Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Reviews--Helpful or Not? Opinions Wanted

I’ve been doing book reviews every Tuesday for a while now, but I have a few questions for you. Do you read book reviews? Do you feel they are helpful? What do you like about them? What don’t you like?

For me, I like book reviews because they sort of give me a heads up about the book before I buy. These days my book budget is tight and I like to read what other people have said about a book before I spend that hard-earned money. However, I DO NOT like reviews where they spoil plot points or endings. I am definitely a lover of non-spoilery reviews.

I have a few blogs I depend on for trustworthy reviews, and I do go to Goodreads, (although I’ve cut down on that since a lot of those reviews are spoilery with no spoiler tags). But I have noticed that some people have said they don’t go to Goodreads anymore because the reviews are just the author’s friends and aren’t really objective.

What do you think?

When I write a review, I try to put out there what I would want to see if I was considering buying this book. Was the plot believable? Were the characters relatable? Was it well-edited? Those are the questions I try to answer and of course, no spoilers in my reviews.

As an author, I always appreciate reviews of my books that include these things as well. Even knowing that it may not be positive, I’d rather have someone constructively point out what they didn’t like so that I can improve. I always appreciate reviews that say they liked it, but the question inevitably runs through my mind---what did you like specifically? What didn’t you like? But I never ask because I’m just grateful they did a review at all.

When you read a review, what do you expect from them?

So today, dear readers, I’d like your opinions. Tell me what you really think about book reviews. Helpful or not?

16 comments:

Janice Sperry said...

If I see a book review that interests me, I'll put it on hold at the library. I don't usually read a book more than once - unless it's phenomenal. So a good review will get me to read it but the book itself has to convince me to buy it.

Gina said...

I'm on both sides of this (as a reader, that is).

I read book reviews for all the reasons you stated. I want to know if something is worth my time. I even have a minimum standard of Goodreads ratings that I will read. If it averages above 4 stars OR has at least 50% of people rating it 4 or 5 stars (combined), I will add it to the To-Read list. There are so many wonderful books out there, that I don't want to waste my time with stuff that I don't love.

I also write reviews, with the same goal in mind. For people who have similar tastes, I want them to know whether something is worth their time or not. I consider it a courtesy to other readers. I write very detailed reviews (without spoilers, ThankYouVeryMuch)

I have recently made a serious effort to be MORE conscious of the author when I am writing reviews. I am still honest (because I HATE reading a book that totally stinks but had awesome reviews- I feel deceived), but make deliberate efforts to compliment SOMETHING in the writing, and to be kind with criticisms.

Tracy Krauss said...

Writing reviews when you are also an author can be a bit of a tight rope walk. Like Gina, I hate it when I've read a book that is NOT well written but see a bunch of 'five-star-oh-how-wonderful-blah-blah" reviews. It's made me a bit of a skeptic.

On the other hand, I realize that scathing reviews are not the best way to win friends and influence people, and when so many of us are trying to make connections, it is really tough to give an honest review of a terrible book when someone has asked you to review it. I usually explain my concerns privately without publishing the review, unless it is a well known author that didn't ask me in the first place, or I truly feel like I need to warn other readers.

I don't like spoilers, and my reviews are usually quite short - more of a general impression than a detailed account.

Being honest and yet trying to put a positive spin on the review is one way to handle things, but it is a balancing act that I am finding increasingly difficult.

This was a really long reply to say that I'm not sure reviews are always that trustworthy, especially when it comes to lesser known, or self-pubbed authors. Just sayin' ...

Anonymous said...

Reviews are becoming more and more suspect because they act as a marketing tool rather than an honest, detailed review. There's something uncomfortable about an author jump starting buzz about their latest release by eliciting five or ten reviews from family, friends and fellow authors. Not only does the author put reviewers in an awkward position, they can potentially alienate readers with so many glowing reviews. I recently read a review of an LDS novel written by a close associate of the author that stated, in near testimonial language, that the author had fulfilled Orson F. Whitney's prophecy of the great Mormon novel. While there is a place for glowing commentary in a review, there is no substitute for honest, detailed, considerate reviews that answer the basic questions that readers and authors would like answered.

Readers want to know if there is a good chance they will laugh out loud. Or shed a tear. Or see themselves in the story. Will readers figure out how to deal with life, or make better decisions because of the story? Will they be frightened, taken on a new adventure, or solve a mystery? Essentially what readers want to know from a review is if they will be entertained.

