Her Fingers by Tamara Romero

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Her Fingers

Author:  Tamara Romero

Type of Book:  Fiction, fantasy, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  It’s published as bizarro and I will consider it odd on that basis.

Availability:  Published by Eraserhead in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Though this book is part of the New Bizarro Author Series, I consider it more fantasy than bizarro. Compared to the other books in this series, the story in this book is far more restrained, with content that would not be out of place on a fantasy/sci-fi shelf in a bricks and mortar bookstore.

I have to engage in full disclosure right out of the gate:  I am not a big fan of the fantasy genre.  I cannot explain why but there you are. This being fantasy means a lot of the details in this book were muddled to me, though I tried to read as carefully as possible, which was difficult because too much is crammed into this book.  I think Romero’s tale, given the lushness of her prose, needs to be a full-length book because the story-building in this novella is rushed.

The story is about witches who have become persecuted and deals with the specific experiences of a witch called Misadora.  Misadora has several other names in this book, and given that several other characters have several other names, I lost the thread of who was who several times, which makes it difficult to write a good plot synopsis.  At any rate, a man called Volatile finds Misadora floating in a river after she is attacked.  He takes her in and shelters her, though he has a lot of trepidation about Misadora that I cannot share because it would be a spoiler. He lives, I believe, amongst what are called the Treemothers, women whom, when called  by the witches, ran into the forests and merged with trees.  These Treemothers exude a sort of sap/jewel called Amalis and only women can touch it.  Misadora was caught wearing an Amalis ring and had all the fingers on that hand cut off.  Friends who also have several names help her out with a bionic hand.  Misadora has to stand up against the ever increasing persecution of the witches and the soldiers who try to kill the Treemothers, but at the end is faced with a horrifying truth that changes everything she thought she knew.

If this description seems very vague, that’s because I often could not get a grip on what this book was about.  That is why it would have been better had this novella been written into a longer novel.  To have multiple characters with multiple names, all the world-building with the towns, the history of the witches and the families, the Treemothers, Misadora and Volatile, and to cram it all into a book under 60 pages, is too much for the reader.   That’s no insult to Romero because even though I have to review the book in front of me, it’s no small compliment to say that a book needs to be longer so that the author has to room to fully show off her chops.  As it stands, this book is a small wave of names and places that will wash over the reader without being understood unless the reader is willing to take notes to keep track of who is who, which names are towns and what exactly being a sleepwalker may indicate.  Finally, when you factor in that this book is told from different character perspectives, characters whose names switch in the book, it’s all a bit too much.

But I have to think this book would have been a better read for me had it been edited properly.  Romero originally wrote this book in Spanish and translated it into English.  I am mono-lingual but I recall vividly the awkward sentences I came up with when I translated Cicero’s De Amicitia into English.  Even though every person in my college Latin class was a native English speaker, we delivered sentences that belied fluency in any language.  It wasn’t until class when we read our lines and smoothed them over with the help of the professor that Cicero’s text had any beauty.  I cannot say this tendency to focus on the translation rather than the prose during the yeoman work of translation is what happened with Romero, because some of this book contains beautiful sentences.  However, large chunks of the text lead me to believe that is exactly what happened.

Regardless of whether or not the beauty of the original story got lost in translation, it is the responsibility of the editor to make sure awkward sentences and strange turns of phrase are polished before they are printed.  Though I am not a fan of fantasy, even I can see that this is an interesting novella and that with some work it could have been so much better.  I’ve talked with a couple of people from Eraserhead and its imprints, and they explained that as a small press they just don’t have the budget for copy editors.  I understand that to a point.  I really do.  And I sort of hate harping on this point.  But even as I despise piling on a small press I still get annoyed because words matter.  If they didn’t matter there would be no sense in publishing anything at all and since Romero’s book is definitely worth publishing, it is worth editing.  I cannot put a number on the times that people have said to me that after one bizarro book they stopped reading because they just couldn’t take the misspelled words, bad grammar, and poor punctuation.  I take books seriously and I take the small presses as seriously as I do big publishers.  The day I stop bemoaning poor editing is the day I stop reading these books entirely.

I initially wrote out several examples of what is wrong with this book but ultimately decided not to publish them because the last thing I want to do is to seem cruel to a fledgling writer, especially one who does not deserve it.  Writing a novella and then translating it into another language means that Romero has already done some heavy lifting.  Moreover there are parts of this book that absolutely sing.  The editing issues in this are not her fault.  I will never tire of saying this – authors are the last people who should edit their works because repeated exposure to the text means they no longer can see the errors.  It is especially hard when you are translating your own work from another language because I suspect at the end of it all Romero knew this book like the back of her hand.  No one can see their own mistakes with that level of familiarity.

