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Random Thursday: On the Reading and Reviewing of Books

Thursday, April 16, 2015 - 13:58
Last week I made rather a fuss about the importance of book reviews to authors, so this week I thought I’d talk about it from my point of view as a reader. I post about a lot of things on this blog in the format of reviews, simply because it’s a standard way of evaluating and communicating about my experiences to other people. Most of my non-fiction “reviews” have been more in the line of simple summaries of contents, although occasionally I might add some evaluative comments. (In some ways, the LHMP entries are just an expanded version of my book-intake posts.) But for fiction I tend to get a bit more long-winded and subjective. I've fallen in the habit of writing my reviews in two parts: one an attempt at even-handed criticism, and the other detailing my personal emotional relationship with the text. This is important because my overall take-away is very much influenced by the second part and I think it's important to show where I'm coming from. It’s been relatively recently that I’ve started making a point of reviewing every novel I read (and I have missed a few, for one reason or another). If you wonder why you haven’t seen that many reviews, the simple fact is that I don’t read a lot of novels. The way I explain it is that I use the same part of my brain for reading as for writing. So when I’m immersed in writing, I feel less urge to read, and if I’m reading something really interesting, it lessens my urge to write. When it comes down to it, there are very few books out there that I would read in preference to the ones I write. I guess that’s part of what makes me a writer. But when Daughter of Mystery came out, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing what the rest of the writing world was up to. I’d stopped keeping up around about the time grad school seized me by the throat and I’ve felt very disconnected ever since. In a way, that’s a good thing. It helps give me the freedom to be very picky about what I do read, rather than feeling I have to keep up with particular authors and series just because they’re what everyone is reading. And while I do prioritize those novels that are most in tune with my own reading tastes, I also find myself reading for a number of competing and conflicting reasons. For example, I’ve been doing my best to read more widely from the lesbian presses, simply because this is the industry I chose to make my publishing home at the moment. So I’ve been looking there for historicals and fantasies that either seem likely to be to my taste or are by people I might share a market with. A major “problem” I have is that I’m completely uninterested in contemporary settings—even for paranormals, though I’ve enjoyed a good urban fantasy as long as it wasn’t generic vampire/werewolf stuff. And—quite frankly—erotic romance doesn’t actively appeal to me, although some erotic content is fine if handled without damage to the plot. (And by “erotic romance” I don’t mean just “ordinarily this would be called porn but we don’t use that word”. I mean any book where sexual activity is explicit on the page. Not that I don’t enjoy good porn, in its place. But not when I’m reading for story.) In the SFF world, I've been reading for awards season (though not always exhaustively) and I've been making a point to read at least one book by authors who I've struck up online friendships with. (I can't possibly afford the time to read every book by every author I have some personal connection to, alas! I know too many authors and they're too prolific.) When I publish reviews here on my blog, I don’t use a “star” rating system. I’d rather discuss the details of what I liked or didn’t like. But since I’m also posting my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I have to convert my impressions into a numeric score—and a slightly different score for each site. One of the tricky things is that the calibration guidelines for the two sites don’t align in some parts of the scale and to be meaningful, I try to follow the explicit calibrations. 1-star
  • Amazon: I hate it
  • Goodreads: I did not like it
2-star
  • Amazon: I don’t like it
  • Goodreads: It was ok
3-star
  • Amazon: It’s ok
  • Goodreads: I liked it
4-star
  • Amazon: I like it
  • Goodreads: I really liked it
5-star
  • Amazon: I love it
  • Goodreads: It was amazing
This means, technically, that an Amazon star ranking should generally always be 1 star more than the Goodreads ranking. In reality, I suspect people generally have their own internal calibration and tend to use a similar scale on both sites. I know that, for me, I’d have a hard time giving a book 2 stars on Goodreads if I thought it was basically ok with no major flaws. It would just feel…odd. So my own ranking, when pushed to the choice, tends to go something like this: 1-2 stars: I try to avoid ever finding myself reading anything I would give this ranking. I book would fall in this range if the writing were bad (that is, worse than merely pedestrian), or if the plot or characters were seriously flawed or completely illogical. 3 stars: If a book were simply not to my taste, but was solidly written and plotted, this is probably where it would fall. Or if I really liked the premise and characters but felt the writing or the plotting were flawed. 4-star Amazon: At a minimum, solid, competent writing, solid plot and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra: really good writing, a strong woman-centered story, at least the potential for romance between women, a setting or premise that pushes my buttons. 4-star Goodreads or 5-star Amazon: Must have go beyond competent to beautiful writing, solid plot, and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra from the previous list. 5-star Goodreads: As before, but with at least two extras from the previous list. My initial selection process tends to filter for overall setting and theme, so it's rare that I'd end up down-grading a book on that basis unless I'd been pulled a bait-and-switch. Solid writing, plotting, and characters are an absolute for me. I can’t turn off my brain and enjoy something for its premise if I keep getting slapped in the face by the writing style. A story that has one or two of those "extras" but weak writing can hold on to me long enough to finish the book, but it won't get top marks. But I’ll hold to my right to apply some very subjective criteria to bring a solidly competent book up to the “it was amazing” level. I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that barely recognized female characters as human, much less as important to the plot and interesting in their own right. Fuck that shit. And I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that either erased, discounted, or were oblivious to the existence of anything but heterosexuality. For me, personally, to be a truly great read, a book has to give me reason to believe that I might see that aspect of myself reflected in the story somehow. I have to be able to believe that the character I’ve been urged to identify with just might fall in love with another girl, rather than the boy. She doesn’t have to, but I have to believe it’s possible.