CONVERSATION: What’s Important to You in a Review?
Janine: As a reviewer I think a lot about what I want to see in reviews. I try to notice what kind of information I appreciate most or least in other people’s reviews because it helps me craft my own. I think that what we value in reviews is a good topic for a conversation, but since there are almost an infinite number of things that can go into reviews or be left out of them, rather than starting with a few more specific questions, I’d like us to start with just one general one, and then (hopefully) begin a conversation that flows from there.
So, DA contributors, with the understanding that most people who write genre fiction reviews do it for fun and not for money, and therefore don’t owe us anything, this is my question: As a reader of reviews, what’s important to you in a review?
Jennie: My first thought, and I will hopefully have more in response to others’ contributions, is that I like it to be clear (in a casual, non-“literary” review) what a reviewer’s prejudices are. Like if they are reviewing a road trip story, it’s helpful to know that they really like road trip stories; conversely if they are reviewing a book with tropes that they don’t generally like, such as reunited lovers, it’s good to know that they may be coming into the book with some reservations. I try to be clear when I review if there are aspects that I have prejudices for or against. I just think this is information that can give some context to the review.
Janine: Yes, that kind of transparency is certainly helpful in a review.
The thing that’s most important to me in a review (and this is so basic it should go without saying) is honesty. If a reviewer isn’t honest, for example if the reviewer just wants the ARCs or doesn’t believe in saying anything critical about any book, then the review is pretty much useless to me. If I detect a pattern of no criticism whatsoever in someone’s reviews then I get to a place of not knowing if the reviewer genuinely liked the book or is just focused on being polite to the author or genuflecting to them to get free ARCs. At that point I write off the reviewer as having very little to offer me besides a plot summary. None of the other information there can be trusted.
Another thing I find helpful is multiple metrics. Here I have to state clearly that I have different standards for a reader review on Goodreads or Amazon vs. a review at a major review site. If I’m on Goodreads and see a review where the reviewer was irritated or offended by one thing and that’s all they want to talk about, then while I want more information, it doesn’t bother me as much. However, I’ve had it happen that I go to a major review site and read a review that does almost nothing except point out a single issue. That can be valuable information but it’s still frustrating not to have a fuller picture of the book. If all you are going to tell me is only that the pacing was slow or only that the book wasn’t diverse or only that the characters annoyed you, well, I’m glad to know that, but it’s still frustrating to know only one thing. I want at least three or four metrics in a review. They don’t have to be the same ones every time but I want more than one.
Jayne: Yes to what you both said. Years ago I was excited to see a new review site focused on books that weren’t getting much coverage then. Then I started reading their reviews and noticed there wasn’t a single one graded below a B with most being B+ and A grades. I didn’t last long reading the reviews on that site.
When I read a review, I want to know the book’s pros and cons (if any of either). Just a quick recap of the plot and then announcing “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” isn’t a review to me. That’s just the beginning of a review. I want to know what worked or didn’t and why.
Kaetrin: I agree with what you’ve all said so far. I want honesty – both in terms of what the reviewer thought of the book and what the reviewer brings to the book. I want to get a sense of the reviewer’s taste so that I know how it fits with my own. Some reviewers tend to love books I love and some hate them – in either case that’s good to know and helpful to me! That’s what I aim for when writing a review – that people will get a sense of what I like and don’t and be able to fit my opinion into their own taste metric in a way that’s useful for them.
The other thing I try and do is make it clear that it’s my opinion and other opinions are welcome. What I mean is that I’m not holding myself out as the arbiter of all taste – this is what worked for me or didn’t and why. Mine is just one opinion in the mix. That’s even more important when it comes to aspects of books I’m not qualified to judge with any specificity – such as the representation of identities not my own. I might say that it seemed okay to me (or not) but that I welcome comment from and defer to members of that particular community for a more reliable take.
I also try to say at least one thing I liked about a book I didn’t enjoy, and (less importantly) something that I would have liked better in a book I did enjoy. I try and stick to the book and not get personal. I’m reviewing the book, not the author.
One pet peeve I have is that I hate when a review says “You will love this book!” or “This book will make you laugh.” I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself occasionally but I really hate being told what to do or how to feel by a reviewer! LOL.
Janine: That’s a great point about wanting a sense of the reviewer’s taste, Kaetrin. I find reviewer bios that mention a reviewer’s favorite books and/or likes and dislikes very helpful with that. I try to update mine every few years since my tastes evolve over time.