But even as I try to be restrained, I have to say the editing issues in this book are serious and affect the way readers enjoy the book.  It’s uncomfortable when a town’s name is spelled differently in back-to-back sentences.  There are some sentences with syntax so garbled I am  unsure what Romero is trying to convey.  Garbled syntax is a common problem with translations – that’s why translators need good editors.  This novella is so riddled with comma and punctuation errors that I stopped making note of them around half-way through the book.  Conversational punctuation is also pretty messy, with commas often placed outside of the quotation marks.  There are several word substitutions, like “were” for “where,”  “than” for “that.” Weird sentences like “I had almost never been to that area before,” stop registering about page 37, or at least that was when I stopped making notes of the problems.

This sucks.  This sucks righteously because this book has such beautiful moments, places wherein you realize that this book, for all its rushed narrative, confusing names and poor editing, is actually a cut above much of the bizarro prose out there.  In a way, it reminded me of Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, another jumbled novel wherein the reader was occasionally blinded by moments of literary brilliance.  With all my complaints about the amount of story crammed into under 60 pages and the poor editing, Romero’s talent salvages gold from the wreckage and the beauty of her prose is why I found this book worth reading.

Here’s a sentence describing the bionic people in this book, the ones who helped Misadora get a new hand:

Steel sheets and ceramic ornaments became inseparable parts of their bodies, like sugar dissolved in water.

This sentence is perfect.  Sugar and water are natural things, and combined together they are still natural.  When human beings take on steel and ceramic, it is a combination of the biological and non-biological, yet together they clearly make something as fluid and natural as sugar water.  This book is full of revelatory sentences like this that show a deft cleverness.

Here’s another amazing passage about the bionic people:

The bionics wanted to reach what they called the eternal wakefulness:  find the way to completely replace their human body, decrepit, decaying and mortal and, piece by piece, lock their soul up in their steel armor for eternity

Yes, it should be “replace their human bodies” and “lock up their souls” but so evocative is the image of these people, fighting the human condition of aging and death while showing the defensive nature they had to assume in Romero’s world, one can overlook those small problems.

Take this deeply affecting passage, wherein Misadora is under attack:

I saw another lightning bolt through the treetops, but the roar of thunder that necessarily followed merged completely with my own rampant howl of fear.  I couldn’t tell the two apart.  I saw the blade of the axe come down from the sky to my hand.  The fear was thunder. The pain was lightning.  I felt little.  I could see a trickle of blood began to merge with the grooves in the trunk.

Yes, it should be “begin to merge” but this passage is not only stunning visually and aurally, but while Romero is showing Misadora lose her hand, she is also showing us the plight of the Treemothers as blood merges into the bark of the tree. It also is an excellent method of foreshadowing what is really going on with the Treemothers, a menacing secret that devastates Misadora.

While this book is probably the least humorous bizarro book I have ever read, Romero does display moments of humor.  Here’s a scene wherein Misadora sees through a good cop-bad cop routine:

The GOOD soldier’s voice had a tone of humanity that his colleague’s lacked.  Even a voice inhibitor cannot hide true inner torment. He walked slowly to me, and touched the BAD soldier’s shoulder, subtly suggesting he fuck off.

One is left wondering how a soldier tells another to subtly fuck off and many funny ideas came into my head, most of them involving rude hand gestures.

This may seem like a bad review, and in many respects, this should be a one-star book.  The editing errors and the Tolkien-length novel crammed into a novella  alone should have made this book unreadable.  But the strength of Romero’s prose redeems it.  There are moments in this novel wherein her innate talent grabs hold of you and forces you to continue reading.  She just needs a longer format and a copy-editor and her next book won’t have to be praised with so many caveats.  I am unsure if you should buy this book but I can tell you that  I do not regret reading it, for all its problems, and I want to read more of Romero in the future.  Should you decide to take a chance on this book that somehow managed for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, do it soon.  Like all authors in the New Bizarro Authors Series, Romero has a year in which to sell a certain number of copies in order to be offered a book contract.

Now for business!  With all my themed weeks comes a giveaway.  This time I am giving away a copy of each book I discuss this week OR I am giving away an Amazon gift card in the amount that the paper versions of these books would cost.  All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave me a comment on this entry.  One comment on each discussion is an entry into the drawing.  Leave a comment all five days and you will have five entries into the drawing.  Only one comment per day counts as an entry but don’t let that prevent you from engaging in conversation about the books.  For all the details of this contest, visit this entry.  If you’ve read Her Fingers, I would love to know what you thought of it.