One problem in many reviews targeted for readers is that the reviewer gives an overview of the story and then fails to address the most important question: was it entertaining? If they do address it at all, it’s often treated as an afterthought with a few cliché comments, while never delving into the details of WHY the reader will be entertained. Telling the reader they won't be able to put the book down, or that they'll be reading into the wee hours, or that they'll be turning page after page to find out what happens next, are too a vague an explanation to inform. If the reviewer is going to offer a highly subjective opinion about entertainment value they should explain the why of their opinion. If the reviewer is certain that the novel will make the reader cry, the reviewer should let her know why. Will it be lost love that brings the reader to tears? Will it be death? Is forgiveness what will pull on the reader's heart strings? If the reader is going to laugh, the reviewer owes it to the reader to tell her why. Is it funny pros? Is it hilarious circumstances? Is it paradox? Will the reader enjoy solving the mystery or is it so obvious that all the deductive joy is lost? Will the adventure thrill the reader or will she be so lost in the detail of the sewer systems beneath Paris France that she becomes bored in the pages between the action?

(Continued below)

Anonymous said...

While authors want to know if their novel is entertaining and on what level it entertains, they also want to know things about a novel that readers have no interest in knowing. Authors want to know if they are good at their craft. Specifically they want to know what technical points of their craft are strong or weak. If the author used point of view in a way that captivated, they should be told how they achieved a close or distant narrative view that heightened the emotional presentation of the story. If the author chose a good balance between narration and dialogue to show the passage of time, it should be commended (and pointed out with some detail). If the author has problems with voice because they didn’t vary the description, interior dialogue and declarative sentence structure within each paragraph, the weakness should be made known very clearly. If the author tried to sneak in told emotions impersonating as speaker attributions, the reviewer should plead with the author to jettison those pesky dialogue tags in their next work.

The reviewer should know their audience and be prepared to fully answer the questions that readers and authors want answered most. An honest review is worth the price of a novel, and then some!

Psychiatrists developed the Rorschach test for just such a situation as novel reviewing. The ink blots were nothing more than black splotches on white paper. What the psychiatrists wanted to know is what the patient was thinking about, and the ink blot gave the patient a medium to express their thoughts. When the doctor asked, "Tell us what you see in this ink blot", what she was really asking the patient was, "Tell us what you're thinking. Tell us about your thoughts, your desires, your best self, your worst self, reveal your hidden self to us." The reader of reviews would be wise to remember that novel reviewing is much like a Rorschach test. Because its a subjective opinion, the review tells us more about the thoughts, ideas, bias, phobias, joys, aspirations, loves, hates, faith, and beliefs of the reviewer than it ever tell us about the novel under review.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Janice, I have my favorite books that I read again on rainy days. Some books just have scenes in them that I love and will read again. I know, some people probably think that's weird! :)

Gina, as a writer and a reader, I can totally relate. It is definitely a tightrope, as Tracy said, in offering constructive criticism and not being hurtful.

Tracy, I agree it is getting more difficult, but I don't know if the answer for me is just in giving an impression of the book instead of a detailed review. Things jump out at me when I read, and I usually include those in my review. But then, I don't want to be nit-picky, either. *sigh* Such a fine, fine line.

Anon, I'm curious if you read Meridian Magazine's reviews and consider them fair. I think I read the review you reference and I admit, I did cringe a bit at the statement as well. It's hard to argue with opinions, though, and I guess it does boil down to opinions. But as a reader, is offering your opinion on a book helpful, really? Are we to the point where offering an impression rather than a detailed review is easier/better/more appropriate?

I appreciate all the opinions expressed. I've really been given a lot of food for thought. Thank you!

Melanie Goldmund said...

I like book reviews. I've got a couple of sites bookmarked that deal daily with reviewing books, and I check them regularly to see if anything new has come up that I just have to read.

What do I expect from them? Well, first off, I want to find out more about the book. What is the main theme of the story? Is it, for instance, a romance with a few paranormal themes, or is it mostly paranormal with a bit of romance? What's the target audience -- teenaged girls or men who love guns? Increasingly, I also look for clues as to how many POV's there are; too many, and I fear getting lost. Is the book a standalone, or part of a series? If it's number two or three, will I have to read the preceding books, or can I dive right in? Does the book end on a cliffhanger, or is there a sense of completion?

