Reviewing books - Elizabeth Kay

Since I’ve become a regular book reviewer, I’m looking at reading in a different way entirely.
     I’m meant to write about books that I’ve enjoyed, that appeal to a mainly middle-class middle-aged (but not elderly) female audience; two books a month.
          This was easy to begin with; there were so many novels that leapt out – Wolf Hall, Elephant Moon, A Thousand Splendid Suns. But you can’t keep reviewing the same author – one book is enough.
          Then there were the re-issues. What fun – The Day of the Triffids, The King Must Die. Electric Authors and other author friends were a good source, too – but the books must be adult, not children’s or YA, and fairness does come into it.
          A friend’s recommendation usually works well, too, and it was my daughter who recommended We Are All completely Beside Ourselves, which I loved. There’s a real problem with books like that which have a clever twist in them, as there lies the originality but to give any of it away is a spoiler, and you wouldn’t want to destroy the shock/horror/surprise on which the book relies.
          This is very true of books such as We Need to Talk about Kevin, and Gone Girl. Writing reviews about books like this is very difficult, particularly as you really want to encourage people to read them.
          On holiday a couple of years ago I met an English teacher, who told me she always read the last
 page of a book first to see if she was going to enjoy it. She couldn’t understand my attitude when I tried to point out that writers may spend a long time and great deal of thought coming up with the perfect ending – satisfying, but a surprise at the same time. I do hope she didn’t teach all her students to do the same thing.
Then there are also the self-published books that are sent directly to the magazine in the hope that you’ll give them some free publicity. I haven’t had a good one yet. Either they’re so appallingly edited that you can’t get beyond the first few pages for all the typos and layout issues, or they’re beautifully presented and so boring that you fall asleep every time you struggle through a few more pages. That’s when you start looking at other reviews, to see things that might appeal, and Amazon bestsellers because you’d rather read these books on your Kindle as you don’t have any empty bookshelves left. And here’s the rub…
            How do you select them, when you’ve never heard of the author, and you’d like to give someone new a boost? The ones with lots of reviews seem like a good bet, but the reviews are frequently contradictory so thank heavens for the Read Inside facility. This weeds out the majority straight away, as a mistake in the first paragraph isn’t a good advert. And it’s not just the self-published ones that fall into this category – quite a few reputable publishers seem to have lost the plot when it comes to proofing e-books.
            If the book passes the Read Inside test, it can move up into the Send a Sample level. This is when you discover that the promising first couple of pages may well have been rigorously edited by a more literate friend, and the rest doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. So that weeds out some more – but all this takes time, and you’re not paid for the ones you reject.
            So – you’ve got one where the author understands the purpose of punctuation, the text doesn’t have any typos, and the plot has held your interest for the first chapter.
          You buy the book, hoping that this will give you the material you need for one half of this month’s submission. And then your interest begins to waver. It could be that you find a factual error. This immediately stops you believing the rest of the book, because either your author doesn’t know much about the setting/period/scientific content, or they don’t bother to research it.
         Then there are the characters who simply disappear without any explanation. This is almost certainly because the author has decided to excise a plotline, and hasn’t removed all of it. And then there are the books that just don’t work. You read fifty percent of it, hoping that things will tie up in a satisfactory way. By seventy-five percent you’re fairly sure they won’t, but you don’t stop reading because you need that review, and if there’s half a chance things will pan out you don’t want to have wasted all that reading time.
            You get to the end. How on earth can you recommend this as something you’ve enjoyed? You can’t. It doesn’t leave that feeling of fulfilment that you get from a well-written story. So you start the procedure all over again.
            The next time you want to shoot a reviewer, bear this in mind: it’s not as easy as it looks.
Of course, as authors we’ve all been reviewed ourselves, both fairly and unfairly. The most infuriating one I ever remember when was when someone accused me of incompetence because I used coincidence. He/she stated that my main character just happened upon the other main character, when in fact meeting up was the whole purpose of the visit.
I think it annoyed me the most because it was so specific, and so incorrect. The ones that just slate something with no explanation can be ignored, and you hope that readers will ignore them too. I’m never quite sure how much websites check the provenance of their reviews, but some years ago my book The Divide was the subject of a running battle between two kids. One of them was a fan of my book, and the other the fan of another author. Day after day they rubbished each other’s books – easy to spot when they make the same spelling mistakes over and over again, although they signed themselves as someone else each time. The trouble was, although these reviews could be ignored my ranking went down and down as a result.

