I find it really difficult to write a reader review of a novel. As an author I am hugely grateful to the kind people who leave reviews of my books on Amazon and other sites. I deeply feel I ought to reciprocate more. But the whole enterprise is fraught with danger.
This is a recurring problem at this time of year. Between Christmas and the end of the year I usually read a lot.
I finish books I’ve left midway during the year for some reason. And I read my Christmas present books. I read books I’ve been setting aside so I can take a good long run at them. And I experiment with books that other people have recommended during the seasonal socialising. And I go back to old favourites because, let’s face it, this is the time of year when memories get hold of you and I’ve got some lovely Bookish Memories.
This year one of my Midway Books is an excellent example of my problem: The Last Dance by Martin L Shoemaker.
It’s a Science Fiction story of the tough, probably do-able, sound-science variety. It is structured like a court room drama, with a number of different voices giving accounts of certain key events that have brought us to the opening chapter. So it is, yes, about 85% back story. And it’s a slow build. Gripping, though.
At least it was when I went back to it. But I’d put it down without regret for some months.
Reader Review of Midway Book?
Having done so, I’m really glad I finished it. It is full of interest, action and conflict. Several characters show different aspects and develop over the course of the story.
But one key character’s own voice is absent for most of the story and another key actor in what turns out to be a twenty-year drama appears very late and is short-changed, in my view. And the ending is.. well, what? Compressed? Enigmatic? Not entirely satisfactory anyway. To me.
That’s the point. To me.
Other readers, bringing different experience, interests or sympathies to the book may love it. My honest review might well put them off.
See my dilemma? AAARGH.
Books Recommended by Other People
The one I’ve read was a flat out disappointment, so I’m not going to name it.
But I am half way through The Old Reliable by P G Wodehouse. I did actually have it on my shelf but couldn’t remember reading it before and, to be honest, it’s not gripping me so far, though the incidental joys are undoubted.
Its advocate described it as being “out of the common way” for PGW, which I interpreted to mean a little closer to real life, maybe more heartfelt, even. So I shall stick with it. But so far, the jury’s out. If it weren’t PGW who is, of course, a genius and my hero and whose work always contains those little shafts of sunlight, I’d be seriously disappointed and, possibly, crossing the writer off my “Have Another Go” list. So there’s the second risk.
Recommending a Book
At the same time as the exchange above, I urged upon him one of my own favourites from the master – Hot Water. Now I did once write a review of that book, out of purest love and awe, sustained over many years.
It also brings with it one of my happiest memories: curled up with cat on lap, female parent on the other side of a crackling fire, both of us happy as grigs in our own book of choice. (Hers was a Poldark, if I remember aright.) Peace and good will to all men!
My interlocutor is currently re-reading Tender Is the Night and is much impressed. In my review, I compare the two – “same period, same landscape, same floundering American expats; even, God help us, the same level of inebriation.”
I also said, “I sometimes imagine what Fitzgerald would have made of J. Wellington Gedge and his power-broking wife. Probably the poor sap would have ended up as Ambassador to France, wearing knickerbockers, after all, while Mrs Gedge ran a salon of whiskered blokes and waged war against Gertrude Stein.”
You may perhaps feel that is a little harsh. I stick by it and have now printed off my review to send to the Fitzgerald Fancier. I fear, though, it may be the end of a beautiful friendship.
Because I offered to lend him Hot Water. He accepted, on the grounds that he could not imagine what it had in common with Tender is the Night and was eager to find out. But as soon as I handed it over, he flicked through it and said dismissively, “Oh, that one. Yes. I’ve read it.”
Ouch. So that is always the third risk – even when I’m passionately engaged with a book, nothing makes my judgement of it right for everyone. And my reader review may be way off base and annoy.
So there you have the problem. I am not very good at reader reviews, either writing them or interpreting them.
So far, the only solution I’ve found is to produce a reader review only for books that I really, really love, and can honestly give five stars to. But even that is fraught with the risk of pissing off people who don’t love it and then feel cheated. So what should I do?
Advise me. PLEASE.
A very happy and successful New Year to all. May your reading bring you joy!
Such an interesting post, Sophie. Like you, I am deeply grateful to readers who take the time to leave a review of any of my own books, and I do check them out when considering a writer unknown to me.
Knowing how important they are, I try to leave them myself when I’ve read a book I’ve enjoyed. Since I have a very low tolerance of books that don’t engage my attention – and I’m aware it’s often a personal taste thing – reviewing them is not an option.
But forget the guilt. The reader’s only responsibility, when writing a review, is to offer an honest reaction to a book. And to avoid “spoilers”.
Thank you, Liz. You comfort me.
I agree with Liz above. If I can’t give at least 3 stars I don’t review. That said, my reviewing has fallen off badly these last years. If Amazon didn’t remind me, I wouldn’t do it at all. But yes, I say what I think, avoid spoilers, avoid being unkind, but try to be honest.
It’s worth remembering that books with all glowing reviews tend to be dismissed by readers. They seem to like to see a mixed bag, tho hopefully mainly good ones. That seems more real to them.
Oh, that’s interesting, Liz. So if I deliver a review of qualified rapture, potential readers will actually remember that I might not be right and reject the book out of hand? That’s very comforting, too.
