Vanilla Reviews

Reviews are wonderful, reviews are trustworthy, reviews are how you find out what real people think. But is it that simple?

There’s an arms race over reviews. On the one hand, sellers seek ever subtler ways to convince buyers that people think this is the greatest product since someone worked out how rubbing sticks together made fire, and buyers are trying to spot the paid-for reviews in the hope of finding a genuine one.

It’s a complicated world.

There’s been controversy about Julie Burchill’s review in the current issue of Mslexia (Issue 61, Page 55 ) because she criticises Belle de Jour. I don’t care whether I agree with her comments or not – I just think there’s something wrong with her being criticised for expressing herself. We have free speech in this country and anyone who wishes to disagree can publish their own contrary opinion. Now am I going to get flamed for daring to say that? I moderate this blog, mainly to filter out spam and people trying to promote themselves, but I suspect I’d delete anything nasty, too. So am I guilty of suppressing free speech on here? I don’t think so, but you’re entitled to your own view of my actions.

I’ve been reviewing books for magazines and publishers for more than a decade. Most of the time, the recipient accepts whatever I’ve said about their book (or whatever), but occasionally I’ve been challenged over my opinion. One e-publisher emailed to say, “Why did you give this book four stars?” I was tempted to point out that I was being generous – I had been torn between awarding three or four stars. Presumably I was meant to give it five stars, regardless of the fact it wasn’t that good – so I haven’t reviewed any more for that publisher.

I used to agree to review-swaps with other writers, but I’ve stopped doing that after it became clear that these were expected to be sycophantic rather than honest.

It may be heresy, but I don’t see any point in reviews if they are always meant to be vanilla, give five-stars and only say nice things.

One major retailer emails me to review everything I purchase from them online, and won’t allow me to disable this on their website (yes, I tried). I reviewed an item of furniture I bought from them, saying how good it was but also commenting on the appalling delivery service and customer support. The review never appeared and they sent me an email saying my comments had “breached the terms” of their website. I queried this and got an admission (in writing) that I hadn’t breached anything, but they were “unable” to post my opinion online. Reviews for the same product say what a wonderful delivery experience other customers had – so I presume the only thing they objected to was my being negative. Even though it was true and provable.

So what is the point of posting a review where comments will be “moderated”?

As a writer, I’ve been contacted by companies who claim to offer review services. I followed one advert to its website to see what they were offering. Apparently, I could choose the number of reviews, the period over which they would be posted and the “proportionality” of the reviews. The example they showed was for 100 reviews, 80% five stars, over a one-month period. And they made a big deal of the fact I didn’t even have to provide a copy of the book. I couldn’t find out any more unless I gave them my contact and payment details, so I left their website.

Bearing in mind there’s been controversy about people writing bad reviews for their competition, I wonder if any of them have paid for 100 bad reviews for someone else’s book? Or twenty negative comments about a competing hotel?

Reviews have become a commodity, to be bought and sold like anything else. Maybe I’m being naïve to only seek reviews from people who’ve actually read my books – I’ve supplied review copies to various interested parties, but that’s the nearest I’ve ever been to paying for a review. (I generally make a comment like, “If you’re giving me less than three stars, please let me know what I did wrong”. But I never try to suppress a review.)

Meanwhile, I read reviews before purchasing something and try to guess whether they’re genuine.

Like I said, it’s an arms race.

Recently, I was asked for my opinion on honesty in the reviewing world for BBC Radio Wales – I think the Presenter was a little surprised how negative I was about the situation. But it’s hard to be upbeat when you’ve seen too much of the way the review system works.

So – how can a potential buyer judge the reviews of an item, be it book or anything else? There’s a clue in the sales pitch from the reviews-for-cash company I mentioned above. They obviously think it’s important to give a few four- and three-star reviews and spread them over a period of time, so they’re aware that buyers look out for a mass of five-star reviews appearing all on one day. These are flags to watch out for. Beware of reviews that are largely posted over a short period, and anything with a lot of reviews with no negative comments!

At the moment, I find it useful to spot reviews that all use the same phrases (I wonder if they ask for a list of stock phrases about a book?) and also reviews written by people who aren’t very fluent in English – I wonder how they could possibly read the book they’re commenting on. But my suspicion is that the next stage of the arms race will render this advice as useless as a chocolate sun lounger.

Some retailers try to improve things by highlighting reviewers who’ve bought that item through the retailer, or who write “popular” reviews – but do either of these criteria mean they’re producing an honest review?