It’s also important to me that the grade reflect the content of the review. I’ve read reviews where the reviewer said they loved the book until something ruined it for them, and then they gave the book an F. My reaction to that is one of “Really? Not even a D-? None of the stuff you enjoyed in the other 95% of the book merited even a fraction of a grade point?” I think it’s reflective of the fact that some readers and reviewers see books in binary terms, as all good or all bad. The percentage of books I read that strike me that way is tiny. I have given even books that triggered me C grades. But the real problem for me with that kind of review is that when there’s a mismatch between the content of the review and the grade, I’m confused about which to believe.
Sirius: I actually have very few things that are important to me in other people’s reviews. I agree that I want to know reviewers’ likes and dislikes. This actually is the most important thing to me. If I know that reviewer’s tastes run close to mine and the story in the blurb grabs me, I may buy the book if the reviewer just says I like the book. This is when I read reviews for the purposes of book recommendations. However, I very rarely consider recommendations from reviewers I don’t know.
When I read the reviews for the purpose of discussing the book, I usually read the review after I read the book and then I like the review to be entertaining and fun. I certainly want to know what worked and what did not work in the book, especially if the book touched me in the positive or negative way.
When I write my own reviews, I write about story and characters, what worked and what did not. I guess the only thing that I try to follow quite strictly is to avoid spoilers UNLESS I have massive problem with something in the plot or characterizations. Then I have no choice I have to talk about it, but otherwise – if it is not in the blurb for me it is a spoiler and I try not to talk about it.
Funnily, I love spoilers and that’s another thing that I often seek out in the review if I am trying to decide if I want to buy the book or not, but because I know that many people are not like me and hate them, I try to be strict with those.
Layla: So I have a few thoughts about this topic. I read reviews to get book recommendations but also often I read them to check what someone else thought about a book after I have completed it—I’m not sure if anyone else does this!
I also wanted to say that I think of the purpose of book reviews traditionally as being twofold–on the one hand, it’s about marketing, i.e. granting awards, helping situate authors in a larger landscape, and helping to sell books. On the other hand, reviews place books in a particular context. I love reading the NYT review of books not so much for the book recommendations, but for the way the critics and writers situate particular books within larger contexts–historical, geographical, literary. Maybe this doesn’t apply as much to romance as a genre, but what I love about romance reviews is a sense of critique married to an unabashed enjoyment. I love to read a glowing review where you can see that the reader enjoyed it as a reader. As someone for whom criticism is part of my profession, I like to read things uncritically sometimes just to enjoy them. If I have to don my critical eye or lens, it can mar the enjoyment of a thing for me.
I also enjoy really clever reviews of bad books—it’s a very delicate art to critique something bad without being malicious.
Finally, just wanted to say that I really love a sense of humor in a reviewer and love reviews in particular when they make me laugh.
Janine: Hmm, as far as the purpose of reviews, while for the publisher and the author it has to do with marketing, I don’t see it as the main purpose of the reviewer. I mean, I love book pimping–when I love a book then I want to enthusiastically let everyone know. But when I write a review, I actually try not to think about the author at all because if I did I would be paralyzed. In that regard the letter-to-the-author format we have at DA gave me fits for years before I got used to it. I don’t want to imagine the author reading the review.
One of the #1 things any writer has to do is keep in mind who their audience is. To write a book for romance readers is a very different art from writing one for readers of horror, or of literary fiction, or of poetry. Even if you put elements of these genres into your romance, you have to make sure it’s pleasurable to romance readers and that it works for them. In the same way, I keep in mind that reviews are for readers, not authors or publishers. If I start writing for the authors then I’m no longer serving readers well. I see a reviewer’s main purpose as to let readers know what they thought so that readers can decide whether the book is worth purchasing.
Jayne: Layla, you’re not the only one who reads other reviews of a book you just finished. I try to wait until after I’ve completed a book – or I’ve reached the stage where I’m fairly sure I know I’m not going to finish it – in order to avoid influencing my final take on the book. Then I seek out other reviews to check that I’m not the only one who felt this way or thought that about it.
Yes to enjoying an unabashed enthusiastic review if there’s more to it than just “I LOVED THIS AND YOU WILL, TOO!” (I’m with Kaetrin on disliking people who tell me how I’m going to react to something.) A well-done critique of a bad book is great fun, too. As you say, Layla, there is an art to doing one that critiques only the book.