With reviews of my Lady Fans, for example, there are mostly good reviews, but a few qualified ones and some stinkers! It doesn’t seem to put off potential readers because they can see that there are lots of readers enjoying the books, despite having reservations sometimes. I think this mix in reviews is healthy. As they say, you can’t please all of the people and it looks contrived or suspicious if it’s 5 stars all the way.
I think the important thing is to keep stressing that this is simply how the book speaks to you, not to anyone else. I tend to keep reviews (when I remember to do them!) on the short side, but that is personal taste and, like you, I don’t feel comfortable reviewing a book I didn’t get very much out of.
As a reader, I like to know what other readers enjoyed about a book. As a writer, anything that tells me someone has read my book and enjoyed it is good!
I’m not sure what I feel a a reader. Except I agree that I read an adverse review in the mix – sometimes they’re actually more likely to attract me.
There are a few tropes that send me wild though – like “with a twist you’ll never guess” is one, for instance. I spend the whole book trying to out-guess the reviewer rather than read the book. So I just don’t start it.
I am so glad I am not alone in finding it difficult to write reviews! I don’t do it often, rarely give full five stars and try to be honest but not unkind – if I can’t be positive, I’d rather not leave a review. Having said that, a very negative review won’t necessarily put me off a book, I am likely to read it and decide for myself!
I think I’ve only written about three reviews this year, all of them for books that I completely loved. It’s the ones I don’t love that are the problem. I hate the feeling of “marking” a novel, as if it were an essay. Or, worse, an exam.
Like others, I don’t leave reviews as often as I feel I should. Frankly, I forget. So there’s a New Year’s resolution: do more reviews. After all, as an author, I know how important they are.
Also, on the technical front, I find that if I give a star rating to a book when I finish it on my kindle, the rating never appears on Amazon. If I want to leave a rating/review, I have to go to the Amazon website and do it there. Am I doing something wrong with my ratings on my kindle???
Goodness, I’ve never tried to leave a review from my Kindle. What a tech master you are.
Amazon does remind me, too. I must respond positively more often, I can see.
What do you do when a friend asks you to review their book and you can’t in all honesty praise it? Do you keep the friendship, or your integrity as a judge of good writing, which might therefore jeopardise your own credibility as a writer?
Actually, I sort of forget that a book is by a friend as I get into it. So I suppose the answer is that the book either draws me in or it doesn’t.
I always tell people that my reviews are thin on the ground and only emerge if a book absolutely chimes with my mood of the moment. Bit like falling in love really.
What is curious is that genuine friends whose books I really love – loved before they became friends – can sometimes turn out a book that I just don’t engage with. And people I might mildly dislike in real life, can nevertheless rock my world with a book I read by chance.
So I suppose it is all about the one particular book. But not my credibility as a judge. I can’t claim my reviews are either rational or measured, most of the time. Hmm. Maybe I should work on that.
It may be that your kindle isn’t online when you leave a star rating, Joanna?
Is that the problem, Jan? I rarely have my kindle online, it’s true. So next time, I’ll try taking it on line before I hit the stars button. I’d sort of assumed (silly me) that when I next went online with it, the star rating would be uploaded. But maybe not. Thanks for the advice. xx
I rarely review, mainly because I forget, although for all the reasons previously stated, I should. I, too, prefer to see at least a couple of two or three star reviews in a mix, although I’d prefer not to see them for my own books! Sometimes the quandary is very real; I once bought and read a cosy 20s set detective story written by an American, in which there were so many mistakes it completely ruined the story. After discussion with someone else, (was it you, Sophie?) I decided to track her down and write to her – not criticising, but rather diffidently talking about the differences in language, British titles and behaviour. She did reply, rather nicely, but whether she changed anything I’ve no idea. I’ve felt bad about it ever since. Happy New Year, all!
I’m sorry you feel bad about it, Lesley. If she was as nice as she sounds, she would have taken it as useful information on the UK reader and accepted it in the spirit it was offered. It might even have explained why her books didn’t sell so well in the UK as she might have hoped. And that would have given her some choices.
Of course, it may not have mattered, if her primary audience was in north America or other forn parts and/or happy to accept a 1920s Britain that was pretty much fantasy.
I don’t remember the discussion, if it was me. But if I’d been the author, I’d have been grateful – and especially that you had taken the time and trouble to explain. Very sisterly.
An “honest review” should include what a reader liked and didn’t like about a book. For every reader you “turn off” because X, there will be another who buys it because of X. The key is to give detail and reasons.
Saying a book started slow but you’re glad you finished even though X, Y, Z, might encourage readers who weren’t wowed by the sample or another reader might not like X plot lines anyway so not care if you think that part gets short changed.
It also shows sincerity. I rarely read 5 star reviews because most of them read like PR copy. There’s no such thing as honest PR copy. I go straight to the 3 star reviews because that’s where you find the most useful detail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a book because of some detail in a 2 or 3 star review. For example, even when I’m not reading genre romance, I like for there to be a happy ending so I will go directly to low starred reviews and look for complaints about how “unrealistic“ the ending is. “This read like a romance novel” is my favorite kind of low starred review and will actually increase my interest in a book.
tl;dr – Reviews should be about informing readers and sometimes the things people complain about are exactly what I want to read.
Mary, I’ve had reviews that say “this read like a Mills and Boon”. Er, yes. 🙂