Book Reviewing: Further Thoughts

Since I started blogging, I’ve written at least half a dozen posts about book reviewing, the most recent ones in 2019. I just read over them, but didn’t think I’d finished with the topic. A recent post by a fellow writer inspired me to revisit it.

I read a lot of books and write some sort of review about almost all of them. I also assign star ratings. Sometimes I have reservations about the whole process.

Seeing Stars

One of these is the familiar 5-star system used on Amazon, Goodreads, and by many individual reviewers. It’s a blunt instrument, reducing the worth of a complex piece of writing to a number. It has been used for malicious attacks, in which a group assigns a bunch of 1-star ratings to a book in order to pull down its overall rating. But many potential book buyers (including libraries) use a book’s star rating as an indicator of quality when deciding to buy or not.

Many reviewers avoid 1- and 2-star ratings. This is the opposite of the malicious attack. Low ratings are considered unkind. Sure, but if a book is badly written, doesn’t it deserve a bad rating?

If 1 and 2 stars are avoided, that leaves only three ratings: 3 stars (OK), 4 stars (good), 5 stars (excellent). I assign 4 stars more often than any other rating. Sometimes I look at my list of 4-star books and realize how different they are from one another, in quality, genre, and voice. How dare I equate all these books with a number? Imagine rating your friends that way!

One idea is to decouple the star rating from the review. Even if the review points out problems with the book, the rating is benign. But doesn’t this muddy the reviewing waters and mislead potential readers who pay more attention to ratings?

Then there’s the rating without a review. As both a writer and a reader, I disapprove of this practice. I suppose 5 stars without a review is a quick way to indicate a reader liked the book, but any other rating, especially a low one, needs an explanation. The “Before You Go” prompt at the end of a Kindle book, that asks the reader to instantly supply a rating, may account for some reviewless ratings. It’s too easy to rate and run.

Book Reviews or Reading Experience Reviews?

In the old days before the internet, book reviews were written by literary types and appeared in magazines and newspapers. They were lengthy and serious, and were mostly about “important” books. Popular mass-market books weren’t considered worthy of such reviews. Many of them had endorsements by other authors in the front, but that was more like advertising.

Now anyone can write any kind of review of any book, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on their blog, or on social media. Writers plead for reviews at the end of each book, earnestly informing the reader of their importance. They seek out book bloggers and “BookTokkers,” hoping one of them will supply a review.

The word “review” covers everything from a couple of sentences to multiple paragraphs of praise or condemnation. For some readers, a book review is suspiciously similar to the book report of school days, or the paper for the college course on Literature. Especially an objective, analytical review, that compares a book to standards for its genre and examines its place in the author’s ouevre or a literary canon. It’s much easier to write an emotionally-based review, which isn’t so much about a book as the reader’s experience of reading it. Let’s face it, it’s easier to express feelings than organized thoughts.

Reviews by writers are instantly recognizable by phrases like “too much telling,” “too many filter words,” and “needs a developmental edit.” But a review of a published book isn’t the same as a critique group comment or a beta reader’s report, something reviewers should keep in mind.

Types of Reviews

My reviews fall into several categories.

First are quick, casual reviews for trad-pubbed books that already have hundreds or even thousands of reviews. A few remarks, or even a rating without review are enough, unless I have strong feelings about a book that simply must be expressed.

For most indie-published books, I write longer, thoughtful reviews.

I’ve participated in several Reading Rounds on Goodreads in the last few years. The deal with those is you don’t select the books you are obliged to read and review, which means a book may not be a good match for its reader. In such cases, I evaluate the book by the standards of its genre, more than my personal views of it. This is also a good approach when I dislike a well-written book for some reason.

I write my short, casual reviews directly on Goodreads and copy them to Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I bought the book. Goodreads Reading Round reviews must be posted on both Goodreads and Amazon, regardless of where the reviewer obtains the book. I always write my RR reviews on Word, as well as any others I want to brood over for a while before posting. If I’m making critical comments about a book, I want to make sure they are precisely worded and not flippant or malicious.

Positive Reviews Only?