25 thoughts on “Her Fingers by Tamara Romero

  1. This one is my second favorite in the 2013 lineup. I admit there are sometimes typos missed, but they were marginal in this one at best, that I remember. I actually liked it more for being relatively clean prose without much sex, violence or profanity. Not because I’m a prude or a square, but just because I’m so used to it. Romero’s narrative crystallizes words the way the stanzas of a poem would.

    1. I think because I read things with an eye to discussing them that I see the errors more than I did when I read casually. So perhaps that is why I see so much that other don’t. But it was there. I removed four paragraphs of errors because it seemed like a completely shitty thing to do, to harp on something that was more or less beyond Romero’s control. I actually almost put the book down a couple of times, the errors were so intrusive. 🙁

      However…

      I agree wholly with your statement that there is something very poetic and beautiful about Romero’s prose. And it stands out from the others, in a way that Avoiding Mortimer does, in that it is relatively non-violent and devoid of sexual weirdness. It’s interesting that in bizarro that having a lack of profanity and intense sexuality sets one apart. I like Romero’s work so much that should she write another book I would love to copy edit it for her before she sends in the final, approved copy for publication.

  2. I have a friend who started out as self-published before getting picked up by a Big 6 house. She still has some series that she self publishes, and she does take it upon herself to pay for editing. As a reader, I am turned off by poor copyediting. A few typos I can forgive, but the kinds of problems you highlight would make me put the book down, because those kinds of issues take me out of the story.

    1. I almost quit reading too, which would have been a shame because Romero is a genuinely good writer. Eraserhead really does have to get this under control or I will find myself sticking with the authors I know manage to get clean text in for publishing and avoid the newer writers. I think the average bizarro finds it difficult to fund a copy editor – many cannot even afford to send me paper copies of the book because the postage expenses are prohibitive. I suspect most just can’t justify that expense, which then sends me into a whole elitist frame of thought wherein I wonder if it is fair to say that only people who can afford a copy editor deserve to be published, but then I wonder if it’s pandering to say that certain types of literature don’t have to be as clean and edited as others because it is fringe or published by small presses.

      It’s almost a class thing with me because I like the little guys. I want to support small publishers and the writers whose work they publish. And it violates my sense of fair play to say that the small guys have to be as good in all respects as the big publishers because they cannot be due to certain financial limitations. But it’s also unfair that a writer like Romero, who wrote a novella and then translated it into another language, is so poorly served by her publisher. Would her story have ever been seen, even in its poorly unedited form, without Eraserhead? Gah!

      But yeah, knowing you in the manner I do, you would have been like me and the magic of the piece would have been ruined as you got yanked out of the story with garbled syntax and word substitutions.

    1. Hey Donald! Good to hear from you again. I’m not entirely interested in witches but Romero certainly made me interested in Misadora. For all its flaws, it was an interesting book.

  3. A book that wasn’t scary! 😉

    I actually do like some fantasy. I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan. I like Neil Gaiman and I enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s book “Daughter of the Forest”. I haven’t yet read the others in that series, but they are sitting on my “to read” shelf. I really don’t like “Game of Thrones”, but my husband does which is kind of odd since he would normally claim to dislike fantasy. I guess we are just both really picky within that genre.

    Massive numbers of errors would be distracting, but at the same time, it would give me a dollop more of confidence towards trying to publish any of my own stuff. Sometimes it is nice to see that you don’t first have to be perfect before putting yourself out there.

    1. I’ve just started reading Pratchett and tend to find him more humor than fantasy, or maybe it’s that the humor tends to distract me from all the dragon-y stuff. I also like Gaiman, though his more fantasy-oriented short stories leave me cold. Maybe I’m just picky, too.

      Your point of distraction versus author-empowerment to share before perfection is reached is an uneasy tightrope for me. I think since I read so much more self-published, fringe and small press books, I am exposed to so many marginally edited books that it begins to wear thin after a while.

      Also, I think you will like Avoiding Mortimer, which will come on Thursday. Mortimer eats his ant farm but pukes it up and it becomes integral in saving the afterlife.

      1. I know what you mean about Pratchett. He considers himself firmly within the fantasy genre though so I figured I would let him decide. He got pretty cranky with J.K. Rowling when she made some statement a few years back, saying she doesn’t like fantasy and didn’t realize the Harry Potter books were fantasy until after she wrote them. His comment: “I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?”

        As much as I love Pratchett, I can’t stand his Rincewind character.

