Born to Return the Gift

Catherine E. Johnson

Onyz Productions, 2009

356 pages/ Fiction

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

When I read the first page of Born to Return the Gift, which includes both a sincere acknowledgement to God with a list of twenty scripture references and a “Respectful Warning,” I knew I was in for an interesting literary outing. The warning goes on to state, “This novel deals with adult issues. Explicit sexual content and profane language keep it real.” Ah, yeah, no kidding. While not full of sexual content, the book has some sections that rival Penthouse Forum material. That alone isn’t odd, but the intermingling of those two very divergent topics—explicit sex and God—you don’t often find in the “Religion” section of the bookstore. I loved the honesty and visceral nature of the book. Keep it real, indeed.

The book chronicles the adult life of hard-luck, fictional Nyima Chante Robbins, an African American woman in her fifties living a series of failed attempts to secure a somewhat normal lifestyle in a world of dysfunction—including her own. She journeys to California where she hopes to find normalcy in the areas of life many of us take for granted: keeping and securing long-lasting and meaningful employment, long-lasting and meaningful friendships, and long-lasting and meaningful love relationships. Her failure rate for these three areas of her life is heartbreaking, but the story of her quest is usually very engaging and interesting. As the reader watching her struggles, you see where Nyima goes wrong time after time, and the temptation is to confront the dysfunction and shout, “Stop!” However, that temptation lessens when you know to do so would unfairly judge Nyima—and anyone else in that situation. Moreover, isn’t that part of the problem? People like Nyima are judged as failures or losers by those unfamiliar with her world.

The author, Catherine E. Johnson, tells Nyima’s story through a number of flashbacks during the last two weeks of her failed experiment of living in California looking for a new life. Unfortunately, the author waits toward the end of the book to divulge the character’s early life, as well as Nyima’s bizarre spiritual experience of being trapped in a hell-like world. (What was that? Was it hell?) Disappointingly, the author does little to explain the experience fully. I would have loved to see the book intersperse these more interesting elements throughout the story to create better pacing and increase interest in the plot. Waiting for the last 45 pages of a 345-page book to reveal so much is so unfair to the reader.

There are too many basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and word choice errors in the book to mention here, and they often distract from the content. Sadly, this number of errors only helps to solidify that this is a self-published book—those regrettable errors that create the reputation that the self-publishing world is still in need of polish, finesse and the experienced eye of an editor.  It’s a shame that this kind of final product sidetracks us from the skills and creativity of an author.    

Overall, it’s a promising, inspiring and uplifting book by a very promising author. Johnson has potential to be a gifted writer but needs to work on a few basic things—namely, finding a decent editor— before we can take her seriously as a published author.

Born to Return the Gift is available from amazon and smashwords.

Reviewed by David Stucki, March 2010


20 Responses to Born to Return the Gift

  1. […] also given me a lot of sympathy for others who try to finish the long and tricky process with a product of more than ordinary merit—and without […]

  2. mmcginty says:

    Editor’s note:

    The purpose of this blog is to provide book reviews for self-published authors. It has always been our mission to help self-published writers improve their craft. Though all of our reviews contain critical feedback, many authors have appreciated our honesty.

    There is no denying the stigma that is attached to the world of self-publishing. We can all agree on the need to create a book that is just as good, if not better, than any other book on the shelves. There are great self-published books but there are also many with opportunities, as we have analyzed in great detail in the many reviews posted on this blog. Please accept our feedback as honest, legitimate advise intended to help you improve your craft and take your writing to the next level.


  3. I’m going to jump in and say the author must have grown up in a self-esteem home where there was nothing but 100% praise. However, the context of the story as portrayed in this excellent review shows another side to the author’s world. The two do not fit. Why ask for the review to be removed over mention of misspelled words and a few possible plot flaws? Doesn’t make sense.

    This honest review shows the author’s potential talent and the review is a recommendation for the book. What the author should do is to either learn mechanics and grammar or pay an editor to do that work for her.

    I wouldn’t remove this review. Self-published authors must hear repeatedly that their work has to be edited. The final product does not have to be flawless since most books from traditional publishers have similar flaws but the flaws must be few so the reader is not distracted by them.