Sirius: I don’t really have much to say on this but just wanted to say absolutely I read the reviews on the books I finished too!
Jennie: That’s actually a real pleasure post-read. I’m curious about people who agree with me and even more those who disagree with me (particularly if I liked the book more than them; glowing reviews of books I didn’t like are less interesting to me for some reason).
Layla: I have a hard time assigning grades (and I’m a professor!!). I feel like I have two grades— an immediate one that’s more emotional and a rational one that often comes after some time. Sometimes books move me or I feel the author did a lot of work, but there were lots of things that failed me too. An example is the most recent book I reviewed the Evie Dunmore book Portrait of a Scotsman. I really loved her previous book. [With Portrait of a Scotsman,] I admired her writing and character development and historical richness and detail but the heroine was too stupid and too annoying and I hated the ending. I gave it an emotional grade right after reading it but in the way of the world, as time went by I thought about it and thought, I should have assigned it a lower grade. One criteria of a good book for me is whether I will reread it—and I realised after that I never would. I feel like I graded it based on effort.
On the one hand as a writer myself, I try not to be too critical because I also know how hard it is to write and that there’s no such thing as perfection. But again I’ll turn to my academic grading for an example— if I gave every student an A (and there are plenty who make good effort!!) then an A becomes meaningless. With reviewers who don’t give out high marks easily, if I see they graded something an A I really pay attention!
I read reviews in order to find books worthy enough of purchase or borrowing—it’s essential to my practice of how I find new books to read. So I agree with you Janine. Also, I agree with all of you—I need a discriminating reviewer. Someone who loves everything or is very uncritical isn’t for me.
Last thing— sometimes I read reviews for fun not ever intending to read the book. I read Kaetrin’s review of Gabaldon’s new book for example and found it highly entertaining. I enjoyed reading it because while I won’t read this last instalment, I have read Gabaldon’s Outlander series and I found Kaetrin’s review to be really interesting in light of that. Plus sometimes you want to know what the buzz is about new books!
We’d like to turn the topic over to you now, readers. What about you? What things are important to you in a review?
I’m focusing on romance reviews, but—beyond the author and title—I want to know if the book is part of a series and, if it is, should I read the other books in the series first or can this be read as a standalone. I like to know the trope or tropes used in the plot. I want a good overview of the storyline. I think there’s a rule of thumb that you can be detailed in your description of the first 25% of the plot and get progressively vaguer about the latter portion of the plot—and I think that’s a good rule because I like to know the basic set-up of the story and the interactions of the MCs. I don’t want spoilers or twists to be revealed, but I do like to know if there is something unexpected to look out for. I also like to know if there something the author handles particularly well? Were there things the author could have done better? How are the proofreading & editing (sloppy spelling and grammatical errors take me right out of a story—I just read a book where “penultimate” was used to mean “intense,” no just no). If there’s a quote or passage that sums up a certain part of the story, I enjoy reading that too.
@DiscoDollyDeb: Yes to everything you say. Also I want to know if the book has a HEA/HFN ending. I’ve learned that when Publisher’s Weekly says something is a “bittersweet” or “unconventional” love story it really means everyone dies or the two MCs end up going their own ways, sadder but wiser.
I also don’t like long reviews that are 80% plot recap. Just give me the highlights and move on.
Content warnings in a spoiler tag can be helpful. In the book I’m reading now, the MC’s cat dies (there’s a long scene in which he brings her to the vet for treatment and learns there’s nothing they can do) and I really wish I had known that going in.
Let me say that I appreciate a good review; I do not consider myself an analytical reader and thus my reviews (were I to write any) would fall into the I liked or disliked this camp. Like others, I often enjoy reading reviews after I’ve read a book.
I sometimes read reviews warily; there’s a fine line between enticing a prospective reader and revealing too many details.
Has anyone else experienced the review which recounts how the reviewer was up past midnight transfixed and turning page after page, but they can’t recommend the book because of points A, B, and C?