        The ant vomit book sounds…interesting.

  4. I’m not a fan of fantasy at all. It’s probably my least favorite literary genre. The only exception I can think of is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and even that falls apart at the end.

    That said, the sections from the book you posted are very good. Especially for someone whose first language isn’t English.

    I’m taking a writer’s workshop hosted by a couple Bizarro authors. We have a participant from Sweden for whom the ESL barrier is no problem at all. It kind of makes me wonder how learning a second language can change your perception of your first.

    1. It kind of makes me wonder how learning a second language can change your perception of your first.

      That was what made the poor editing all the more infuriating because this writer managed to translate some gorgeous sentences. It makes you wonder how much more beautiful some of this book was in the Spanish.

  5. Awesome review! I read Her Fingers earlier this year and really loved it. I’m a big fan of fantasy though. And I agree with most of your criticisms. I definitely wish the book had been longer so that the story could have been fleshed out more.

    1. Yeah, this definitely needs to be a much longer book. If permitted to flesh out all those rushed skeletons, this would be a formidable novel.

  6. “I’ve talked with a couple of people from Eraserhead and its imprints, and they explained that as a small press they just don’t have the budget for copy editors.”

    While I’m generally supportive of small presses, as a reader and consumer I find this statement incredibly obnoxious and offensive.

    Being in a beleaguered profession doesn’t absolve one from upholding the basic standards of that profession. I’m curious to know if these publishers would be okay with a mom ‘n’ pop diner protesting that, as a small business owner, they just don’t have the budget to check their food for rat feces.

    I’m sorry, but no. If you’re going to present yourself as a publisher, and charge people money for the books you publish, you need to put in the time to make sure you’re putting out a polished product. Small business owners don’t have the luxury of excusemaking. When I ran a small business, I didn’t get to do shitty work and excuse it by saying I couldn’t afford more employees. If something was wrong, and I didn’t have an employee to fix it, I had to do it myself, even if it meant putting in long hours.

    Here’s what this “can’t afford copy editors” excuse says to me: I can’t be arsed to put in the time to put out a quality product. I accept sloppy manuscripts because I don’t give a shit about polished writing, and I will publish authors who can’t be arsed to proofread their own work. I will sell you this shoddy product because (a) I think you’re too stupid to notice; (b) I think you share my own low standards; and/or (c) too bad — you bought it, we got your money, sorry sucker!

    And you know what — well-meaning though these people may be, this is just a foolish attitude from a business perspective and an industry perspective. OK, maybe you’re content with limiting your readership to people who don’t notice sloppy editing or don’t care. Fine, godspeed.

    But you’re losing people like me who are eager to support small presses, but aren’t about to spend money on publishers who can’t even be bothered to give their books a basic proofread. And you’re destroying the reputation of small presses in general by reinforcing the impression that small presses are just amateur hour open mics with zero standards.

    Sweet Jesus, I just discovered that Eraserhead also put out Edward Lee’s horribly edited — well, printed — Brain Cheese Buffet. You people should be ashamed.

    1. Yep, Deadite is an Eraserhead imprint. That was why I was so annoyed during that entire Lee discussion. Deadite picked up the abandoned books and screwed Dorchester contracts from several venerable horror writers, with my beloved Brian Keene among them. Brian Keene has always put out very clean copy and he is making pretty decent money with Deadite – far better than he did with larger presses – and though I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect a lot of that has to do with how low Eraserhead’s overhead is.

      I’m talking some shit here, and I realize that, but I find all of this baffling. I’ve put out offers to specific bizarro writers to permit me to copyedit their work before they submit it to publication, free of charge. I have never once been taken up on that offer. I’ve edited a published Eraserhead book so it could be amended for the e-book (I offered to do it because I liked the book so much). It took 20 hours to do a line edit. If you can’t afford to pay someone to do that work, then do it yourself. If you are too busy to do it yourself, then we run into the “perhaps don’t publish it” territory.

      I know CMIII and his imprint editors are all good people. They are not trying to crap up the literary landscape. But I stopped reading most of CMIII’s books, the ones he authored, because the editing was often so terrible. But when I initially started reading bizarro, I focused on writing by authors like Andersen Prunty, whose copy is always clean. Similarly Gina Ranalli and some of the older bizarros have consistently clean books. Same with the first NBAS authors I read – Patrick Wensick, Nicole Cushing, for example – had immaculate books.

