Book Reviews Gone Wild: things I won’t listen to and those I will

I just sent Dear Daughter and five of her speech friends to speech camp. They’ll be there for a week, learning how to create and perform speeches in various categories for competition against their peers.

They will be judged.

Hopefully not too harshly, nor too falsely. Because, you see, they can’t get better if they are lied to. Even if it saves a hurt feeling or two, empty feedback provided in a way to only uplift and not to teach will not help them get better. It will not prepare them for the upcoming speech season. It will not help them pinpoint their flaws so they know what to work on.

Sound familiar?

Pull up Amazon or GoodReads. Now, click on a book–any book–and read the reviews. What did you find?  Something sugar-coated with no substance? A scathing review penned by the devil himself? Hurtful words, helpful hints or something in between?

Book reviews serve a purpose: to guide fellow readers in choosing their next beach read.

This type of publicity shouldn’t be directed by anything other than the reviewer’s opinion of the book. It shouldn’t matter if she met the author at a book signing. It shouldn’t matter if the author is the reviewer’s best friend. It shouldn’t matter if the author is Great Aunt Martha and she’s promised the farm in return for a glowing review.

Sadly, however, it seems to. More and more, books are reviewed with the author in mind, not the writing itself, and certainly not future readers. Blog friends return favors by selling word of mouth to reach a broader audience with their own published work. Amazon’s stars are not always given for unbiased purposes. Heck, rumor has it some of the bling is paid for. Or worse yet, it’s the author and his/her band of besties spamming stars on the bulletin board to trick readers into buying.

Gah! What’s a discerning reader to do? How do we pick solid books with content and writing style that interests us? How do we see past the ploys and make sure our money is spent wisely?

Personally, I’m wary of the all five-star books. If a novel has twenty-five reviews and every last one of them is a five, I run. And because of that, I very rarely give out five stars of my own. In fact, I think I’ve reserved that honor for a mere (and literal) handful of books.

I’m wary of the reviews that gush, yet have no substance. “It was amazing.” “Best book I ever read.” And…, why is that? If someone is either gushing or degrading, I want to know why. If they can’t tell me, I avoid the novel like I’d avoid the stink sac on a skunk.

If the review appears cautiously kind, I usually don’t read any further. This is a reviewer trying really hard not to hurt the author’s feelings. It means the book was not good. It didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations, yet he is too nice to say anything hurtful.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So who/what the heck do you trust in a review?”

Constructive honesty.

Circling back to my speech kids and the critiques I want them to get this week at camp: constructive honesty.

I like hearing what works and what doesn’t. I like kindness with a purpose. I like substance–not a blow-by-blow of the novel (or speech)–but rather a gut reaction on how those words made the reviewer feel. And I like to know what needs improvement if it’s a real issue: grammar, spelling, characterization, etc…

What types of book reviews do you trust? Which ones make you cautious? Do you purchase books based on reviews and/or the star rating? Share your experiences about that great book with bad reviews or the five-star flop you got schnookered into purchasing. What made you choose to go against the ratings?

Curious minds want to know.

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2 responses to “Book Reviews Gone Wild: things I won’t listen to and those I will

  1. The comments made of the five star rating of books is intriguing as I agree to never give a five * in any of my reviews at goodreads or authonomy. Great blog.

    • Thanks, Cliff. I think it’s important to keep in mind what the stars are for and that the way we use them can greatly impact both readers and writers.

      I appreciate your comment!

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