Some readers write only positive reviews. Three stars or better, with few critical remarks. If a book has serious problems, they simply don’t review it. In the case of books by fellow writers, a personal communication with the author replaces a negative review.

On the face of it, this seems like a good policy. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Good advice from Mom. But is it really helpful to writers and readers? If readers write only feel-good reviews, doesn’t that distort the picture for everyone? If a book has no reviews, does that mean it’s undeserving, or merely undiscovered? In the absence of negative reviews or ratings, how would a reader know the difference? I believe it’s possible to write critical reviews in a way that benefits both writers and readers.

That said, I have never given a book a 1-star rating, or written a totally negative review. If I find a book to be that bad, I generally abandon it soon after starting to read it, and I don’t review books I haven’t read in entirety.

As a reader, I tend to pay more attention to thoughtful critical reviews than enthusiastically positive ones. I uniformly ignore 5-star raves (especially those with attached gifs) and 1-star condemnations (especially those with profanity).

Reviewing Friends’ Books

This can be a tricky one. A bad review from a friend can damage the friendship, especially if it’s unexpected. In such cases it’s probably a good idea to communicate one’s concerns about the book privately and not write a public review at all. There’s always the option of the hypocritical good review, but that has its own problems.


Have you noticed the contradictions in this screed about reviews? Negative reviews are okay, unless they’re for books by friends. Ratings without reviews are irritating, but fine for books with hundreds of reviews. Avoiding low ratings distorts the review process, but I’ve admitted I rarely give 2 stars, and have never used the deadly 1-star rating.

If nothing else, this shows how complicated book reviewing is. So…

Why Write Reviews?

Writing a review takes time and effort. Readers with TBRs bursting at the seams are eager to get on with the next book. Finishing a book means we have to marshal our thoughts about it and express them in readable prose. This can feel more like a duty than a delight, especially for books that don’t generate enthusiasm.

But…

  • Well-written, thoughtful reviews are helpful to writers and readers.
  • Reviews are a great way to validate our fellow authors’ achievements in writing and publishing.
  • Reviews are a great way to display our writing skills.
  • Writing reviews for the books we read is a writing assignment we give ourselves, a discipline that reinforces our role as writers.

In conclusion, I encourage writers to write reviews for the books they read, especially those of fellow indies.

For those who haven’t had enough, here are links to some of my old posts on reviewing:
Views on Book Reviewing from November 2010
Book Reviews and Readers’ Appetites from January 2011
The Elusive Review from July 2015
Book Reviewing: a Murky Business This one, from 2019, is so similar to the current post, I think I’ll just shut up about reviewing, already!

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Writing Ideas notebook inside story idea notes

An Intention To Write and a Notebook of Prompts

A writer must write. Once you stop writing new stuff, you become a former writer. I don’t think there’s an official number of days or months without writing after which you lose your writer’s license, but six months to a year might be it.

I published my most recent book in May 2022. Since then, the only original material I’ve written has been blog posts and book reviews. My posts are short and my reviews are informal. I don’t think of them as “real writing.” Novels, short stories, poetry, and polished essays on specific subjects—those are the real thing.

If I don’t want to stop calling myself a writer, I’d better start writing something new. Soon.

For more than twenty years, my writing efforts were directed to the four novels I call the Herbert West Series and the two that succeeded it, She Who Comes Forth and She Who Returns. There is also a collection of short fiction I published in 2020, but seven of its fourteen stories are spinoffs from the series. I lived in the world of those novels for more than two decades.

It’s time to write something different. Vague ideas have been fermenting in the bottom of the old writing vat for years. When something specific bobbed to the top, I would make a note in the Writing Ideas notebook. (That’s if the notebook and a pen were on hand at the time, or if I managed to remember the great idea long enough to write it down. If only one could find the place where all the lost great ideas end up!)

Writing Ideas notebook cover blue Mead Five Star

This is my Writing Ideas notebook. I have recently combed through it, looking for anything that doesn’t relate to stuff I’ve already written and published. I now have a list of story ideas, plot outlines, and half-baked thoughts to work with.

Writing Ideas notebook cover blue Mead Five Star

The preceding was a circuitous way to get around to this declaration: During 2023, I will write a number (as yet undetermined) of stories or other works based on those notes.

