Some thoughts on reviewing books

The way I read has changed since I started writing. I notice the craft more, for better or worse. A well-foreshadowed turn, a deft descriptive example, or an artful bit of dialogue can delight me, as can a scene that neatly advances plot and illuminates the character. But I’m also quicker to spot a cliché. An editor once talked me out of, “she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding,” and now I see it everywhere.

I am not a patient reader. I used to give a book a hundred pages or so, and if I didn’t care about the characters by then, I’d reluctantly put it down. Now it’s more like forty pages, and it’s not only the characters. If I can get it down to ten pages, can I become an acquisition editor? Seriously, I’m starting to understand them. I have so many books I want to read, and only so much time. Purple Prose? Nope. Repetition? Nope. Info-dumps? Nope. The proportion of books I do not finish is getting dangerously close to half.

At Goodreads, a Did Not Finish is supposed to be grounds for a one-star rating. I did that once, with a sequel I felt had diverged badly from the opening book. I wasn’t interested in the romantic sub-plot and the save the world stuff wasn’t enough to keep me going. So I quit, and gave it a one-star review. I felt guilty about it though.

Recently, I got thinking. Should I be firing off one-star reviews for every book I don’t finish? My Goodreads page would look like a fireworks show that fizzled in the rain. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. I think when they said did not finish, they really meant could not finish. If I’d read that whole book, I’d have likely given it two or three stars. But I’m not gonna. So I withdrew that review.

From now on, all the books I set down will get the silent treatment. That’s going to bias my reviews towards books I enjoyed and therefore rated highly. I’m happy with that. I want my reviews to be a guide to fun reading, not a platform for me to be dismissive.

So here’s a partial list of things that discourage me from reading a book:  psychotic bad guys, graphic violence, graphic sex, heroes with limitless superpowers, macho men with guns. And, more regretfully, dense literary prose. You won’t find a lot of reviews by me of books with these features.

On the bright side, here’s a short list of things that make me want to read a book: complex characters, strong females, original world-building, underdogs with grit. I have a special fondness for alternative aviation. Check out my reviews if you share these tastes. Or maybe take a look at Avians.


5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on reviewing books

    • This is all your fault, Jamie. I finally got around to following your suggestion to set up an author account at Goodreads, and this was the inaugural cross-post to my blog there, so that people could see what my reviews were about.

  1. Am using “search” on my manuscript to see if I say “breath she didn’t know she had been holding” anywhere.
    Editing has taught me a lot about my own writing. There is one client in particular whose writing I have to slash and burn to highlight the truly brilliant bits, and um…editing out her writing flaws made me realize those are the exact same problems in my own writing. I should probably be giving her a discount because every time I hack a cliche out of her book and go “oh wait, I say that myself on page 223” or “she’s dragging this scene out too long–hmm, jjust like my scene in the airlock…” I’m better able to self edit my own book. I should probably hire her to edit my book, as it is easier to spot the speck in another’s manuscript than the beam in one’s own.
    I usually don’t give out one star reviews because I can usually spot 1 star books in the first three or four pages and so do not buy them. When I worked as a reviewer, I didn’t review books I didn’t like because I was trying to promote Canadian SF and handing out bad reviews did not serve the purpose…with so many excellent books to talk about, why waste time on garbage? Famous reviewer doug barbour taught me that.
    These days as a full time editor the opportunity doesn’t come up because whenever I get a manuscript I don’t like, I get to change it until it is a five–or at least a four–star book. If I don’t think I can make it a better book, I turn it down.

  2. It’s really rare for me to go after a book I know won’t technically be up my alley, unless it was recommended by someone because they want to cause me pain. There was an exception for a little while back, where I joined a reviewer group so we could try to get more reviews. Typically I don’t feel as bad being harsh on a genre I’m familiar with rather than one I’m not, because reader expectations can be quite different. In general, I’ll put it on my shelf of “not-for-me” but I think because it’s my review it’s pretty subjective, and that I’m not the end-all-be-all to judge quality.

  3. Nice post. I Dorothy Parker’s The Standard of Living this morning and it took me a full half-hour. It’s maybe 1000 words long but I had to stop after every sentence to laugh and shout about how that particular line was the best I’ve ever read.

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