So – how much do you rely on reviews to select a book? Do the ones in a newspaper carry more weight than web-based reviews? Is it the length of the piece, or the quality of the writing, or the enthusiasm of the reviewer? Or do you just not bother with reviews at all?


Much food for thought here, Elizabeth. I can't remember when a review of fiction last prompted me to buy or read a book. Non-fiction is a different matter - I quite often find something that interests me and a good, analytical review will whet my appetite even more. I used to do occasional reviews for various newspapers and magazines but I would never review something I really disliked. I can forgive typos, occasional formatting problems, even occasional factual errors in fiction. We all get things wrong sometimes. But if something bores me after 50 pages, I usually give up. I find the 'mainly middle class middle aged but not elderly' constraints a bit alarming though - I'm assuming this is for a particular magazine so you have to follow their rules. I don't know anyone who thinks of themselves as elderly however, erm, old they may be! And when I sometimes speak to groups of women (WRI for instance) it's often the older women who will have Kindles, and will be eclectic readers, willing to give all kinds of books a try. This did get me thinking about how and where I find the fiction I read and it's a combination of recommendations from friends, Amazon 'also boughts' and 'look insides' (I'll glance at the reviews, but they won't really sway me either way) and the occasional radio or television programme where a writer might be discussing a book. Some of those friends are much younger, and it's through their interests that I've discovered amazing writers like China Mieville, whose work I might not otherwise have come across.
Chris Longmuir said…
I used to review for Scots Magazine, and although they had your interests on record they did send books that I would never have chosen to read otherwise. Two that stand out in my mind was the history of an engineering firm who manufactured cars at the beginning of the century, the other was the autobiography of a football manager. Now, I have no interest in either of those subjects, but I was being paid to review, and I reviewed them professionally in my role of professional reviewer, rather than the 'did I like it or did I not camp' that prevails on Amazon. Which meant I reviewed it on how well written they were, how well researched, and what kind of reader would find them interesting. And there are readers out there who will like what you don't, it's just part of the recommendation eg "football fans, or those interested in game plans in football should find this of interest" (my football autobiography). I just feel too many reviews are now focused on the like or dislike facet of the book which doesn't really tell me if I will like it.
Very good point, Chris. Maybe that's why I find myself preferring non-fiction reviews as recommendations which do tend to concentrate on the points you make above. It's possibly harder to review fairly a novel you really dislike. I review on Amazon occasionally, but only when I not only like a novel, but feel it's well written, well researched, appealing in various ways. Something to get my teeth into, I suppose, rather than something that leaves me cold. Which isn't always the same as liking or disliking a novel.
Susan Price said…
I feel we should all pitch in with a list of books for Elizabth to review!
Lydia Bennet said…
Maybe you could see what films are coming out and review the books of the film... I just bought The Martian because I liked the film and saw some comments about the book being good and having more science in it that made me decide to get it too. I have no respect for newspaper reviews, any more than amazon ones, as I know full well that a lot of them are friends of the authors regardless of their supposed objectivity. However, I'm all for crossing genres and boundaries and I don't like sexist or ageist stereotyping, so I'd be throwing in some books which don't obviously conform to those categories Elizabeth has been given. I don't take much notice of reviews and in fact only read amazon ones if I'm wondering whether to buy a kindle book which sounds good but is dearer than usual - but only for an idea of what it's about, I don't care whether other people like them or not. I mean, Harry Potter leaves me utterly cold and bored, whereas plenty of adults rave about the books and films. I"d normally use the 'look inside' function to give an idea of the style, and the blurb for the synopsis. I think you've taken on a lot in having to stick to books you've enjoyed!
Dennis Hamley said…
Elizabeth, you make a good point about reputable publishers losing the ebook proofing plot. I was recently asked to review the latest young adult novel of a very fine writer. As instructed, I sent to the publisher for a review copy which took a long time in coming. So to save time I reviewed the ebook edition - and found that it was appallingly formatted, which seriously got in the way of my enjoyment and obscured the novel's real strengths. Yes, I gave it the good review it deserved, but the publisher did the author a real disservice. Yet somehow, I wasn't surprised, which is not a good thing to have to say.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Excellent post. Reviewing can be such a minefield. It is important to look at a book objectively but with fiction this can be difficult. I try to look at what I find are the strengths and review with regards to this. I am impressed with your rigor and approach. As a reader I don't often pay much attention to reviews. I make my own mind up from the look inside

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