I will report progress on this project in July 2023. The idea is that once written, some of these pieces will coalesce into something bigger. Not a novel, exactly, but something held together by themes that persist in haunting me. Even if that doesn’t happen, I will at least have a number of original pieces and maintained my Writer’s Cred.

Fellow writers, what do you do when you don’t have a work in progress? Do you worry that you’re no longer a real writer if you’re not working on something substantial?


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The Dubious Art of Book Reviewing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole book reviewing thing lately, so was happy to see this post by JF Kaufmann, which opens up some significant issues about indie authors and book reviews.

JF Kaufmann, Author

I don’t write reviews often; it takes time and effort to come up with a meaningful retrospection. When I do write them, I have different rules for different types of books, and this customized approach is most apparent within two major publishing categories–indie books and traditionally published books.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Sometimes I’m so moved with a book that I feel inspired to put down my impressions. It usually happens when I really like it and want to share my excitement (or recommend it) or, less frequently, when I’m frustrated or disappointed. The second scenario–a pissed-off review–usually occurs with a work of fiction unjustifiably praised, in my opinion, for qualities it doesn’t possess.

There are no consequences for the author as I don’t have any influence outside my limited blog space. Even if I did, such authors are fair game: they’ve been paid for their books…

View original post 782 more words

January 2023 New Year sunrise

Winter Sunrise and Winter Jasmine

Are winter sunrises more dramatic than those of summer, or is it that we notice them because they happen later, when most of us are awake and up to see them?

Winter sunrise January 2023
This pink sunrise happened on January 2nd, 2023.
Waning moon and rising sun January 19, 2023
On January 19th, 2023, the final crescent of the old moon rose shortly before the sun. If you look hard, you can see the tiny sliver of moon just to the right of the bottom of the tree trunk. (Or maybe you can’t, in which case my apologies for the poor quality of the photo.)
Winter jasmine January 2023
Maybe because of the drought last September and October, or the cold weather in November and December, the winter jasmine bloomed late, but it’s beautiful right now.

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digital brain

Brain Limits

I’ve heard you can’t really multi-task, despite people who claim they can.

I don’t entirely agree. I can do more than one thing at a time, but only to a point. For example, I can perform simple familiar tasks, like washing dishes, while thinking about something I’m writing or intend to write. And listening to a news program. In fact, I need to have some sort of mental input while doing manual work, even something like sewing, which is not simple or familiar.

But there are limits. I’ve tested them.

First, let me describe the usual scenario in my writing and blogging space. There’s the computer, with a bunch of weather-related tabs open, plus WordPress, plus Goodreads and a few others. Also email, of course. There’s an old-fashioned mini-stereo setup behind and to one side of the computer. It can play CDs and even cassette tapes, although it’s hardly ever called upon to do that. Mostly it’s a radio, and if I’m at the computer, it’s always on, cranking out music, news, or a current affairs program. Sometimes there’s music on the radio and at the same time a podcast on the computer, talking to me through one earbud. And as well as listening, I’m reading blog posts, or even writing one.

multitasking head media colourful
Image from Pixabay

Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to work. Is it multi-tasking? No. It’s sequential tasking. The old brain can deal with only one or perhaps two of these inputs at a time. The music seems to seep through the other stuff, but if it fully engages my attention, I disengage from the other tasks so I can listen properly. Otherwise, I’m taking in and focussing on only the words I’m reading, writing, or listening to, for sequential short intervals. I have to admit, I miss a lot of details of the radio programs while paying attention to blog posts or whatever I’m writing. Quite often, my attention is caught by the host thanking the interviewee or announcing the performer, having missed whatever was said, played, or sung. Annoying, but there it is.

When this input-juggling is working well, I can actually get things read or written and switch focus in time to get something out of whatever I’m listening to. It’s not the best way to absorb information, but it’s the only way I’ve come up with to keep up with the blogs I follow and what’s going on in the world, as well as creating blog posts and other writings.

Maybe this is why by the end of the day I don’t trust myself to write comments on people’s blog posts. The brain is worn out!

