Friday, March 4, 2011

The Book Review Conundrum

When I want to go to the movies, I get recommendations from reviews.  I start with the film critics at the New York Times, and maybe the guys at Entertainment Weekly.  Even when they don't like a movie, the review includes enough information for me to know if I would like it.  Case in point:  "RED", the recent action thriller cast with a bunch of AARP-eligible actors.  Here's the line in A.O. Scott's review in the Times that told me I would enjoy "RED":
It is possible to have a good time at “RED,” but it is not a very good movie. 

Sure enough, I had a great time even though it's not a very good movie.

By contrast, music reviews might as well be written in Italian for all they help me figure out if I'll like something.  That's mostly my failing; I lack the musical intelligence to understand what people who have that intelligence are saying to each other.  For musical recommendations, I find Pandora to be a better way to go.

Book reviews of romance novels are tricky -- they ought to work really well, but they just don't.  I  recently bought a book (I'll call it Reckless Dream just because that's a nice anodyne title and, according to Amazon, no one's used it yet) because someone I know and like gave it an A in a glowing book review.  Alas, Reckless Dream was a DNF -- I got two-thirds of the way through the book and had to give up.

So what went wrong?  Obviously, I thought I was getting one sort of book after reading the review, and instead I got something that was just badly written.  The prose in Reckless Dream -- all of it -- was the sort you get in sex scenes: misty allusions and gauzy metaphors to prevent calling a penis by its anatomically correct name. As a result the sex scenes in Reckless Dream weren't bad, but the rest of it was deeply frustrating.

That style of writing -- soft-focus with Vaseline-on-the-lens prose -- is useless when applied to exposition and excruciating in internal monologues.  No one I know thinks in wispy, tangential metaphors when wrestling with the cock-ups in his or her life.

Okay, so the writing wasn't very good, and as a result the pacing seemed off.  It also didn't help that Reckless Dream's author withheld a lot of back-story that could have kept the reader clued in to what was going on.

Here's what I'm struggling with.  Why did the plot and characters sound crystal-clear and sparkling in the book review and then be ditch-water gray and murky in the book itself?

One explanation is obvious: the book reviewer is a better writer than Reckless Dream's author.  The reviewer made the characters more coherent -- in the book, they were a mess -- and presented the plot as compelling and intriguing.  Maybe the reviewer was able to tease out all the good bits for the review and ignored the rest.  Maybe I'm just intolerably cranky.  But for whatever reason, my cynical verdict is that the book was a snore but the review was great.

Most reviews focus on a recap of the plot and characters, and then finish with a short statement of the reviewer's enjoyment level plus one or two things that were particularly pleasing or disappointing.  It's rare that I read a review that actually discusses the style and techniques the writer used.  Sometimes it seems the review is of the romance, and not of the book presenting that romance.  You know -- the review's all about how much the reviewer liked the characters and believed their relationship, with no mention of whether the book is any good.

What's your experience with book reviews?  Have books lived up to, exceeded or fallen short of what the reviewer(s) led you to expect?  Are there reviewers you trust, or is it the review itself that helps you to know if you'd like the book?  Finally, what elements in a review help you know if you want to read the book?


  1. Sometimes it seems the review is of the romance, and not of the book presenting that romance.

    Those drive me nuts. That's the main criteria I use for whether to add a review blog to my google reader or not.

    In reviews, I like to hear about the plot basics, basics of who the characters are, and anything that makes it different from the vast majority of other books in its genre. I look at prose next, but I can do that with an excerpt.

  2. This is why browsing in a bookstore is essential. I do not buy books based on reviews--but I do use the reviews to guide me to new authors to look at. Nine times out of ten, after flipping through the book and reading a bit, I Put The Book Back!
    Net result--money saved!
    (Or, if its a hard-back, I track down a library copy.)
    I read a number of review sites and usually look for a book that everyone is happy with.
    Plus, by my age, I know what I like, and there are books that I know I won't like-no matter how well reviewed.