Frankly, I think the best form of review is still one from someone you know and whose opinion you respect, whether that’s a mate down the pub or a newspaper columnist. Possibly not very helpful, but that’s the only way to be sure you’re not being duped by someone who’s being paid to be nice (or nasty).

But don’t let this dissuade you from posting your own reviews. If you have an honest opinion, share it online – especially if it’s about a product from a small business or Indie Artist of some description. If you’ve stayed in a small B&B or read a book by a largely-unknown author, share your opinion with the world. Most retail websites won’t even insist you booked / bought it through them before you post your review.

The review system may not be perfect, but it is the best we’ve got at the moment.

Book Review: Steelheart

Proper Fiction for Young Adults

In YA fiction I want strong characters, believable settings and a sensible plot. I don’t want watered-down “hero’s journey” stories full of stereotypical, childish characters and no real peril.

And I loved Steelheart.

I loved meeting characters who surprised me, visiting a city turned to steel where the sun never rises and riding a storycoaster with twist on top of twist. This is gutsy fiction where bad guys can be clever and good guys can die – and some characters are not what they seem. Superpowers do not automatically make heroes – or villains! And having finished, I’m tempted to reread in the same way everyone has to rewatch The Sixth Sense.

David is a young man with a serious grudge and a near-complete focus on killing Steelheart. He wants revenge and doesn’t care what it costs him to get it. Until he meets the Prof, Megan and the other Reckoners. And on the way, he learns more about the world and himself than he ever expected.

When your only wish is to die for something, how can you bear to live?

Title: Steelheart
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 978-0-575-10399-3
Price: £12.99 (Paperback)

Book Review: Stephen King – Guns

Kindle Singles are small, ebook only, publications. They may be a novella or a few poems. Or, as in this case, an essay on a particular subject. Unlike most Kindle publications, they go through a selection process which ansures a certain minimum standard. Stephen King chose to use this medium to publish his thoughts on the current debate in the US about gun ownership and responsibilities.

Title: Guns (Kindle Single)
Author: Stephen King
ASIN: B00B53IW9W (Kindle)

At last – a voice of reason in the Great American Gun Debate.

For those who didn’t study American history, the Second Amendment to their Constitution grants every American the right to bear arms. The Constitutional Amendments are sacred to US citizens in the way that most legal systems around the world are not. Many of these formalise basic human rights of people in America and they (especially the earlier ones) are viewed with a near-religious fervour.

And this Second Amendment is the one most often cited by supporters of the right to have any and all weapons available for private purchase. Their opponents point at mass shootings and statistics on deaths and injuries caused in part by the guns owned by Americans.

Stephen King walks the narrow divide between these two camps, arguing that it’s possible to keep the enshrined rule about bearing arms, but to ban certain categories of automatic weapons from private hands. What he’s saying is similar to the line taken by Barack Obama, but not identical. My own personal leanings are similar to both men, but differ in some details.
What this is is a calm discussion of certain historical and statistical facts that tend to get drowned in the shouting of the two opposing parties. King does make his own opinions clear, but he’s not trying to push anyone towards his conclusions. He’s more interested in being a calm voice that people will listen to in preference to some of the shouting.

A welcome summary of some of the key points in this debate, as well as a commentary on some aspects of American culture.

King will earn nothing from this essay as all his proceeds are being given to a related charity.

Personal read: 5 stars
Reading group read: 5 stars

Review: Christmas is Murder

Title: Christmas is Murder
Author: Val McDermid

An electronic-only release from the Queen of Crime, this little volume consists of two short stories written long before she became a bestselling crime novelist. As the title warns – Christmas is Murder. Especially where families are involved.

As a long-time McDermid fan and a writer myself, I was fascinated to see her earlier writing. There are flashes of her now-slick style and pace, but it’s clear to see she was still finding her way to becoming today’s champion teller of the gory-story.

The two stories are both enjoyably gruesome and have enough surprises to satisfy the reader, with convincing characters and well-realised settings.
A must-read for McDermid completists and heartening to those who appreciate seeing the evolution of her writing style.

Personal read: 4 stars
Reading group read: 5 stars

Book Review: Build a Business from your Kitchen Table

Title: Build a Business from your Kitchen Table
Author: Sophie Cornish & Holly Tucker
ISBN: 978-1-47110-211-0

It’s a nice idea, and there is undoubtedly a market for books on starting your own business from scratch. But this isn’t a book that delivers what it promises. This is more the story of how they did it and not a how-to guide for aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s readable and an interesting study of how to recover from your mistakes when starting out in business, but there are more useful books on the subject.

I felt patronised that they assume “woman” is the same as “mother of young children” and annoyed at their stereotypical views of the male gender. Not to mention their idea that £80,000 is the kind of start-up capital that all new businesses need to get off the ground.