What an interesting conversation! I love reading reviews, both before and after I read a book, and yes I completely disregard the ones that are all SQUEE and nothing else. I don’t see this very often, but I love it when the reviewer comments on the writing style. I’m not just talking about proofreading and editing/formatting issues but tell me, how well does this writer actually write? Are they creating distinct voices, using original language, showing and not telling? I’m not too picky if an author has hit my catnip tropes – I can be here for a good time, too – but if the writing is lazy, I’ll DNF fast. But if a story is beautifully written, I’ll read just about anything. For example, Heidi Cullinan’s NOWHERE RANCH. The kink in it was – eek, too much for me – but I kept the book on my kindle for years because the main character’s voice was so powerfully written; it captured me from the first page and I was enchanted. More recently, Freya Marske’s A MARVELLOUS LIGHT has so many glorious metaphors in there, they cast their own marvellous light. And I’m not particularly interested in magicians or mysteries these days.
Good points about a book being in a series and warnings about animal sad times.
Ohhh… great discussion topic. For me a helpful review includes the following:
– A brief plot synopsis (this is especially very helpful if the blurb is not great). I most often will read a review before getting a book if the blurb is too spare or raises some red flags or if I am feeling iffy about the book and want more in depth info or if I am specificallyd looking for spoilers. But as others have mentioned I like to mostly read reviews after I read the book myself to see how others have viewed it.
– Specifics about the hero/heroine/setting that have a bearing on the plot. If I know the story is age gap, it is nice to know how big. E.g. 10 years is a little different from 30 years.
– Inclusivity. Won’t make or break the review, but one of the things I LOVED about the Fangs For Fantasy reviews is they always included a section on what inclusivity the book had. POC, gender balance, LGBTQ+, Disability rep. etc. and how and whether it was a wallpaper character or if they were important to the story (the character themselves, not necessarily just their rep).
– If this book is part of a series or in an established world-canon with other books, do I need to read a prior book to understand what is going on?
– Potential content warnings are always welcome
– Absolutely yes to mentioning your reviewer biases, also your reviewer ignorances — if you know nothing about cooking and it is a book that features a lot of stuff about food and cooking then you might miss some nuance or misunderstand something in your review that I can take into account.
– This could be informational or qualitative but — is the book what it says it is? If it is marketed as a romance, is it with the requisite HEA/HFN? If it is marketed as a rom-com let me know if it is just one angsty-cry after the next and shouldn’t be a rom-com?
– I don’t like it when a review states opinion as fact. I read a review where the reviewer referred to the heroine several times as ‘overweight’ and ‘fat.’ When I read the book the only reference to the heroine’s weight was one sentence early on where the hero admired her statuesque frame and her curves in all the right places. Now I know ‘curvy’ has been be used as a description for a plus-sized heroine, but this particular book was not that.
– Personal pet peeve, but .gif filled reviews are a turn off to me. So I typically bypass those.
– I also like a fun, witty or even snarky (without maliciousness) review when the book calls for it. Not all do but in some cases it works.
I like to know the mood or tone of a book. Is it lighthearted or serious? Thought provoking or potato chip book (fun but forgettable)? If there’s action or mystery, is it violent? Gory? Sometimes I read a long review and can’t tell whether the book would be right for a particular mood.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I agree 100% on wanting to know the tropes, and in my case, also whether there’s a fresh twist on the tropes or if they are deconstructed or interrogated (trope deconstruction is one of my favorite things in genre fiction). I’m leery of spoilers myself and hearing about an author’s strengths is always great though weaknesses are equally important information to me.
@SusanS: Yes to the HEA/HFN/breakup/death thing. I usually try to address that in a hidden spoiler because I know it’s important to so many readers.
With regard to the length of the plot summary, for me it very much depends on the opinion portion. The more details the reviewer goes into in the opinion portion, the more detailed a plot summary I want. It’s important to me to have the context for the opinion comments so that I have a good grasp on what they are referring to.
Yes. For me in many cases these fall under the umbrella of a mismatch between the grade and the content of the review (a grade is just a type of verdict). Many times the types of reviewer opinions you describe are head-scratchers for me.
There are exceptions, though. Obviously a situation where the book triggered the reviewer (for example if the reviewer is part of a marginalized group and encounters a racist or bigoted slur directed toward at a character who is a member of their group in the mouth of the hero, or a character who personifies a hurtful stereotype that has been applied to them) is one, but I have also experienced books that are page-turning but flimsy and hollow (John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief is a prime example). This aspect of review reading dovetails with what Kaetrin said about wanting a sense of the reviewer’s taste. Part of that depends on which aspects of fiction matter to them most.
