means a drink for monastics;
    but since the monastics of our day cannot be persuaded of this
    let us at least agree to drink sparingly and not to satiety,
    because “wine makes even the wise fall away”

    Always raised a giggle in the Chapter House. I used to mentally replace the word ‘wine’ with ‘coffee’ given the Sisters’ compulsion for drinking caffeinated beverages!


    • All I can say is, I think the monks were rather less abstemious than your colleagues! It is interesting, though, to look at how the Rule was bent for so many, largely (so I have read) because abbots and priors were concerned that if it was not, they would find recruitment very tough!


      • Yes, even today it’s sometimes a point of contention within female religious orders that men’s communities seem to hold much more loosely to rules of stability and poverty! Generally this tends to be because the men tend to have a more outward-looking ministry, and more of them are priests, even among Anglicans. When I was a novice nun we used to have ‘study weeks’ with novices from other communities, and I was always a bit ‘surprised’ at how many of the men liked to head to the local pub after Compline while the rest of us went into the Greater Silence. Outreach they called it…


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