Reviewing books is hard. It’s not a simple matter of reading a book and either loving or hating it. There are in between books, books that you don’t finish, books that you fall in love with but feel speechless at the end of. There are so many variables and you, the reviewer, have to put it into words.
Now, when I talk about reviews, I’m not talking about my two pet hates of the reviewing world:
* A rewording of your blurb, with a simple “I liked it” or not at the end.
* A sentence of “I liked it” or “I hated it”
To me, those are fine for regular readers to leave on a book. But, of you are in the business of being a reviewer and you are given books by the author, for the express purpose of reviewing it, then you better have more to say. I’ve been on both sides – having to be the reviewer who is struggling to explain what a book made me feel and also being the author who got a review from a company whose purpose is to review or a book blog, only to receive one of the above examples.
In my mind, a review is proof that you read and understood the book, but it’s also about exploring what did and didn’t work for you, the reader. You can’t call yourself a proper reviewer if all you ever do is reword the blurb. Anyone can do that and it doesn’t prove you’ve read the book. Trust me, I’ve known people who left a one line review or a reworded blurb review, only to confess that their deadline was so tight that they didn’t have time to read actually read the book. I can’t do that, in good conscience. I know that deadlines get in the way and sometimes it will take me a year or so to read a book, if I’ve not been given a deadline to meet, but I *will* always read that book, before putting my name on a review. I honestly can’t understand people who don’t. And I can’t be that kind of author who would be okay with fake reviews left for the sake of fulfilling that review.
That’s why I find it so hard to review. Because you really have to be able to explain what you liked, why and what you didn’t like and why. Sometimes, that means I write more for a negative review – to explain what didn’t work for me and why – than I do for a rave review. Sometimes, a rave review is just me being speechless over a book and trying to formulate something intelligent from the mess of my brain.
Worse still, there are times as a review that I can really enjoy a book while reading it, make nothing but positive notes and then sit down to write my review and it’s dropped from a 5 star rave review to a 3 star iffy review, because suddenly all of the problems are staring me in the face, now that I’ve stopped reading. With the magic of the sparkly lights and the shiny words over, my brain processes what it was reading and I find that there are actually more flaws than I realised. Certainly more than I wrote notes for. And I have to sit there and let the words flow, because I can’t just ignore the flaws after noticing them, just because I enjoyed it while reading it. If I’d been a regular reader and not a reviewer, I’d have probably finished the book, gone to Goodreads and logged a 5 star rating, then written a few sentences about how I cried a lot or how certain parts touched me. I wouldn’t even give myself time to think it over and realise that, actually, there were some really niggly parts that, the more I think about it, I really didn’t like. Or, actually, after thinking about it, I didn’t like that aspect of the story at all, because it felt weird or unreal or derogatory.
Just as there are so many variable to the books you read and how you might have to review them, there are just as many variables once you sit down to write that review. You brain stops to really think about things and suddenly, that hilarious moment is actually really cheesy. That totally swoon-worthy scene was cringe-worthy and maybe that romantic speech was actually corny and pathetic.
I think of reviewing like that bit in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Darcy is making his big sweeping speech and he thinks he’s doing the best thing, that he’s saying all the right things, only for Elizabeth to notice the flaws and stand there thinking WTF? That’s sometimes how I feel about my own reviews. I start writing a rave review, as the Mr Darcy of the scenario, until I finish, read it back or get to a bit where, actually, I’m Elizabeth thinking WTF did I just write? WTF did part that actually mean? Was it supposed to sound so insulting or am I reading too much into it? Then I start second guessing myself and wondering whether I’ve completely lost the plot, or not.
In the end, I write my notes up into something that makes sense, then read the whole thing through from beginning to end, rearranging or deleting/adding whatever is necessary or comes to mind as I’m reading the review. Then, I read it back until no changes are made. It’s actually sometimes just as complicated as editing a book. Because, what I always remember, is that there’s an author on the other side of that review, reading my words about their book. I want to be as articulate as possible, to explain what I can, to reason and validate my points wherever I can, because it’s important that I make myself clear.
Whatever I write – 1 star or 5 star – every review takes time. Often a day, for a novel, or three if I don’t have a lot of time on my hands, just to read it. Then it takes about an hour to write my notes up, make it resemble sensible words and then get it edited/read through and sorted into a real review. I have to make sure that I’m happy to put my name on the words I’ve written. It might only be a review, but an author could come back to me for another review in the future, if I can prove to be impartial, logical and express myself well. Either way, every author who lets me review their work knows that I’ll give nothing but my honest opinion and that not everyone will agree with me. That’s not for me to judge. I can only say how I feel and hope that either someone disagrees with my bad review, to go buy the book and support the author, or maybe it can help the author pinpoint mistakes. Or a good review can encourage people to read an awesome story that I loved and let the author know that there are people out there who are touched by their words.