Reviews: The Best Of…
Cover of Tara Maya's Initiate, the first book in the Unfinished Song series.
Fantasy Review: Unfinished Song (Tara Maya)
Helen Harper

The Art of Reviewing

  • April 29, 2014
  • Blog
  • 1 Comment

Reviews come in all shapes and sizes.

To begin with, there’s the minefield of family and friends. I know which friends will tell me honestly what they think, and which ones will merely keep quiet about what they thought if they didn’t like one of my books. I know that my family will tell me everything is “simply wonderful” – mainly because I think they’re so astonished I’m writing books and ‘real’ people are actually buying them and reading them.

Then there are the reviews I receive on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. When I started out, I was so flabbergasted that anyone would take the time to write a review, it wouldn’t have mattered what they wrote but, when the initial reviews were so glowing, I was blown away. Then, when I received my first negative reviews, they cut to the bone. I dwelled on their every word. There are numerous author forums telling horrible tales of trolls and other authors who will write negative reviews in the hope people will buy their book over yours. It was easy to begin with to imagine those gripes were merely sour grapes, however when I read my own first negative reviews, I found myself wondering the same thing. Eventually I realised it was silly. Enough people had written positive reviews that I found myself starting to enjoy the negative ones. I learned to take the criticism on the chin and learn from the more constructive comments. That became much harder, however, with the publication of Eros, which probably has more negative reviews than positive.

Eros has also been entered into ABNA: Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel competition for indie authors. I didn’t actually expect to progress very far. It seemed a bit of a crapshoot, if I’m honest. Now it’s actually reached the quarter finals and I’m waiting with baited breath (and no considerable amount of trepidation) for the Publisher’s Weekly review which will be available on May 23rd. The initial two chapters were reviewed by Amazon Viners, which is why I’m bringing all this up. You see, until, ABNA, I’d never really paid attention to WHO was doing the reviewing. Now that I know what the Vine programme is all about, I’m determined to get on it. Not because I want lots of freebies but because I want to read more great books. I sometimes find it hard to discover new authors and this seems like the perfect way. I have the feeling that even if I’m eligible for becoming a Viner (and I may not be as I’m not technically an customer – I use the UK site to buy my books) it’ll take months and months of work at reviewing to get anywhere. I read a lot, to be sure, but I don’t think there are many VIners who have less than 100 reviews under their belt.

This leads to the complexities behind reviewing when you’re already an author yourself. I stopped reviewing anything on Goodreads very, very quickly (although oddly I still get many people signing up to follow my reviews) because I didn’t feel like I could be honest. How can I be negative about someone else’s book and expect people not to be the same about mine in return? Added to which, I give up on books which I don’t enjoy so I only read to the end of the books I like. I feel as if the reviews I give on Amazon (which are not obviously under my author name) are almost always five stars. If it was much less than that, I wouldn’t finish it. And I can’t review a book I didn’t finish. Equally, I can’t think of when I’ve seen a book review by a famous author that was negative.

I do remember someone I know telling about a bad review received by a restaurant they’d invested in. They’d contacted the newspaper who wrote it and whoever they spoke to pretty much admitted that they wrote negative reviews simply because readers enjoyed them. The callousness of this blows me away. But on the other hand, I’m a big fan of Masterchef and, on the UK version, the producers often bring in big named restaurant reviewers to taste the dishes and those segments are always my favourite. I think the reason is that they don’t mince your words. You KNOW as a viewer that the they are being honest. It’s better when the cooks get positive reviews, but only because you know there are so many negative ones. And for anyone else interested in foodie reviews, Giles Coren’s book How to Eat Out is an absolute gem (sadly, I’ve not seen him on Masterchef!).

When I used to teach review writing at a school I taught at in Tokyo, I’d often use the local Expat magazine Metropolis. The films reviews there were always short and always unbelievably witty. Unfortunately, I think they’ve since gone down the more stereotypical route, but here’s a great letter I found in their archives:

Dear Metropolis (specifically Don Morton),

I am an 11-year-old boy and I am absolutely disgusted by the fact that your film reviewer can give a film (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) a bad review WITHOUT EVEN WATCHING THE FILM!!! Think about the film’s target audience Don, not your own intellectual prejudice. I AM going to see the film ANYWAY.

Yours, Joe S.

Joe, you are to be commended for standing up for what you believe in. Don’t ever lose that. To be honest, I often wish I were 11 years old. Not from any real desire to go through puberty again, but because it would make my job easier: a good percentage of the movies released these days, especially by people like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, are made specifically to dazzle people your age out of their allowances (and to sell toys). Nevertheless, repentant and contrite, or perhaps because there are no other films opening this week, I caught a screening ANYWAY to see if I was right to have skipped it. I was. Not a coherent thought in two and a half hours; repetitive, noisy and content-free. I am thinking about the film’s target audience, Joe, when I suggest that you go read a book. P.S. I’m going to skip the second sequel, too. (147 min)

I guess, after all, well written honesty is by far the best policy 😉

1 Comment
  • susanmarymalone • 6th November 2015 at 11:54 pm

    This is so on point, Helen! I think all authors evolve this way with reviews. My new novel is getting great reviews, but of course, I go the one trashing it. And me. The review was long and in the end, he basically blamed me for the demise of literature in the Western World! By the end, I was laughing.
    But like you, I’m hesitant to review others’ books. And only do when I truly loved them.
    Hope your book did great!

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