For me one of the most important aspects (possibly *the* most important) in a book is the characterization. If the characters are flat and I don’t care about them then the book is a fail for me and I won’t recommend it. There are books (not many, but some) where this is the case and yet the plot hook is so strong that I keep turning the pages to find out how the story ends. I have even read one or two like this where where by the time I reached the end I literally didn’t care if the characters lived or died. When I finish this type of book, I am often mildly disgusted with myself for having given all that time and energy to such a hollow book. I feel snookered in a way–the book grabbed me with its promise but never delivered on it. I haven’t experienced many books like that but when I do I inevitably don’t recommend them.
@Eliza: I love it when reviews comment on the writing style. I could be wrong but I think it was more common at one time, and I really miss it. There are some books where the style of language is a huge part of the reading pleasure or a great authorial strength. And sometimes it can lead to interesting discussions in the comments. Once, someone brought up Nalini Singh’s distinctive writing style in a review discussion. She has a fascinating style because it’s vivid and almost operatic; along with other aspects of her books it can be a little bit extra. I have a theory though that her unusual voice is part of why her books are popular. It creates an immediate emotional response so it is both a strength and a weakness. So please do bring up writing styles in the comments. It’s the kind of thing I love to geek out on.
More generally, that makes me think about trends in reviewing over time. Fifteen years ago reviews focused more on themes and motifs than they do now; I recall participating in wonderful discussions of them in the comments. The other day I reread Robin’s review of Julie Anne Long’s book What I Did for a Duke, where she said:
I can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed discussions like that one. That kind of thing happens less now, but on the other hand there is much more focus on diversity, representation and triggers than there used to be. That has led to some thoughtful (and hopefully enlightening) conversations too. We needed that back then but many of us weren’t as aware.
Just as I want a variety of different kinds of books, I want a variety of different kinds of reviews but there do tend to be trends and bandwagons in all writing forms, including this one.
@Eliza: Eliza, thank you for highlighting the quality of the writing as an important element of a review. Beautiful writing can utterly transport you, make you see what the characters see, smell what they smell, feel what they feel. I know of some authors whose writing is elevated (Laura Kinsale, Joanna Bourne, and early Alexis Hall come to mind,) but I am always on the lookout for new ones, and I am just not sure how to find them except by trial and error. I would love to see quality of writing mentioned more consistently in reviews.
Reading a book is my favorite activity and reading a book review my second favorite activity. When Washington Post published Book World, I read every single review every week and I learned a great deal about things I thought I had no interest in. Those political, biographical, and historical book reviews filled in great gaps of missed education. A long way around to say that I’m not picky about book reviews; I’ll read whatever the reviewer wants to write. I only dislike spoilers because while I forget them in the instant, they pop into my head months later when I start reading.
So a big thank you from me to the all reviewers.
@TinaNoir: I agree on mentioning reviewer ignorances. It makes a big difference if they know what they are talking about. Reviewers sometimes call out inaccuracies that are actually accurate. It’s frustrating when that happens.
I am not a fan of gifs either. I find them really distracting from the text.
@Kris Bock: Yes! I especially want to know when there’s a mismatch between the tone and the cover.
@LML: Thanks and you’re welcome! :)
@Janine: You make a great point about the current focus on diversity and triggers in romance reviews. I feel that so many reviews these days are more concerned with the book as a cultural text than as a source of entertainment. Reviewers (and the comments threads) often delve deep into the representation of minority groups or social issues as if that’s more important than whether the book tells a good story and makes them believe in the romance. An example of this that really irritated me was Sarina Bowen’s The Fifteenth Minute, in which the hero is falsely accused of rape. I don’t remember which site I was on, but outrage abounded in the review and the comments about the book undermining real-life efforts to bring perpetrators to justice and how Bowen was betraying the sisterhood, etc. and I was still in the dark about whether it was a good romance worth reading, for anyone who wasn’t bothered by the author’s temerity to portray a guy as the victim.
In general, I’d like less detailed plot summary (even if it is about the early stages of the book; leave the reader to discover something for themselves!) and more information about the technical aspects of the book (characterisation, dialogue, pacing, setting, etc. are things you don’t need to be a English professor to comment on). Reviews that just include what happens in the story rather than how it is told are of limited value to me. They’re fine on Amazon or Goodreads to satisfy the post-reading curiosity about other readers’ opinions, but I expect more from a review site.