    I review books for another site and I know what it feels like to be distracted by so many errors that they cannot be ignored.

    I’m going to use my work as an example. I cannot afford to pay a professional editor and I know there are a few errors in my published novels but those errors are few in number, because I had other eyes proof the manuscript and then used three editing programs to find anything that was missed. Not counting the hours those other eyes spent proofing my rough draft, I spent five or more hours a chapter for the final edits before publishing both books. For plot problems, I work with a group of other authors.

    We share our work and comment on it. I listen to their constructive criticism and they are often right about flaws in the plotting of my work. Because of that quality of feedback, my work has earned many good reviews and a few bad ones. My work has also picked up a few honorable mentions in literary contests. Yet, occasionally, I will hear back from a reader that a typo was discovered. We are human and because of that, we are not perfect but we can strive to be as close to perfect as possible.

    The key is “noticeable” errors. If errors do exist in a manuscript, it is the author’s job to make sure they become invisible. English grammar is so complex it would be almost impossible to get rid of all of the errors but many are obscure and invisible to most people.

    And I only ran this comment through the spell check twice. I’ll bet there are a few typos here, but I’m not selling these words.

  4. Sgt. Mom says:

    Being a perfectly awful speller myself (all hail spell-check!)- I know very well that you can’t weed out all the errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I am rather sorry that this author is taking the criticism in the review so very personally, instead of viewing it as a chance to improve her book.
    It would have helped to have had this kind of critical review and edit before unloosing her book on the world, though. Demanding that the review be pulled will not make the errors go away.

  5. DLKeur says:

    If an author can’t stand the heat, they need to bow out. Laziness and sloppiness does nothing but disservice to independently published books. If they are unwilling to, first, learn proper grammar, punctuation, construct, spelling, and formatting, then do the work themselves or hire someone who does know it, they have absolutely no grounds to fret a poor review of their laziness and ignorance.

    I’m tired of badly published books from both the major and traditional publishers, but especially from the indies. I say, if it’s not up to professional levels, criticism is earned. Stand your ground, Mark. A review, whether solicited or not, is not subject to refusal or open to an author’s whim and pleasure to demand its removal. And petulance and peevishness from an author is total BS, especially when it’s too obvious that the criticism is well-deserved.

  6. Floyd M. Orr says:

    Here is an oldie but a goodie:

    As the founder of PODBRAM, allow me to add my two-cents. The biggest complainers I have dealt with received four stars from me at Amazon. They obviously expected five! My experience as an author, reader, blogger, and computer junkie is that the problem lies with the most common sort of proofreading more than editing. For instance, the doubling of common words mentioned in my article is rarely flagged by computerized grammar checks. There is no substitute for at least two pair of human eyes. The causes of the problem are naivete, inexperience, laziness, and books rushed into publication.

  7. Catherine says:

    Hello Mark,

    It’s me again. I’m not writing to request that the review be retracted. I believe Mr. Stucki said what he really thought about my book and he’s entitled to his opinion, but I’ve already received several email responses to my forwarded email encouraging me to request that the following be deleted from the review.
    There are too many basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and word choice errors in the book to mention here, and they often distract from the content. Sadly, this number of errors only helps to solidify that this is a self-published book—those regrettable errors that create the reputation that the self-publishing world is still in need of polish, finesse and the experienced eye of an editor. It’s a shame that this kind of final product sidetracks us from the skills and creativity of an author.
    It is unfair to use my book as a platform to opine about the reputation of the self publishing world in general. (I guess that’s a typo too because I choose not to hyphenate ‘self publishing’.) Ask him if he would be so kind as to send me a personal note indicating at least five examples of basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and word choice errors he states as being rampant throughout the book to justify his first sentence in this block.

    Thank you again,


    I’ve copied my email to Mark here. I make no excuses for it. I appreciate the time and effort involved, and accept the constructive criticism. To state that the book is wrought with typographical errors was sufficient information for the readers. To opine about how it is the reason self publishers in general get no respect is inflamatory. I can appreciate this discussion, but stop getting it twisted. Unfortunately I only had my two eyes and a spell checker, grammar checker, and thesaurus because I couldn’t afford an editor. I asked for examples because I want to see what I still do not see because I wish to get better, not because I want an undeserved rating. Maybe I was wrong to ask for a sample of errors, but how would I know it would be denied unless I asked.