And, of course, I do look to see what the reviewers say about the plot, the editing, the setting, and the characters -- especially the characters.

When I'm looking at amazon, I usually go straight for the 1-star reviews to find out what people did not like about the book. Are their complaints legitimate, or are they protesting, for instance, that they didn't realize it was an old book in a new cover? Only then do I go back and read the other reviews.

Melanie Jacobson said...

I like Goodreads the best, but I generally don't read review blogs. I almost never read reviews of LDS fiction because I don't believe them. I just don't think people tell the truth because they're too likely to bump into the people whose work they critique (and this is pointed at you, btw. It's just what I've observed in reviews of LDS fiction). But I know of one reviewer who purports to be unbiased but I find that reviewer to be pretty out of touch and almost always think the opposite of whatever the review says.

I DO like to read reviews of books I've already read to see if my opinion matches up with someone else's. And I like Goodreads because once a book has over about a 100 reviews, you can still get a good sense of people's opinions, even accounting for author's friends/family. Also, I'm a huge bookworm, as are my friends, and I usually use their 4 and 5 star reviews to decide what to read next in the national market.

Kate said...

I think Anonymous and Melanie make good points. I am increasingly worried about this as I will soon have my own book coming out and I feel the pressure to play nice, but I don't want to mislead.

I don't even want to do book reveiws. Never have. Can a new author get away with doing that?

I, like Melanie, don't read LDS fiction reviews. I see the cover and author, read the back liner and make up my own mind. Same with national titles. However, you need to know that I don't really like reviews beyond the emotional response it elicited in the reader. I hate knowing even the minutest details going into a new book. I want a fresh untainted reading experience.

I trust sites that run by reviewers not writers more.

Anita said...

When reviewers fail to discriminate between mediocrity and excellence, readers follow suit resulting in something akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes. Years ago at Ricks College students were required to take a basic humanities class that included learning proper etiquette for attending fine arts performances. I well remember the professor teaching us about standing ovations. He explained that a standing ovation was a rare, even once in a lifetime, experience. It was his personal pet peeve that in Mormon culture standing ovations follow every performance from high school plays to ward choir concerts. Knowing that as offspring of the culture it would be nigh impossible for us to select one per lifetime, he encouraged us to limit our standing ovations to one per calendar year. I still smile thinking about it. But he was right. When we gush our praises for every performance, we cheapen our applause.

Anonymous said...

(continued from above)

While authors want to know if their novel is entertaining and on what level it entertains, they also want to know things about a novel that readers have no interest in knowing. Authors want to know if they are good at their craft. Specifically they want to know what technical points of their craft are strong or weak. If the author used point of view in a way that captivated, they should be told how they achieved a close or distant narrative view that heightened the emotional presentation of the story. If the author chose a good balance between narration and dialogue to show the passage of time, it should be commended (and pointed out with some detail). If the author has problems with voice because they didn’t vary the description, interior dialogue and declarative sentence structure within each paragraph, the weakness should be made known very clearly. If the author tried to sneak in told emotions impersonating as speaker attributions, the reviewer should plead with the author to jettison those pesky dialogue tags in their next work.

The reviewer should know their audience and be prepared to fully answer the questions that readers and authors want answered most. An honest review is worth the price of a novel, and then some!

Psychiatrists developed the Rorschach test for just such a situation as novel reviewing. The ink blots were nothing more than black splotches on white paper. What the psychiatrists wanted to know is what the patient was thinking about, and the ink blot gave the patient a medium to express their thoughts. When the doctor asked, "Tell us what you see in this ink blot", what she was really asking the patient was, "Tell us what you're thinking. Tell us about your thoughts, your desires, your best self, your worst self, reveal your hidden self to us." The reader of reviews would be wise to remember that novel reviewing is much like a Rorschach test. Because its a subjective opinion, the review tells us more about the thoughts, ideas, bias, phobias, joys, aspirations, loves, hates, faith, and beliefs of the reviewer than it ever tell us about the novel under review.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Melanie G., it's because of your comments on some of my reviews that I've gotten a little more detailed in the genre department. I appreciate your thoughts.

