Book Reviews: Can you trust them?

I finished a book recently by a woman I met at a local convention. (I will not mention the author or the book, so don’t ask.) She was friendly enough at her booth and the blurb on the back fascinated me. I finally opened the cover a month ago…and hated every minute of it.

The book feels like she wrote a first draft of an awesome concept, then published it. No revision. No beta readers. No editors. The entire book is back story. I remember when I tackled my first novel, I could not tell what part of the book was for me, the writer, and what part was for you, the reader. After my fifth revision, I think I figured out the parts to cut which were essential to craft the story, not tell it. I don’t feel this author did that AT ALL.

Plus, NOTHING HAPPENS. And I mean nothing. The entire book is inner monologue. The reader is sent unceremoniously from one mind to another without a road map. I routinely had to back up a few paragraphs when the point of view changed and I didn’t notice. Or the setting changed to a flashback that I couldn’t tell was a flashback at first.

Frankly, I felt cheated. The concept of this story with fantastical elements and historical religious significance could have been AMAZING. A few revisions would have left me eager to recommend this book to my friends. I decided to look up her publisher. And it was one of those, you write us a check and we’ll publish your book. Hmmm. Not putting any conceit on doing a vanity print. I can’t say I would not do the same thing. It DID make me wonder how much oversight there was in such a company. Did anyone read it and offer her advice on how to improve her first novel? Or did they make sure her check cleared, then hit print.

Fine. Surely, our trusty reviews would tell us the truth, warn us before we are lost in disappointment. Nope. This particular novel has 4.5 star ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads. What? Apparently, I’m missing something. Many readers said they could not put it down. Well, technically that was true for me too….because I wanted it to be OVER. I noticed a trend in the reviews. Most of the responses described the interesting concept and the love story aspect. In other words, the details on the back of the book that made the read SEEM appealing to me. Did they ACTUALLY read the book?

I found a few two and three star ratings that reflected my opinions of nothing happening and too much inner monologue. Yet, the overwhelming 4 and 5 star ratings drowned the lower ratings in sheer number. How does this happen? Can I not believe reviews ever? And if they are that untrustworthy, why do they weigh in so heavily in the statistics used to promote the book?

As an up-and-coming published author (see what I did there, positive thinking), reader’s input, especially on Amazon, are important for my overall exposure. The more five star ratings I have, the more visible Amazon makes my book to new eyes. Yes, there are many other aspects in their secret calculations, but reviews are one of the more sought after numbers.

Yet, can we trust them? The existence of buy-honest-reviews-from-us companies makes me think we can’t. Amazon has begun shutting those sketchy businesses down. But as one disappears, two more pop up, like a hydra beast for promoting authors with more money to invest. I don’t know if there is as much controversy on Goodreads. Though the reflected star rating between the two sites makes me think there is.

I’m concerned about reviews because it’s time for me to start writing them. I will soon be begging for reviews myself and have always believed in giving back. Plus, how can I ask someone else to do me a favor without first having done the deed myself? Still, I’m scared to dive in.

Pamela Fagan Hutchins said at a conference that she would not give reviews below three stars. She chose to post nothing, instead of damaging an author’s reputation. I can respect that. I think I will adopt that same philosophy.

What other recommendations do you have? Do I really need to give a brief synopsis? Sometimes, I’m scared to give too much away. It’s silly things like this that slow me down. How do you write a review? What do you put in and what do you leave out?

My current read, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins, will remain beside me for many months. The density of this nonfiction book exploring the evolution of man prevents me from devouring its pages in one long sitting. I can only read three or four pages at a time, then must digest what I’ve read before moving on. I love a good popular science book. This 2004 version focusing on evolutionary biology probably has aspects that are out-of-date based on new discoveries. That fact does not diminish the overall lessons, such as other species beyond rodents represented mammals before the extinction of the dinosaurs. The voice throughout the work is unmistakably Richard Dawkins. He meanders a bit and reflects his sense of humor and clarifies points for creationists in an attempt to prevent them from misquoting him later. It’s like I’m sitting through an entertaining lecture a few pages at a time, his voice distinctly in my head. I highly recommend this book! It has a 4.4 star rating on Amazon…

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