Book reviews can be so subjective, and whenever we read a negative one, it's natural to wonder, "was the reviewer just in a crummy mood that day," or "maybe she just really hates this person," or "maybe she hates the world." My reviews are subjective because I read these books just like any reader might read them, and I have things that I like and dislike, just like any reader does. My likes and dislikes aren't going to be the same as those of all the other unique individuals out there, but for people who share my tastes and interests, my preferences can provide a good lense to help determine whether or not a book is worth their time. Given a certain someone's fairly, um, emotional reaction to a recent review, and that we're wrapping up 2017 (thank goodness!!!) this seems like a good time to go over what I look for in books and why.
Story is Important
Even for nonfiction, I need a clear beginning, middle and end for a complete arc. Good nonfiction books achieve this by supporting a thesis the author (hopefully) presents in the first chapter. While history unfolded in a certain way and there's no changing it--not that some authors haven't tried, but the fact checkers and journalists will get you for that--the author has an angle. Devil in the White City, for example is not just a summary of the events that took place during the Chicago World's Fair. The Rules of Inheritance isn't a random rambling journey through a woman's adolescence and early adulthood. Devil in the White City uses the World's Fair as a common thread in the stories of two men with obsessions that ended up being connected to the fair. One of them was an architect, and the other was a serial killer. Odd pair of stories to follow in the same book? For sure, but those odd selections plus a local wonder to tie them together makes for a much more interesting story than something about, say, the architect and one of his assistants. The Rules of Inheritance mainly focuses on loss, grief, and the ways those experiences shape who we become.
As for fiction, I have to assume the author is making up whatever it is, so, there needs to be something I can follow. I need a main character. I need a beginning, middle, and end. I need conflict. Obviously, these are my minimum requirements, but it's amazing how many authors seem to have trouble grasping these basics. (I'll skip examples of arcs in fiction here because I think we're all familiar with those.)
Let's Talk About Sex . . . Unless We Shouldn't
Getting busy on paper is tricky. I mean, it can be tricky anyway, but sex in books can go wrong in a lot of ways. This is definitely one of those areas where I appreciate authors who are mindful of allowing the reader to make certain leaps without a lot of specific detail. I'm not saying that I don't love reading the dirty parts in books. One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is to pull out a romance novel and flip to the dirty parts. Endless Love contains several sex scenes and one, I believe, is almost 17 pages long.
Here's where I see a lot of books go wrong when it comes to the naughty bits:
- Focusing on external stimuli. That's probably not what matters the most. Emotional reaction (or lack thereof) and sensation are important. Like anything else, it's an activity that needs to tell us something about the character and his or her, um, growth.
- Getting too specific. This is a fine balance, and I don't want to freak anyone out by mentioning anything too graphic, but in general, if the words penis, vagina or anus appear in the passage, it's worth considering a rewrite. Obviously, if you're writing a medical textbook, do your thing.
All "rules" have exceptions; not that these are rules anyway, but keep in mind that just as most of us know better than to follow our main character into the bathroom (unless something important happens in there,) what is left unsaid can be just as powerful as what is said.
Continuity and Integrity in World Building, Story & Setting
If you recall my review of The Dark Element, one quibble I had with the book concerned aliens having accents when the POV character was walking around with a translator in his head. In fantasy or science fiction, readers need to suspend their normal expectations about reality, but when something just doesn't even seem possible within the parameters of the world the story takes place in, everything else is called into question.
Why Can't I Be "Nice" and Just Not Post the Bad Reviews?
Other writers who blog have told me they don't pan books. If they don't like something, they don't review it. I understand where they're coming from, but I feel like that does a disservice to readers and writers. Feedback is important. When I first wrote reviews of books from NetGalley, the expectation was that reviewers write and post reviews, good, bad or otherwise. I needed to earn my chops, so I just reviewed everything I made it through. As a result, I had to give a lot of books bad reviews because the integrity of my blog is also important to me.
This year, I reviewed a book by someone I knew. I probably won't do that again. It leads to a lot of awkwardness and questions about motives. All of that said, regardless of the relationship I have with the author of a book or anyone they know, what I post on here is about the book. Being a trustworthy source of information about which books seem to be worth reading is more important to me than evening scores or stroking a friend's ego and I don't plan to change that.