Melanie J, did you really mean those comments weren't pointed at me? I agree, though, I can see how it might make some uncomfortable in case they bump into the author. I know I've had my share of uncomfortable moments because I haven't given a glowing review, but I honestly believe that we all grow as writers when we get honest feedback. Why should we be embarrassed about it? I do agree there are some reviewers who seem out of touch or only give five stars.

Kate, I totally think a new author can get away with it. I only do reviews because I like sharing my opinion on what I'm reading. I don't think everyone should or has to do reviews at all. I thought it was really interesting that you trust sites run by reviewers more than writers, though. I was wondering what your reasons were, just out of curiosity.

Anita, I LOVED your comment. It is so true and I hope you don't mind if I quote you on that from time to time. :)

Sheila said...

I just spent 20 minutes composing a message and just lost it all. So now you are going to get the short version:
-I am a reviewer not a critic.
-I write a review based on how I felt about the book while reading it.
-More than half of my readers on my blog are not writers, they don't care are the technical aspects of writing. They would be bored!
-I agree with Anon about this, "Because its a subjective opinion, the review tells us more about the thoughts, ideas, bias, phobias, joys, aspirations, loves, hates, faith, and beliefs of the reviewer than it ever tell us about the novel under review." So if the reader shares the same beliefs, loves hates. etc. as the reviewer, then they will probably like the book reviewed.
-Writing a review should be more than a book report. Don't give too many details. I hate to read reviews where the whole plot is given. Thanks! Now I don't need to bother reading the book. Give enough details to entice without, giving it all away.
-I always try to be honest how I feel. I use the phrase often, "if you don't like __________, then you may not like this book.
-I try not to give 5 stars liberally, but when I feel a book deserves it, then that is what it receives. If a book keeps me up all night, even when I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOO tired, that book deserves high ratings. If I eat my lunch and want to read a book during my 35 minute "lunch hour", that is a good book.If I can put a book down and not pick it up again until a few days later, that book is not a 4 or 5 star book.
-Kate and Melanie, I encourage you to go and try reading some LDS book reviews again. I think that you might be surprised at the honesty there with some of us.
-Thanks Julie for blogging about this.I hope that you realize also, the review I gave your book was an honest review. Ribbon of Darkness is a fantastic book and one of your best. You should be proud. It deserved the 5 star rating I gave it.
-Julie, I do feel that just offering your opinion about a book is helpful, because that is mainly what most readers are looking for. All readers are looking for something different in a book. Years ago before there were book review blogs, we didn't hate Grandma if she recommended a book and we didn't like it. That is a chance that we all take when reading a book, whether we have read a review on it or not. It all comes down to personal likes and perspective. Thanks for blogging about this.

~~Sheila
"Why Not? Because I Said So!" and "LDS Women's Book Review"

Mindy said...

Sheila I agree with you 100%. I am not a critic, if I didn't like the book, I'm not going to review it. I think there is WAY to much negativity in the world. Why do we always feel the need to put others down. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. It's just a book review, we're not writing a report to congress.

I don't tell the whole plot of the book I review. What's the fun in that. I tell a few things that I liked, characters, quotes, etc. Let the reader read the book.

I probably have a lot of 4 starred book on my goodreads, but I only read books I think I'm going to like. Why waste your time?

Great comments everyone! Have a great day :)

Kate said...

Julie, you wrote:

I thought it was really interesting that you trust sites run by reviewers more than writers, though. I was wondering what your reasons were, just out of curiosity.

I feel like a site dedicated to reviewing books has to dish out the truth or risk a bad reputation.

On the other hand, I think writers feel the pressure to only point out the positive (even if there's very little positive) because they understand how hard the author worked and how connected the author feel's to his/her work.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Sheila and Mindy, thank you so much for weighing in on this discussion. I think your opinions were especially pertinent since you both are part of a wonderful book review team. (And Sheila thanks for saying what you did about my book. That means a lot to me!)

Kate, thanks for coming back to answer my question. I can really see your perspective now that you say that, and I agree, it can be hard for some writers. I guess, for me, I feel like I can give constructive criticisms in my reviews and I expect that when my books are being reviewed. (I've definitely had my share of negative reviews. I doubt there's an author who hasn't.) Obviously, on my blog I'm offering my opinion of a book, and people are free to agree or disagree, but I hope they walk away thinking I'm glad I read her review. I wasn't even aware of that book, or something else positive. :)

I guess what it comes down to is I love to share what I'm reading and I hope other people can benefit from it.