Much though I wanted to admire them, I would rather not have read this. I like their company, but I wouldn’t recommend their book.

Personal read: 2 stars
Reading group read: 2 stars

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
ISBN: 978-1444761788

A Matryoshka novel. Like those staples of Russian souvenirs, there are stories nested within stories. Within stories. But unlike those wooden dolls, each level ties in with the one that comes before and after. A history unfolding in layers – perhaps an onion would be a better metaphor.

No – forget talking about its structure, just enjoy the writing. Each story is well-written – each in a different style, appropriate to its period of history or future history. That’s the impression that stays, even when you’ve forgotten about the trick of nesting them.

A great book, but not for the faint-hearted.

Personal read: 4 stars
Reading group read: 4 stars

Book Review: Diary of a Mad Man

Title: The Philosophy of a Mad Man
Author: Steven Colborne
ISBN: 978-1-78132-023-5 (Paperback)

A book that does exactly what it says on the cover.

Psychiatric patient Steven Colborne has spent much of his adult life looking for something that could mend his broken life. He’s tried a variety of possible fixes, including non-mainstream religious interventions and illegal drugs. By most people’s reckoning, his self-description would be accurate – Steven is what most of us would call a mad man.

But at least he can write. The subject matter gets uncomfortable, but remains readable. His honesty can be painful to read, but there’s no doubt he means every word.

I found Part I, chapters jumping about through the years of his searching, to be far better than Part II, when he details his resultant philosophy. I ended the book feeling that it left too much hanging – I wanted a rounding-off and it didn’t have one.

An interesting insight, but not a book for everyone. 

Personal read: 4 stars 
Reading group read: 2 stars

On Reviewing

I’ve been a book reviewer for magazines for several years and a proof-reader for as long as I’ve been writing. I’m well-known for being both widely-read and a grammar pedant, both of which are useful traits in this line of work.

And both of which make me welcome the current publicity over “sock puppet” reviews.

What’s wrong with sock puppets? I hear you cry. Well, the whole problem is that they only say what you want them to say. Sock puppet reviews are written by an author or their friends, praising a book and falsely boosting its ratings in online stores / peer-review forums. I’ve been aware of this trend for years, but only recently has it become clear that some big-name authors are doing it. (See here: )

Now, I confess that I have asked people to review my books when they’ve read them – but always insisted that it needs to be their honest opinion. “If you’re giving it 4 or 5 stars, please publish your review. If it’s less – please tell me what I’ve got wrong.” And I no longer assume that the ones who don’t broadcast their opinions are necessarily negative. (If you’ve ever accepted a free book and not reviewed it, then shame on you!)

Maybe it’s time for a few rules on reviewing. Hmm:

  1. Never review your own work. (It’s worse than liking your own posts on Facebook.)
  2. Always be honest. (What’s the point in a review if it’s not true?)
  3. Never give away the plot or ending. (Readers want your opinion, the author is the one who tells the story.)
  4. Find something good and something negative to say. (They will be there if you try hard enough.)
  5. If it’s written by a friend and it sucks, let them know first – but politely. (Especially if it’s mine!)

Not asking much, really.

I recently reviewed a book for an online writing buddy. An honest review, following all of the above rules. After I’d posted it, he contacted me to say, “Why did you give if 4 stars?” I replied, “Because I was feeling generous.”

Next time I might round down the 3 ½ stars I wanted to give.


Review: The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

Nowadays, a reader could be forgiven for thinking no-one in history ever did anything with a simple motive. No-one merely painted a picture to adorn a church, no-one founded a religious order because of their faith. And now, it seems, no-one designed a memorial garden purely to immortalise his lamented wife. The Savage Garden follows a Cambridge student as he unpicks the layers of meaning in a Tuscan garden, unearthing crimes that span generations. The book starts slowly, but it picks up pace, and will give a reading group plenty to discuss. Pack it in your suitcase and head for Italy.

 Personal read: 3 star
Reading group read: 4 star

Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

“Quirky” is the best word for this very British book. The premise is as daft as its title suggests, and the sometimes larger-than-life characters could only spring from someone raised in the culture that invented pantomime. I almost hissed the baddie, whilst cheering the heroes towards success and glory.

The pace is lively; the unusual presentation in the form of emails and after-the-event interviews works well for this tale of one man’s dream. Is it a metaphor for today’s clash of cultures in the Middle East? Does it say something meaningful about the power of faith in possibilities? Decide for yourselves while you enjoy a great read.

Personal read: 4 stars
Reading group read: 5 stars