      But in the last two years, the number of books coming out increased and the already-shaky quality decreased. I suspect this is something I should save for an e-mail because I have noticed a tendency from all writers who read here to take all negative comments very personally, but here it goes: small presses’ collective lowering of standards is likely a reason why I have ceased taking all review requests. I said yes to some books, read one, discovered it was a complete mess, and found myself delaying reading the next book. Before long, things piled up, I no longer had time to read the genuinely fascinating books that caused me to start this site in the first place, and I opened every review copy with a cramp in my stomach, wondering how bad it was going to be.

      As fun as a take-down can be, I largely resent being forced into the head space, which is why they can be so brutal when they happen. I realized reading much of this fringe writing wherein no one gave a shit about the most basic of editorial standards was making me angry and making me avoidant. I was reading books that hadn’t even received the most basic of editing and I was not reading books from the Burns Archive, weird estate sales finds and similar and it was tiresome.

      And worse I was placed into a position wherein I could see that many of the kids who sent me books were so in love with their stories, so earnest in their desire to be a writer, but whose books had been so underserved editorially that their beloved books were all but unreadable. But you look at the Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and it’s all mutual backscratching and it’s clear these authors had no idea what a mess their books were.

      What do I do? I don’t want to savage a kid whose love of the extreme means they ended up with a publisher who does not edit. What used to be a one-time sort of thing, refusing to review books because they were too much of a mess, became endemic. Half of what I was reading had no business having been published.

      There is this strange belief that no one should take these sorts of books too seriously, that the grossness, over-the-topness, strangeness, sexiness and similar mean that these books should just be taken as they are, in some sort of indie insistence that the originality of the idea means staid, old ideas like clean copy have no place in this interesting realm of ideas.

      I think back of all the ‘zines I used to read, put out by people just as busy, just as interested in fringe ideas, and just as impecunious and they had attention to The Word because they knew without The Word there was no Idea. I just read through an old ‘zine called Blow My Colon that was far cleaner than 2/3 of the Eraserhead books that have come my way.

      Perhaps the readers don’t care. Perhaps it is a calculated business decision because people like you and me don’t make up the core of the bizarro and fringe market. But the next Philip K. Dick, the next Delany, the next Burroughs, is never going to have an Idea-spread because the book is in a ghetto wherein only people enraptured with gore, strangeness and odd sex ever read because they have run off the readers who know they can find extremity of content without having to dumb the whole book down.

      It’s baffling. It really is. And it all boils down to what you say: edit or stop it. Too many worthy writers are being ill-served. And it’s not just an Eraserhead problem. Believe me. There is a publisher in the UK I will never touch again and I am still wondering if I want to write one of my takedowns on one of the books they sent me.

      I think, at the end of it, I feel like by continuing to discuss books this way, I am becoming part of the problem. If I lambaste poor editing, I feel like an asshole because it’s not the writer’s fault, unless they should be held accountable for which publishing company they choose. It also makes me feel like a pedant. But if I don’t say, “You know, for every editorial error I am deducting some amount of points and may be left giving truly mathematically negative reviews,” then I am a part of a stupid system.

      But at any rate, poor editing that has become endemic to small presses almost killed this site and I am not engaging in hyperbole. I lost all enthusiasm there and it showed. I felt ashamed, in a way.

          1. “Yep, Deadite is an Eraserhead imprint. That was why I was so annoyed during that entire Lee discussion.”

            Why were you annoyed? Because of typos?

          2. Bradley, I was actually more than annoyed. I was angry. Brain Cheese Buffet and Carnal Surgery were both execrable. The writing was terrible enough on its own but the bad editing added sheer insult to the experience of reading both. Both were so bloody awful I could not understand why either needed to be republished and if they needed to be republished because they were potential cash cows, why couldn’t they have been edited. It was a long review but I think I explain myself well in the entry if you need further detail.

            http://ireadoddbooks.com/carnal-surgery-and-brain-cheese-buffet-by-edward-lee/

  7. I have agreed with everything you’ve said on this entire thread, up until the Edward Lee comments… I think both of those books are incredible.
    But then again, I am sick. Sick.

    All that said about bizarro fiction editing, which I agree wholeheartedly with, I tend to think that “bizarro is to weird fiction what hip-hop is to rap”. Which is to say that there is a lot more to the bizarros than the fiction itself… There is a strange and beautiful community therein, and BizarroCon – a fantastic party not unlike being surrounded for 4 days by constant indescribable performance art.

    I neither condemn nor condone anything to do with the editing, but I certainly wish that it wasn’t an issue. It bothers me too.
    But then again, with such a committed community, you’d think there would be plenty of volunteer editors… I offered to a couple different people at different times, and also got ignored… But then I started making shirts, and now I barely even have time to read anymore…
    Sigh…

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