  8. DLKeur says:

    Might I suggest Critique Circle? Membership is free. There are also other good critique groups around the Net. More eyes and folks with more knowledge are more than willing to help you perfect your book manuscripts.

  9. Catherine says:

    I decided to include the first email as well.

    Hello Mark,

    Please thank Mr. Stucki for the review he did on my book, ‘Born To Return The Gift. I didn’t realize there were as many typos as he indicated, and I appreciate his honest and constructive criticism even though it was a little harsh.


  10. mmcginty says:

    Hey gang,

    I just wanted to clarify that the author did not request the entire review be deleted, only that the 4th paragraph be deleted. I’m sure if you’ve read this far into the comments, you know that by now!


  11. John Yoeman says:

    As the judge of a well-known short fiction contest, I have to both agree and disagree with the condemnation of a work full of typos. I allocate a potential total of 55 points to any work I judge. Major elements like: the power of the opening paragraphs, ability to move the reader emotionally, and originality of concept each gain a maximum of 10 points. Minor stuff like spelling and presentation can win 3 points.

    I wonder how our reviewer would have judged Nova Express?

    That said, a novel that’s stuffed with accidental errors bespeaks a sloppy writer. It commands no confidence in their work. But if the story is otherwise sound – and the review suggests it is – a good proofreader can work wonders.

    Of course, you shouldn’t take down the review. The author needs a timely reminder of what the market expects.

    • John Yeoman says:

      Of course, I mistyped my name in the above post: John Yeoman, and also my web address, which is corrected above. I think that these typos, truly unintended, rather prove my point!

  12. Dick Stanley says:

    Typos, by definition, are never intended. What they do is detract from a story by slowing the reader down, as s/he tries to puzzle out the intended meaning. Misspellings and bad grammar often slip by since many, if not most, readers don’t know much grammar and can’t spell very well themselves. If one can’t afford to pay for editing or proofreading, however, then at least get a friend to read the manuscript and mark the places where mistakes seem to have been made. There really is no excuse for rushing into print, unless you want to call your imprint Slapdash Publishing.

  13. Catherine says:

    Once more I have carefully scanned this book for rampant grammatical and spelling errors. Finally I understand. I would just like to say first of all I offer no excuse for what was done intentionally. Not in the narrative context of the book, but through dialogue. Rarely do people speak grammatically correct when conversating, even when they know how to. Also, sometimes people of a different culture although fluent in their own language, never grasp grammatically correct English. Some who have mastered the language sometimes still have such a thick accent that if one would attempt to write what is said it would appear as a typo. i.e., mon vs. man or yo instead of you. Or broken English appearing as you no instead of you don’t. I don’t believe an author is hell bent on following every rule they learned in school. Their work is a form of art and not all people enjoy or understand the same art.
    Now I realize most authors, as well as readers, have high expectations but let’s face this. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has read a best selling author’s work(1 sometimes 2 editors) that has typos. I’ve been known to break out my own red pen if I see more than three before I’m through reading. As far as punctuation I am also creative with that as well.i.e., using … to signify a long pause in dialogue, or the omission of words at the beginning of a quote, etc.
    I personally think the following are the major reasons self published books in general have a bad name.
    1.) lack of substance
    2.) redundancy
    3.) lack of originality (retelling a movie or tv show)
    4.) failure to retain subject focus
    5.) And those wrought with spelling and grammatical errors are distracting and unprofessional looking to say the least.

  14. mmcginty says:

    Yes, I have also seen many “non-self-published” books that have typos or other errors. It is actually quite common. I’d say more than half the books I’ve read have at least one typo. And typos are certainly not the only reason self-publishing is not taken as seriously as the supermarket pulp that sits on best seller lists.