A final thought: if a long writing session is too challenging, a five-minute one jammed in between other mental tasks is manageable. Several such sessions actually produce visible results. Note: I don’t write first drafts of novels this way; that’s a whole other process!

Ideal combinations:

  • manual work + informative radio program
  • reading blogs + informative radio program or music
  • reading fiction + music
  • writing + music

Ideally, only two inputs at a time, you notice.

On the other hand, I don’t watch anything. At all. Well, maybe the odd video, but only if it’s a short one. No TV, no streaming. I read a lot of books. I do this reading away from the computer and even the radio, mainly during meals and before going to sleep.

Fellow bloggers, how do you avoid brain overload? Do any of you multitask?

Preparing to Amputate

Have you ever noticed a suburban garden in which the house is pretty much hidden behind overgrown shrubs, hulking trees, or an out-of-control hedge? Have you wondered who lives there, and why they’ve allowed all this overgrowth? Maybe they’re no longer capable of trimming and pruning. Maybe they’re reclusive weirdos. Maybe they just like living in a small private jungle.

I find such scenes a bit depressing. Which is why I don’t want my place to look like that. Nor would I want the post office to cut off service because the letter carrier doesn’t want to bushwhack their way to the door. Neither would first responders in case of emergency.

All right, things aren’t nearly that bad here right now, but some shrubs in this garden do need serious pruning. Editing, you might say.

  • Magnolia. Needs a major limb removed that is shading part of a perennial bed.
  • Ceanothus. Needs a major limb removed that is crowding the front walk.
  • Rosa glauca near front walk. The three or four oldest stems must be removed because they lean into the walk opposite the impinging Ceanothus, thus narrowing said walk unacceptably.
  • Cotoneaster franchetti. Needs to be lowered and reduced in bulk. Don’t want to cut it down altogether because it’s a big berry producer for birds in winter.
  • Photinia in front garden. Needs its annual trim to maintain the desired ice cream cone shape.
  • Small holly in back garden. There are too many hollies here already. Best to remove this one before it turns into a monster. Update: this one is DONE. Except it was two hollies that were a lot taller than I thought. Now cut down.
  • Big hollies in back garden. Already monsters that need to be beaten back.
  • Apple tree. Too tall and too wide. I seem to recall it was a “dwarf” when I planted it.
  • Smoke bush. Also too tall and too wide. This one can be cut down drastically, whereupon it will regrow with appalling vigor. I did that several years ago, but you’d never know it now. Some judicious trimming may be better.
  • The rampant shrub rose that has climbed into two maple trees and a couple of hollies on the west side of the back garden. It needs to be reminded that there are limits to growth, despite its cascade of fragrant white flowers in June.
Three-legged ladder and Photinia

I’ve already admitted I’m a reluctant pruner. Cutting off a limb, whether of an animal or a plant, is final. You can’t glue it back on. Mistakes aren’t easily fixable. And I get depressed at the sight of a perfectly good, nicely branched limb lying on the ground. Even when I know it had to be removed.

So I need to get into the right frame of mind, now that pruning season is about to start. January through March is the best time. Plants are dormant, it’s not too warm for the physical exertion needed, and I don’t have to worry about trampling smaller plants underfoot. And in March there’s the one day per year when the municipality picks up the trimmed-off material.

I have the right tools: two pruning saws, sharp secateurs, long handled loppers. A really good tripod ladder. Even a chain saw (for the magnolia job) and someone (i.e., the Spouse) to operate it. The subjects, (i.e., shrubs) are nicely anesthetized by winter dormancy, so will never know what happened. At least, I hope not.

Silky Gomtaro Root Saw

So go forth and prune, gardener! Seize the saw, climb the ladder, and cut! Amputate those darlings!

open books, grass

My Year of Books

I read fifty-six books in 2022, many by indie authors. I thought about doing a “favourite books of 2022” post, but realized it was impossible to choose which ones to feature.

Instead, you may see them all HERE. Click on a cover image to see the book’s description at Goodreads.

And if you want to read my reviews of these books, they may be found HERE. Just click on “view (with text)” on the right hand side of the page.

Now back to the TBR. I have many books queued up for 2023!