books

The Trouble with Book Reviews

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With the exception of my recent look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, I don’t write many book reviews. That is for a fairly simple reason. Most books that I read remind me of a Thai restaurant near my old house. That may sound odd, but stick with me. The food at that restaurant is fine. Perfectly mediocre. Appropriate amounts of peanut sauce. Tofu in all the right places. Everything as expected. Which all adds up to me never wanting to eat there.

I want my restaurants to be more than perfectly mediocre. I want my books to be more too.

I have spent the entirety of my professional career working at libraries and publishing houses, which means that I have read a ridiculous number of books. Though each book has its own spark, its own flavor, many novels sound the same. I don’t hate all tropes – heck, I play Story Trope Bingo on occasion – but if a plot follows the usual pathways of a genre, the book has to have something really special about its characters, it style, or its overall competency in order for me to keep reading.

As a result of my oversensitivity to these plot patterns, I am not good at writing book reviews. Perhaps that assessment is unfair on my part. I am not bad at writing them – I can typically pull together a mixture of positive and negative things to say about any work – but I find it difficult to take off my editor’s cap when I read. And that editor’s voice finds its way into my reviews. My impulse is always to write a review as though the author is still in the drafting stages of the book and has time to fix major arcs. “You need to fix character A’s voice; these three plot points don’t fit together; the background details are inconsistent, etc.” And all of those points could certainly be applied in a review, but reviews do, I think, benefit from being more diplomatic than I naturally am. I need to be able to step back from criticizing character A and take a more holistic approach to assessing the novel.

(Also I have a terrible habit of perusing the free ebooks on Amazon, and some of them are simply bad. Very, very bad.)

All of this is to say that unless I go through a major intellectual transformation, I will never fill my blog with book reviews. Every so often, that knowledge makes me maudlin, but not enough for me to try and change things.

That does make me wonder though; how do the rest of you approach book reviews? I see so many fantastic reviewers who engage with books, and I am curious to hear how you all go about it. What makes a good book review, and what makes a terrible one? Are some systems for reviewing better than others? I’m not entirely sure, but perhaps someday I will find out.

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Image Attributions:

Tevaprapas, “Buddha Sutra”, 2009, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bhuddha_Sutra_in_Thai-Khmer_Font.JPG.

Jean Northington, “Literary Fiction Bingo”, Book Riot, February 17, 2015, https://bookriot.com/2015/02/17/story-tropes-bingo-almost-every-genre/

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43 thoughts on “The Trouble with Book Reviews

  1. Something in the book has to hook me. A character, writing style, subject matter. I will review a book I really didn’t care for but may not suggest it for my blog. It tries to have some integrity. If it starts out like my mom’s texts, alltogetherwithnoediting. It’s out.

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  2. My reviews are very casual (it’s just for my own enjoyment if I’m being honest). The only real system I have is, if I saw this book on a shelf, what would I want to know that would help me decide whether or not I would want to read it (without sharing any spoilers)? There are certain things that should be included, summary, genre, length, author, story POV, any unusual features, etc. But I feel like my only job with reviews is helping someone determine if this is a book for them or not. Maybe the reader can’t stand books with non-linear timelines. Maybe they love books that include additional media (writing in email or text format). You never know, it’s just about giving them the details to make the best choice for them (something I desperately need with my never-ending to-be-read list and limited free time). That’s also the sort of thing I like writing though (blabbing my opinion into thin air). Do what you love and if that’s not reviewing, that’s no problem. I really enjoy the content you do post!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That seems like a good system! You’re informing the reader about structural, stylistic, and character choices, offering your opinion, and allowing them to come to their own conclusions. (And let’s face it; sometimes casual reviews are the best ones.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I always admire people who write in-depth reviews but I tend to keep mine short, around 200 words, and mainly focus on my personal response to the books. I always try to look for the best in each book I review, even if it wasn’t really for me, for 2 reasons. 1. The author has put a lot of hard work into the book and that needs to be recognised. 2. Reading lots of reviews has taught me that for every book I adore, there is at least one (usually a lot more) people that haven’t enjoyed it at all. So I’ll write positives and negatives, but focus on the positives. And although in the past I’ve written negative reviews I’ve stopped. If I really don’t like a book then I won’t review it.