@oceanjasper, Oh, I agree with your comment “I feel that so many reviews these days are more concerned with the book as a cultural text than as a source of entertainment.”.
@oceanjasper: I don’t see the cultural focus as a bad thing because a lot of readers want that information. I do agree that for me a successful review focuses on more than just that. I strive for balance in my reviews (but obviously if something triggers or outrages me you’ll hear about that).
I wanted to add or mention that I love reading Olivia Waite’s sometime Love Notes Column for the NYT and one thing I realized that I like is when reviewers place books within genres. For example, she wrote a review of the Lena Harper book that I loved and recommended and in her review she notes that it has Gothic elements. ” Gothics have something luxurious and decadent about them,” she wrote and this resonated with me so much. I love when I read something in a review that explains my feelings or reactions to a book or that helps classify a book.
@Kris Bock: this is a great point!! Me too. I need different books for different moods:)
@LML: I was reading this and nodding along and thinking me too!! I read book reviews in the newspaper to get historical summaries, anecdotes and stories of things I dont know about, thoughtful discussions, and book recommendations. I love reading reviews of all kinds also:) One of my favorite critics is film reveiwer Manohla Dargis–she writes cleverly and neatly and sometimes nastily but I always leave her review with an idea of what her opinion is on something. I like adoring and hateful reviews the most lol
@LML: I was reading this and nodding along and thinking me too!! I read book reviews in the newspaper to get historical summaries, anecdotes and stories of things I dont know about, thoughtful discussions, and book recommendations. I love reading reviews of all kinds also:) One of my favorite critics is film reveiwer Manohla Dargis–she writes cleverly and neatly and sometimes nastily but I always leave her review with an idea of what her opinion is on something. I like adoring and hateful reviews the most lol @oceanjasper: This is a really provocative and good point! I agree with you that @oceanjasper:
I like your point–very nicely said. While I think its important to sometimes place the book within a larger cultural context or analyze it as a ‘cultural text’, I think a balance between that and the text as ‘entertainment’ is necessary. I’m not very interested in reading romance for political reasons ( I read other genres for that!)—I read it for fantasy escapism entertainment emotion, etc. I dont seek out authors for specific purposes. A good book is a good book to me! I’m glad to see more representation and more diversity and more innovation. Innovation change and diversity are always good for writing of any kind. I also think beyond representation only–there are “good” and there are “bad representations.” Janine mentioned in another discussion a book with a gay Lebanese hockey player. It seems she and others liked that book but that representation didnt seem to be that great. Just novel–because there havent been any other books with exactly that character.
@Layla: That’s absolutely true that not all representation is good representation and that’s one pitfall of focusing on representation in reviews—sometimes reviewers are too quick to praise representation that is actually bad.
A recent book set in Stanford and featuring a romance between a professor and a graduate student, The Love Hypothesis, had terrible representation. It starts out with the graduate student heroine impulsively kissing the professor to fool a friend. She barely asks permission and then he ENTHUSIASTICALLY KISSES HER BACK. This is so wrong, a violation of power and of ethics. As the daughter of a professor, the sister of a university staff member, and a former university employee myself, I shuddered. There were also other ethical issues here—for example they were in the same department so the heroine might have someday been required to defend her thesis in front of him. To say nothing that a relationship between them might have cost him his job, and that her own future, if she chose to go into academic research, would be tainted because people would know they’d been together (and all the more so if they got married—many would assume she got her job thanks to his suspect recommendation). There were multiple things wrong with that scenario.
It turned out the author made other mistakes too (I quit early but Jayne read a bit further)—for example the heroine wanted to be a cancer researcher but rather than attending Stanford’s cancer research program she chose their biology program and no reason was given. She also reflects on the lack of diversity in Standford’s graduate student program which is quite diverse, AND biology is one of the top fields in diversifying, according to a POC professor friend Jayne asked.
Many readers praised the book for its academic representation, probably because the author is a graduate student at Stanford. But she hadn’t yet gone to Stanford when she wrote the book, and even if she had, expertise and representing well aren’t the same thing. Readers often mistake them for that, though.
It happens the opposite way, too. Another reviewer asked me to sensitivity read a review of a book with Jewish characters because a the main character’s mother shared some characteristics with the Jewish mother stereotype. I had to say—you know, my mother is a lot like that and so are the mothers of many of my Jewish friends and family members. What counts for me is whether this character is fleshed out and three dimensional, or whether she’s *just* a stereotype. And if it’s the first, I don’t see anything wrong with it. To the contrary, it’s solid representation IMO.
