Books, Review

What’s in a review?

I realized as I explained why and how I review a book, recently, that it’s been a while since I did that here on the blog. I do have a bit of a review philosophy: I try to only review the good stuff. There are valid reasons for negative reviews, and I have done a handful of them in the last couple of years on this blog. But the problem with reviewing the mediocre is that, well, I tend to get bored and wander off in the middle and that’s not a fair thing to review a book on.

The First Reader and I were talking about our mutual tastes in books around the same time I’d been explaining my review philosophy. We like some of the same things, but he has far less tolerance for flaws in his reading material than I do. If a book makes me happy, I try not to go poking around under the hood looking for plot holes and character flaws. I’m a very easy-going reader in many ways. There’s a reason I dubbed his reviews ‘Curmudgeon’s Corner’ and I really need to coax him into doing more of them. Maybe tomorrow.

If this is true between two people as close as we are, it’s more so when it comes to you, my reader. The best I can do is give a few points I think define the book – decent action, dialogue, a good ending – without spoiling the surprises, and then say if I liked it or not. It’s up to you to discover with time how closely our tastes align. While we were comparing tastes, The First Reader was paging through the library on his Kindle (we share an account) and commenting on some books I’d recently added. “I was never that fond of the Cordelia books,” he pointed out when he saw that I was getting ready to re-read Shards of Honor (for about the 8th time) “For me it was always Miles.” I knew that, we’d talked about it before. I also knew this didn’t mean he didn’t like the stories about Cordelia, they just didn’t appeal to him the way the character of Miles did. Cordelia, and later Ekaterin, spoke to my soul as kindred spirits. A rare thing, that sensation while reading.

manticore ascendantI did have a recommendation for him, though (and you). “I picked up the new Weber and Zahn collaboration, Call to Duty: Manticore Ascendant, and you have to read the first chapter.” I am not all the way through the book yet, but I am far enough to assure you that there is none of the bloated info-dumping that caused me to stop reading the Honor Harrington books a few years ago. I loved the series, but it had jumped the shark and I’d lost interest. This new book, though, has a lot of promise, and that first chapter is worth it even if he only reads it like a short and stops without going on to the rest of the book. Classic boy-goes-bad… only he doesn’t. A refreshing take, and it made me a happy reader.

As I was digging through my books on the Baen site, I realized I had one (ok, several!) I’d gotten as part of a bundle and never read. Or had I? I asked the First Reader about it, and he shook his head. He didn’t think so, but… he looked at the author’s name. “Oh… Nothing wrong with her work, just forgettable.” This is, really, why I don’t review more books I read. I forget about them. Nothing wrong with them, just… pedestrian. With some books, you can slip into another world. With other books, you are always reading text, never seeing pictures in your mind. Those are the books I’m not going to bother reviewing.

Now, I’m not so light-handed with my reviews that I will never point out flaws. But I do try to sandwich them in with the good stuff – not that it always works. I was attacked by an author who went so far as to contact a colleague of mine and ask her to ‘muzzle’ me, after pointing out research flaws in her book, while praising the earlier ones in the series. Fortunately, that kind of crazycakes is rare and I’m much more likely to get a polite PM asking about what I saw in detail, so they can fix it. I’m always happy to respond to those. I write reviews as a reader, not an author. Putting on my editor hat would be much harsher, but frankly, for that kind of feedback, I want to be paid!

All this about how I review. Why do I review? It’s time and effort I could spend elsewhere. Well, this is my version of paying it forward. I write on craft and Indie-business over at the MGC to give back to my community of authors. This is me giving back to the community of readers who review my work. I’m a voracious reader, and I know how difficult it can be to wade through the books available looking for something good to read. I’m also not a zero-sum advocate. The more people read, the happier I am. I am not going to flinch from promoting another author’s work just because it might take a reader away from my books: I know that isn’t true. So I’m going to keep reviewing books I think my readers will enjoy, and I’m silently saying ‘thanks’ to all of you who have reviewed me.