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  4. Story trope bingo is now my new favourite thing! I started reviewing books so I would be eligible for arcs from Netgalley, but I do enjoy it. Like Ree, I try to keep mine shortish – 300 – 500 words with a basic outline and why I did or didn’t enjoy it. That old saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” is absolutely true, but sometimes authors can put a great new spin on an old trope. Illuminae is one of my favourite books of the last year – it probably hits four or five of the tropes on the bingo card but the style of the book (plus the explosions, deadly plague and spaceships) still makes it thoroughly engaging – for me anyway 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Illuminae” definitely plays with the genre in some interesting ways! I like when people try and do new things like that regardless of whether or not they work out. Points for creativity.

      (…And the lure of NetGalley may also have been what caused me to write my scant few reviews.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I hate lengthy book reviews. Why would I want to sit there and read a long, in-depth book review, when the review is suppose to sell me on why I should or shouldn’t read the book? Make a summary short and to the point. Then make a paragraph or two..maybe three about reasons why you liked it, but also why your audience should stop reading your book review and go buy the book immediately. Lol.
    Mine are all casual. But the books I love, I might go more in depth with if I really feel like it. My main goals are to get people excited to read it, and to rant about why I hated or loved it.

    I barely focus on if it needs edits unless it’s a train wreck. I’ll maybe mention it has a few errors, but I don’t go into depth about that either.

    I do like to mention what I hope to see or what I hope to happen in the next book, where it should go (in my opinion). That way when I read a series, I can kind of start where I left off with the last book review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like your approach! I think that a lot of people reading reviews do want to hear about other people’s impressions and responses to works. (And depending on how people write them, lengthy reviews can feel a bit like school essays, and nobody wants that.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like your Literary Fiction Bingo. I only write book reviews when a book affects me emotionally in some way. The last story that did that was The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. It fed me like a hearty stew. The writing is more of a journalling experience for me than actually reviewing. But I appreciate those who do write honest reviews. It’s not easy.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. That is why I write them. My book review blog is new but I’ve been writing book reviews for my own enjoyment & to track them for well over a decade. And to my surprise, I now get all my e-books for free in exchange for an honest review (I only request books that I would buy.) I wish you would continue to write book reviews, it was so much fun to read a review you wrote on a book I too reviewed.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah! The infamous book review. I didn’t start out reviewing books on my blog and kind of just fell into it when I realized what a big thing it was. (It was also a nice way to jot down my thoughts of a book, thoughts I can come back to when I want.) Though, I struggled for a while on how to write book reviews. I’m very structured. I wanted my reviews to be structured, but I focused so much on the mechanics of writing that I think I lost many people who would normally read a review. So, after some contemplation and a poll, I have made some changes to my reviews.

    I lost the structure, made it prettier (and shorter), and wrote my thoughts on the book. So far, it’s been received really well. I pick just a couple of topics that stuck out for me in regards to the book and I comment on those. And people comment back! Never before had people commented on my book reviews. So, I was ecstatic, but I don’t know what the formula is. I think it’s all a matter of voice, really. If you can speak naturally about the book, the way you would with friends, you’re more likely to have readers read your book reviews. If you don’t have voice, they don’t care. Does that make sense?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Focus and brevity can definitely make a distance! And I think your right; for a lot of people, the reviews are about the reviewer as much as they are about the book. People want to feel that connection and often trust reviewers more when it exists. (Which sounds very cold when I phrase it that way. But the communication and camaraderie matter.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love to read and I also love to write so it seemed natural to try my hand at reviews. I established a book review form where authors can register their book for a review. If it looks like a story I’ll enjoy I email them back and tell them yes, I’ll review the book. If the book sounds boring when its registered, like you telling me about it sounds boring and I’m not even reading the actual book, chances are I’ll pass.