So that is one area of reviewing where I really agree with Kaetrin—don’t praise or criticize representation without disclosing how qualified you are to judge. And even then, just as with other areas of reviewing, none of us are infallible and our words shouldn’t be taken as gospel.
With regard to the book with the Lebanese character (Tough Guy by Rachel Reid), I actually didn’t like it at all. I gave it a C-/D both for the terrible representation and for other reasons.
@Kareni: I’ve written reviews like that! LOL
@oceanjasper: Maybe that was me? Well I wrote a review a bit like that. I didn’t grade it because I had such a disconnect with how much I liked reading and what it was actually about (see my comment above LOL). I do recall saying that I liked a lot about the book though but struggled mightily with the premise.
The best review I’ve ever read was by Candy at Smart Bitches of Decadent by Shayla Black – it contained the immortal NSFW gif “I’m in ur ass, saving your life”.
@Kaetrin: I miss Candy so much.
I don’t know if I have a favorite review per se but one that I keep coming back to is Jennie’s review-ish rant about Linda Howard’s book Death Angel, from 2008. It’s brilliant.
@oceanjasper: “. Reviewers (and the comments threads) often delve deep into the representation of minority groups or social issues as if that’s more important than whether the book tells a good story and makes them believe in the romance.”
I’ve been mulling over your comment. I’m both-and. As a reader, I want to know if the book tells a good story and will be entertaining but I also really want to know if I’m going to encounter something that will dramatically decrease my enjoyment / make me rage-y, etc.
Sometimes I’ll chose to read something with uneven writing because of the representation and I appreciate getting all of that info from a review. It used to be really hard to find romances with bi MCs, particularly m/f romances. I’m a bi woman married to a man and I like reading about pairings similar to my experience. There was a time when I read every bi m/f romance I heard of – and some of them were not that well written or really to my taste, but reading them met an emotional need. Now there’s a lot more choice and I’m a lot pickier. I remember Jane writing ages ago that any romance with an Asian hero was an automatic B for her (or something like that – it’s been awhile) because it was so rare and because it was something she wanted to read.
Like TinaNoir and Kaetrin, I like knowing about the diversity rep and also where the reviewer is coming from in evaluating it.
I also deeply, deeply appreciate content warnings hidden in spoiler tags. I have PTSD and it’s very helpful to me to have a sense of whether something will trigger my PTSD and whether I want to read the book enough to risk it. It’s not an exact science of course, but the more information I can get, the better.
@cleo: I remember Jane making that comment too. She made it more than once, as early as the early 2000s. Representation has always been important to some of us. I do prefer a review that goes into it without getting on a soapbox about it unless it is really egregious, though (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of writing a few).
When it comes to reviews, I’m interested in:
– did the plot aligned with the blurb. Why or why not?
– any trigger/content warnings
– is there any diversity in the plot? How is it presented?
– style choices (is the book written in prose or verse? is it 1st, 2nd, 3rd person POV?, etc)
– is the book a standalone or is it part of the series? If it’s the latter, do I have to read the previous novel(s) to enjoy the book the reviewer is talking about?
I do tend to read 2-star reviews of books I might be interested in reading since, in my experience, those are the ones that tend to give me the info I need. Also, I do tend to avoid 5-star/SQUEE/gushing reviews because I don’t feel they give any of the information I need. Other than the reviewer really enjoyed the book, I mean.*
*That said, I totally understand the desire to shoot from the rooftops about a book that you’ve loved. I…just don’t get any pleasure in reading excessive praise about a book I haven’t read yet. (I’m unsure if this is clear enough. Especially because it probably makes me sound like a grump. Basically, after being really burned by 5-star reviews that led me to read total duds, I’m overtly cautious when it comes to over-the-top reviews.)
Gosh, I click “submit comment too fast”: I meant shout from the rooftops. /o\ #ImStillOnMyFirstCupOfCoffee
The most important thing to me is knowing if a book has an HEA and if it’s a romance novel, especially with the new covers designed to market to general fiction readers.
I agree that some reviews these days go overboard in interpreting books as cultural texts. There needs to be a balance. If that’s all there is to a review, I’m left knowing a lot about the reviewer’s opinions but not much about the book in question.