    Here are the opportunities that I’ve seen, based on the books I’ve reviewed on this site:

    1. Sloppy formatting…this is the #1 sign that a book is self-published. The book’s formatting seems to follow it’s own rules and does not look like any other book. This is a dead giveaway and a huge distraction. Use the Chicago Manual of Style or hire a professional typesetter to make sure front matter, back matter, text, fonts, spacing, page numbering follow the conventional norms.

    2. Bad dialogue…it’s okay if your characters speak with slang or in broken English. It’s the everyday conversations that kill me. I’ve read so many SP books where I think “there’s no way anyone would say that!”

    3. Designing your own cover…do not do this. Ever, never. No matter how good you think you are. Hire a professional artist.

    4. The book doesn’t know what it wants to be…is this horror? Science-fiction? Romance? Thriller? It can have elements of several genres but it can’t BE every genre. I read one that started as an adventure novel and turned into a family soap opera. I read a mystery that had no mystery. Make a decision and stick with it.

    5. Bad writing/failure to grasp the language…some people just don’t have the skills. I was never very good at basketball, which is why I joined the downhill skiing team. Sentences don’t flow, points are never made, plots meander, characters don’t work…the list is long. Get as much feedback as you can and practice your craft. Write things other than your novel to keep your skills sharp.

  15. eclecticpills says:

    The reviewer has finally entered the room after the rest of the family has fought it out. By now, most of you have probably moved on to new posts and new discussions taking your bloodied noses with you. Even so, you have to love this discussion, don’t you? This debate, if you want to call it that, has created some wonderful dialogue about the self-publishing culture and the expectations that surround it. I pray not so at the expense of the author, Catherine, however.

    A note to the author: Catherine, I apologize that I don’t have a list of the errors I mentioned in my review, and, unfortunately, I won’t be spending more time skimming your book finding them again. However, you’ll be happy to know that this has taught me a valuable lesson: I’ll keep track of errors in the future in order to give self-published authors the constructive criticism they deserve. Additionally, I want to emphasize that you truly created an interesting and engaging story regardless of this reviewer’s overly perfectionistic approach to reading. (Many of the errors were minor, but they did distract me—like even the smallest of pebbles in a shoe.) My career has included time as a proofreader and editor, so woe to writers whose book may come under the scrutiny of my red pen! This is not a power trip. To be clear, I NEVER proofread or edit merely to find fault but to find ways to elevate the writer’s craft. I truly hope that this experience—and a difficult one it has been, I’m sure—will help you bring your writing to the next level. God bless you and your work!

    David Stucki

  16. Catherine says:

    Whew! It’s unfortunate when someone miscommunicates what has been misread. It’s been quite an experience, but it has resulted in something productive.

    I agree with you new insight. Although in the traditional sense it would be unheard of, I think in order for the self-publishing world to improve reviewers need to provide the author and readers a sample of what the reviewer is being critical about so that the review is not only unquestionable, it’s also productively beneficial.

    Anyway…once again I thank you for your honest review. I also thank DLKeur for bringing this to the light, and appreciate most of the comments that have been made here.

    God Bless you too!


  17. Catherine says:

    The you typo which was meant to be your.- lol

  18. eclecticpills says:

    No problem, Catherine! I’m glad that overall this has turned out to be a positive experience for you. I believe this blog is meant to be a place where not only can an author’s work be critiqued, but where authors can feel supported by the self-publishing community. Feel the support!

    I’ve also posted the review on my new blog:

    God bless!


  19. Kitty says:

    Guess what? Despite everything said here, I received this 5 star rating elsewhere. I guess it goes to prove-different strokes for different folks and everyone’s opinion is valid.

    Definitly worth reading, April 19, 2010 By LinB

    From the very beginning “Born to Return the Gift” by Catherine E. Johnson captured my interest. Although the book is about the fictional character Nyima, the author tells of struggles that many people face every day. By the end of the book I felt that I had come to know a real person named Nyima.

    Her battles with depression and post traumatic stress disorder, her bad choices in men and a life full of abuse and feelings of self worthlessness, leave Nyima questioning her purpose. The underlying spiritual message is beautiful and meaningful as Nyima struggles to find her true self – the person she was born to be. A book that is definitely worth reading.

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