Book reviewing – a delicate dance

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.13.12 PMSo … you’ve been asked to review a novel and agreed to do so. The novel in question sounds interesting: a dash of romance, dramatic twists and turns, life and death circumstances all wrapped up in a historical package. My kind of book.

But the reality is otherwise. Too many subplots. Too many points of view. Melodramatic, over-the-top events. Three adjectives where one would do. A heroine who is lucky at every turn. A love story that fails to sizzle.

Interestingly, the novel in question has many 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads. Clearly I am out of step with those folks.

I have another two weeks before deciding what to say and how to say it. Should I pull my punches? Advice welcome 🙂

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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16 Responses

  1. I’ve been in exactly this situation recently and decided not to post a review but to offer the author my feedback if they wished. Since then I have been much more selective in choosing books to review!

  2. Perfect example of why I make it a rule never to review! Or, more exactly, never to review fiction. I will occasionally post reviews of research books or childhood favorites. Good luck!

  3. Hello Mary, As you say, a difficult decision and I don’t envy you; especially when lots of other people have left good reviews. As you have been asked specifically to write a review it would appear that you don’t have much choice really. If I don’t care for a book that everyone else appears to delight in I simply don’t leave a review, rather than leave what might be construed as negative comments;, but then I haven’t been personally asked to as you have. Perhaps you could look for anything positive you have found in the book to comment on and also be as polite and fair as possible in explaining why you personally found the book not to your taste. I guess at the end of the day the decision has to be yours but for me I always try to give constructive criticism where I can. I know you well enough by now to be aware that is exactly how you yourself would approach any review you are going to give. The best of luck with it Leila.

  4. I don’t think this is even a question. If the novel’s flawed, it’s flawed. Not to say so–respectfully, of course–is to compromise your standards.

    Coincidentally, I’m in the same position. A major house, from an editor I respect, asked me to review what turns out to be . . . well, let’s just say I’ve read better. I post the review Monday.

  5. I’ve been in this position and worse. An author from my publishing house has written a glowing review of my book. She is aware I’m currently reading her book. Does she expect a review swap? I hope not – I don’t do that. I review honestly and will continue to do so regardless of the circumstances.

    If someone asked you for a review, they should know you would be honest. Remember reviews are for readers and your honest assessment is what they need. Satisfying the author with a great review is not your responsibility.

    Never compromise your ethics or opinion for any reason. You can be honest and still be kind.

  6. It’s a tough position to be in. We all know there’s ‘grade inflation’ going on in reviews. My own approach is to try to be honest with myself. As an author, I am not offended by a 3 or 4 star review (or even 2 star) if the reviewer gives reasons. I’ve learned a lot from honest reviewers. If I know the author and plan to put up a 3-star review, I contact the author directly to share my feedback first. If I can’t in good conscience give 3 stars, I generally don’t post a review at all because I quite likely didn’t even finish the book. And I don’t review what I don’t finish.

  7. Sounds like a novel I read 😉

    It’s always an unpleasant situation when you promise a review and then you don’t like the book.
    If I have an agreement directly with the author, I normally send the review to the him/her first (well, I normally do that regardless). If I don’t like the book I try to speak about things I liked (normally there are a few), but I also point out what I didn’t like, in a polite way and always giving reasons why certain things didn’t work for me.
    So far, no author has asked me not to publish a review.

    A friends of mine had a similar problem, but while taking part to a blog tour, which was particualrly tricky. She eventually talked it out with the organisers of the blog tour and they sorted the problem out together.

    1. This new world of blog tours and online reviews is definitely challenging as more and more readers rely on blogs, Goodreads and other sources for recommendations. Perhaps it’s better to find a few blogs you really trust and stay with them.

  8. I haven’t been in your position, but I can understand why it would be a difficult decision to make. However, I think any author worth their salt would understand, or even appreciate, constructive criticism (I know that’s easier said than done; and I am not an author, but I hope that, if I ever become one, I would be realistic about the possibility of my work receiving criticism, and even learn from it). But if they don’t, then that’s their problem, not yours. You don’t owe anyone a positive review.

    Just my two cents.

  9. Is this for the Washington Independent Review of Books? Your last review (of the Kafka novel) was excellent. It really captured the essence of the novel. I don’t know if they give you a target word count but this time I would be briefer. Give an overview that focuses on the strengths and minimizes the drawbacks. “A host of intriguing characters, snappy dialogue, and a few plot twists that, although not always believable and at times too convenient, made for an entertaining read.” Something along those lines.

  10. Write an honest review. (Please!) Goodreads and Amazon are awash in reviews that don’t mean anything because the reviewers either a) never met a book they didn’t like or b) feel there’s something wrong about criticizing the book. I recently read of a reviewer for a major magazine who’s sworn off giving negative reviews–he is therefore absolutely worthless as a reviewer and should be replaced. There’s also a web site that bans negative reviews (so naturally I won’t waste time on it).

    One popular author of historical novels writes like a breathless fifteen-year-old trying to set a world record for the use of modifiers. After about thirty pages, when the male protagonist was described as smiling “sneeringly” at an opponent in football, I gave it up. If it hadn’t been a library book, I might have thrown it against the wall. So I spent a little time looking up reviews of this author’s books. Hardly anyone seemed to notice the infelicities of style! Are readers’ standards really that low?

    Then we’ve got the Dan Brown fan on librarything who complained that critics shouldn’t pan his hero’s output because so many people enjoy his books. That’s rather like claiming that French fries are nutritious, because after all millions of people eat them every day.

    And I’ve had an unpleasant personal experience with such attitudes. Last year, as a member of the board of the local chapter of a nonprofit organization, I was asked to review a popular nonfiction book for the chapter newsletter. The book turned out to be chock full of unsupported assumptions and outright errors of fact. When I pointed out some of its problems to fellow Board members, several of them got very upset. I was allegedly being “insensitive,” “indiscreet,” and “vitriolic” about a book that they had not even read yet. So my review was censored before it was even written and now there is a “no reviews” policy in the newsletter. And because there’s a “policy,” no censorship has taken place!

    If a book is full of problems, by all means point them out. Readers of reviews will benefit.

  11. Be honest, as even a bad review shows you care and have taken your valuable time to read the book. Unfortunately most review pages are skewed towards the 3 to 5 star reviews because readers who do not like books fail to offer a review. Try to read the book earlier in the pre publication phase when perhaps there is an option to suggest changes. I enjoy doing this for my writing contacts. The worst situation then is when you offer comments and are told it is too late to change!

  12. There is a lot of online discussion about whether authors should review books at all. I think they should. But I currently am not – not “starred” reviews or even formal reviews on my blog. I am writing about what I am reading – aspects that interest me – and determined to stay honest about it. Gracious, I hope. But honest. It’s hard though, knowing writers are real people and pointing out any fault seems to send them (us?) into an emotional tailspin. Simply finishing a book is a major achievement. But that so many writers freak out about anything less than 5 stars makes me crazy. Every book can’t be “above average”. For me, 5 stars had better be life changing. And few books are. Better that I not participate in that grade inflation.

  13. Dear friends … many thanks for your comments encouraging me to write an honest review (which I have now done). I too believe reviews are intended to inform readers of the good and the bad and as Carol Bodensteiner said, inflation to 4 and 5 star reviews in rampant. My normal practice when I look at a book on Amazon or Goodreads is to check both GOOD and BAD reviews before I decide to purchase. What also amazes me about this particular book is the reputable name of its publisher.

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