Saturday, October 17, 2020

Snake Oil: Book reviews

What makes a good book review? Do you read reviews before you buy or read a particular book? Or do you read some reviews when you've finished reading the book? Maybe a little of both. Do book reviews influence your decision to purchase/read a book? Do you trust book reviews? Do you write reviews? Why or why not?

Despite predictions to the contrary, the book industry continues to thrive. Bricks and mortar book shops perhaps not, but there is no shortage of books being written, published, read and reviewed. In fact, in the 21st century, the digital publishing age, there are more books available than ever before. Many readers have switched to e-books only, but most use both paper and screens while only a few remain resistant to the use of technology. 

Book reviews are coveted by writers as one of the most effective weapons in their marketing arsenal. This is not only because they are usually free, but because they are personal. Advertisers are always targeting you, even if you belong to a specific demography, they are still trying to sell something to you. It's the power of a personal invitation, a personal call to notice what is missing in your life and recognize from where, or from whom that need can be met. A book review is no different to any other sales pitch. 

What makes a good review?

I've been a member and a reasonably active user of Goodreads since 2009. I've read and reviewed 328 books in that time. I also have an author page. I always try to keep my reviews quite short because I'm a fan of being succinct. I write like I shop. When I shop alone, I know what I want, I go and buy it and then I get out. When I write, I say what I have to say in as few words as I need to make my point, then I finish. Sometime earlier in the year, I taught a class called What a Novel Idea during which I taught my students how to write a good book review. I did some research and found a process which I thought was very simple and very effective. In fact, I still use this style.

  • I write a brief introduction to the review, and a description of the plot or subject matter.
  • I write about the things I didn't like.
  • I write about the things I did like.
  • I write a closing sentence with a recommendation.
Do you read book reviews?

I never read reviews of books before I read the book. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, I'm afraid of spoilers, and secondly, I don't want a review to prejudice me. For example, if a review suggested there was a certain fault with the writing style of the author, I would read the book in detective mode. This would detract from my possible enjoyment of the book. Finally, I have a general suspicion of book reviews. 

On the other hand, I often read some reviews after I finish because I'm interested in other people's opinions. I'm especially interested in hearing different perspectives on what I read. Themes I may have not considered, features of the story or the characters which I missed or didn't think relevant. Stuff like that.

Do you trust book reviews?

I think there are an impossible number of five star books on the market. If it looks like a duck and quacks like one, it's probably a duck. The preponderance of five star reviews looks and sounds like snake oil. I mentioned earlier that I've read and reviewed 328 books in the eleven years since I joined Goodreads. Among that number, less than 10% have received five star reviews. Three stars is a good read, a recommended read, a quality read in my opinion. Four stars is next level: now I'm impressed. It's a cut above. Five stars is the kind of book which frequently stopped me in my tracks, astounded by the brilliance of literary expression. Five stars means it made me feel something to the extent I actually laughed or cried. Or even felt anger or real suspense coupled with an elevated heart rate. Of the books below, only two received a 5 star review from me.

I could be simply a hard marker, or lots of people are super easily impressed, or...these reviews are rubbish. Snake Oil. Call me a cynic, but in the era of the e-book and POD publishing, competition for readers is fierce and five star reviews glitter like gold.

Do you write book reviews? Why or why not?

Especially for unknown writers like myself, I want to help, so I write general positive, but honest reviews for books I rate at three stars and above. If the book is not going to make the cut, I won't review it, but I will reach out to the author with some constructive criticism. If the author is famous or dead, or both, I don't feel the review has as much clout. Certainly not with the author and probably not with any of that author's fans. Neither a good review or a bad review is likely to be noticed. So why do it? Just to join the vox populi? Out of habit? Yes and yes, but also writing a review helps me to remember what I want to remember about that book.

I always ask people who buy my books to review them, but very, very few do. I guess by faithfully reviewing all the books I read, I'm making myself more comfortable with requesting others to do that for me. So now, you're wondering why I care when I said earlier in this post that I thought reviews were generally not trustworthy, and in my case had no impact at all on my decision to read a particular book or not. Again, it's probably my wave of making sure that when I criticize others for snake oil book reviews that I maintain my integrity by writing genuine ones.

How would you answer my opening salvo of questions? I'd love to hear your views.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Mirror: Instant Drop in Standards

 Back in 1984, my 15 year old friends and I went to see a film which legally we weren't supposed to be able to see. I was able to buy alcohol as well around that time thanks to looking older than I was, and the slackness of those who sold the grog. I live in Australia's Northern Territory and I need to show my ID every time I buy alcohol at a bottle shop. I'm pretty sure I look over eighteen now, but we have a banned drinkers register up here, so no ID, no booze. Late in '84, I'm pretty sure the person who sold me movie tickets to Scarface (rated R) didn't even look at me to see whether I was old enough, and they certainly didn't ask.

How did I feel about seeing a film with sex, nudity, very frequent coarse language, graphic violence, gore, and intense and frightening scenes? Let me just say, there's a reason such content is restricted to adults.

That was 36 years ago. Thirty six years. In the 1980's you never heard swear words on TV. There was no PG rating, but they had one called NRC (not recommended for children under 12), so films with a rating lower than M would generally have been considered okay for older children. There would not have been any course language or strong violence and certainly no nudity or sex, not even suggested or implied sex. TV was also very safe during prime time, generally speaking.

Of course, it's possible, I'm viewing the past through rose-coloured glasses, but I feel like there was a lot of safe, harmless viewing for children, even as recently as the late nineties and early 2000's when my older children were growing up.

I would have bet my life on a PG film being safe for my two younger children, now aged fourteen and eleven respectively. In fact, I tell them when it's their turn to choose, that anything PG is okay for us on family movie night. There's been a not of a blurring, a lowering of standards in my view, but it's been such a slow fade I wouldn't be able to pinpoint when it happened. At what point did someone say it was now okay to use the word "shit" multiple times throughout a PG rated film? When did nudity and strong sexual allusions become okay? Realistic violence? Did I miss something? There's no other way to describe it other than as a slow fade.

What brought this all to a head for me was last week's family movie. I'd previously considered this one, but baulked and, in it's place selected the pathetic Jack and the Beanstalk which I wrote about in a previous post. I hesitated and chose another film instead of Instant Family because of the advisory warning. These are good. These advisory warnings because they add detail to the rating. Okay, it's PG but why? What is it exactly that makes this family film not for general exhibition. Instant Family actually rated M today, but I swear it was PG on Saturday. Anyway, it's rated M with a content advisory saying its suitable for children aged 13 and over...which is what I thought PG was.

My point remains though, albeit minus my star attraction in the witness box. There are PG films with mild sex scenes, coarse language and medium level violence listed on Amazon Prime's ratings list. I reckon PG is no sex, no coarse language, and mild comedic violence only. But I'm swimming against the tide, I know that. When parents take their children to the cinemas to see M rated films, and they say that's okay because they are superhero films.

I admit to being conservative which may lead me to the continuation of this tiresome belly-ache. Rather than making clearer my already completely transparent views, I'll turn my attention to the film which started it all. It's ironic that it appears to have been my mistake which led me to having to try to explain 'dick pic' to my eleven year daughter. I chose an M rated film which contained frequent uses of 'shit'. And there were some fairly intense dramatic scenes and violence. You can see why I was shocked. And you can probably also see why I'm a little sheepish about my protest. Protest? Let's be honest, it was a rant; a baseless rant, (but not entirely baseless).

I'll be more careful next time.

Instant Family, by the way, is a terrific film. A highly recommended heart warmer.