  3. Book reviews can be very subjective (same for movie reviews). I generally take them with more than a pinch of salt. All the hype over Jonathan Franzen and I hated 'The Corrections', haven't gone near his new one, even though he has re-embraced Oprah. I tend to go more with personal recommendations and books that appeal to me on a different level. Reviewers can be fuckwits and I've bought some books that I shouldn't have. Jo Nesbo rocks, Julia Spencer-Fleming is a gem, and I can't wait for the next CS Harris.

  4. Why am I still amazed that there can be two or more opinions about a book? When someone criticizes a book I love, I'm shaken. When I read a book someone else raved about and I can't understand why, I feel confused. I don't think it will ever change.

    I have learned that a book review that raves about beautiful writing and includes the phrase "the writing was lush" is a red flag. I thought that the quality of a book's writing would be one of the more objective opinions in reviews, but it turns out that good writing is a matter of taste. I think writing should serve the story and not slow the reader down.

    As far as getting reliable opinions about what's good, you have to identify reviewers who like to read the same kind of books as you, and then follow along with them and see how your opinions match. You can't get more than about a 50% alignment. I appreciate the diversity of opinion. Every book has its reader.

  5. Janet W: Your questions are too good for my random way of using reviews. Here's an example: I'm always looking for the next Viscount Who Loved Me (Julia Quinn) but that kind of light, frothy, lovely historical is hard to find -- what someone might like, might for me be "too lite". So reviews interest me. Usually from and AAR ... and then a few people whose tastes line up quite often w/mine. Knowledge is power. Reviewers hardly ever sway me to buy a totally new to me author -- that's what libraries and UBSs are for.

  6. I've come to the conclusion that I have very different reading tastes than most people as I often disagree with the majority opinion about various books. Thus, although I do read reviews, I am somewhat cynical about them. Mainly I use them to find books that might have plot tropes or characters that I would really like. For example, I like lots of angst and emotional intensity in my romances and it often isn't clear from the blurb whether a particular book will have that, whereas reviewers often will mention that kind of thing.

    I also rely much more on samples than I do on reviews. Reviews can make me interested in a book, but I NEVER buy without first reading a sample. This is one area where my Kindle has saved me money. I've gotten really good at screening books before I buy them. If the sample doesn't interest me, or if there are editing issues with it, I don't buy the book regardless of how good the reviews are.

  7. I will get into the habit of reading samples on my Kindle.
    I will get into the habit of reading samples on my Kindle.
    I will get into the habit of reading samples on my Kindle.

    (The pedagogical benefit is blunted rather by CTRL-C & CTRL-V...)

  8. Interesting question. I'm dying to know what book Reckless Dream really was!

    Anyway, I can usually tell if a book interests me or not from reviews. I don't buy a book just because it's gotten good reviews; I have to have an active curiosity about it.

    As for movies, I hardly ever go! ):

  9. I too take reviews with a grain of salt. Most reviewers (or at least the ones I read over at AAR, DA, and TGTBTU) do an excellent job of keeping their personal feelings out of the review, but sometimes it's hard. If they love it, the review is going to show it. But, as many reviewers have said, it's incredibly hard to explain WHY they loved it (or hated it). It's why I don't write book reviews.

    I use reviews to find plots that I like and authors I don't know anything about. I've been exposed to some wonderful books through reviews, and read some that I'm glad I did even though I didn't care for them myself.

    I hate this "be nice" mentality going around, because while authors should respect each other, I would much rather hear someone's honest opinion than something fake. But that's just me. :)

  10. Elizabeth -- I disagree with the implication that it's binary: you're either being completely honest or you're being fake. But you tell me. Is the blog post above fake? Because I did make an effort not to criticize a specific author and reviewer, but otherwise I was completely honest about my problems with the book.

    I know that sounds argumentative, like I'm daring you to disagree with me, but actually I'm not. You're right that by masking their identity I've pulled my punches, but I don't think that sinks to the level of "fake."

    But I could be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time!


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