    Far as writing the review, I’m very thorough. I write lengthy reviews because I’m long winded lol. BUT I’m starting to shorten them up a lot though. I focus on giving accounts on what the story is about first and then add my personal thoughts about it.

    I try to focus on the message of the book and what the author tries to convey and why its worth the readers time to invest in the book. While I look for the good in every book, I don’t publish anything I find under a three in rating. I email those critiques to the author personally.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I started out writing book reviews to better understand and learn from them. My aim is to provide enough information to give people a rough idea of the focus of the story, and the evaluate the different aspects of the story. I’ve always appreciated reviews that clearly outline the strengths and weaknesses, which helps me decide whether or not to take a gamble on something that may not be very strong.

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  10. Don’t use Amazon or Kindle’s free books, I agree they are horrible. I get all my e-books for free from NetGalley. I only request books that I know I will enjoy such as Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. I love the way you write and I would love to be able to follow your book reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right! I should know better. The lure of free books is just so strong. Sadly I’ve run into some rather awful books on NetGalley as well. (Though to be fair, that may reflect may inability to pick good books more than anything.)

      Like

  11. I try to keep my reviews fairly short or medium length. No one really likes long-winded reviews that are dull and very straightforward. Although, some readers and reviewers, like myself, make an exception to those who are basically ranting (both good and bad) about a book. It’s just so much fun to see someone share their unfiltered, natural reaction to a book. That’s what Goodreads is for LOL. I have a few reviews that are fairly long but I try to give them subheadings and obvious transitions so it doesn’t look like an essay. Sometimes I even bold the most important parts of the text, so readers don’t have to read the whole thing but can zero in on those particular ideas. I love reviewers who break down their reviews into plot, character, style, and pacing among other elements. It makes an easier read and I can definitely use their opinions to determine if I would read the book or not based on those particular elements. And it’s also great to see what the reviewer is looking for in a book!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I never wrote reviews. Didn’t know the impact they had on authors and the promotion of their books.Then I had a back injury which led me to spending more time reading, scrolling Facebook (way too much time) and interacting with some authors. I heard over and over that they really need reviews to keep up their craft. So I started writing them. Then I created a blog because I was spending a lot of time writing reviews so I figured another outlet to take up more of my time while recovering from back and knee injuries. On review sites I generally leave a brief review and on my blog I try to highlight more of the book and the author. If an author gifts me a book then I definitely leave a review. I’ve had a few that I didn’t really care for, but try to diplomatic when leaving the review, I’ll still state what didn’t appeal to me but do not rip the author apart. It has become apparent to some of my author “friends” that if I love the book then I blitz it out, if it’s a so-so read for me, then it gets the normal review post sites and then I move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry that you were injured, but I am glad that it lead you to the online book community.

      Your approach to reviews sounds gracious and balanced; I like the idea of posting a review no matter whether the book was good or bad but the being more supportive of a fantastic work. (And I’m sure the authors you review appreciate it too!)

      Like

  13. I try to do the same thing I teach my students: come up with criteria for success or failure, choose passages to support my claims, and explain myself. Anything else, in my opinion, is a reviewer asking readers to believe her because she thinks she’s right (I call that “mom logic” in the vein of “because I said so.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I have a book review blog. Some books are so good or bad that they are easy to review. The problem is the mediocre ones. I don’t worry much about editorial. I am a fiction writer but a reader first.
    One thing I do is try to give a fair and honest review of what I think will bother other readers. There are many things that most readers won’t notice and those things I skip over. Most readers don’t care if the author uses passive voice or similar small issues. I focus on story and characters.
    Also, there are many times I believe a book was decent but it turned out to just not be for me and I say that in my reviews. This is often the case when I don’t care for a book but can’t really put my foot on why. If the book is well written I just chalk it up to me not being the intended reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are some great points. It can be difficult to talk about books that don’t inspire a passionate response in either direction.

      I do like your method of focusing on characterization and plot though. Those are the aspects that I think most readers care about.

      Like

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