Thoughts on the Epically Long Bad Book Review (by a confused reader and slightly nervous author)

Picture the scene.

You’re browsing the internet. You find a page of reviews for a book you loved, or perhaps fall down a book blog rabbit hole. You spend a delightful tea break reading all the posts from people who, like you, find this book FANTASTIC. You are warmed in your soul; you feel connected to these reviewers, these strangers across oceans; you’re joined by the thread of mutual appreciation.

And then.

Snuggled amongst the posts, like a wee moth in a dresser of comfy jumpers, is a two star review. Not just a two star rating. There’s prose. It’s five paragraphs long. It runs to hundreds of words. It’s an Epically Long Bad Review.

You’re devastated. Well. Displeased. Perplexed. DID THIS PERSON READ THE SAME BOOK YOU DID? Maybe they were born without good taste. That’s not their fault. But, you think, five paragraphs and hundreds of words? That’s quite some commitment when you consider edits. Why? Whyyyy?

Okay back to first person. We all knew I meant ‘me.’

I am, obviously, writing this now not because I’ve only just discovered book reviews but because I’m spending a lot of time on Goodreads and engaging with the #bookstagram tag as part of the promotion for The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes (blog tour ongoing!), so reviews are very much on my mind. I’m also using Goodreads to keep track of my reading and share my thoughts on some books (my reviews are either very earnest or your drunk auntie at a party, no five paragraphers from me unless it’s a Read, If You Like). Thus, a lot of time on Goodreads. I’m also trying to focus my energy on things that either feel productive or are genuinely enjoyable, because if 2020’s legacy is anything, it’s ‘let’s try to enjoy this tyre fire of a world before the planet dies completely…’

So, yeah, I’m perplexed by the existence of the Epically Long Bad Review. Why would you put so much care into a blog post or Goodreads entry explaining why you hate a book? It feels counterproductive at best and, at worse, like you’re wallowing in bad feeling. You didn’t enjoy a novel, it wasn’t worth your attention… so why are you telling us about it? Why, when, according to the internet, you will only live for 40,000,000 minutes? It’s not the author’s time you’re wasting, you know?

In the interests of balance, because I used to want to be a journalist

I’m not against negative reviews in general. It’s good to tell potential readers, ‘don’t read this book if you don’t like memoirs written by a famous person who is not naturally an author, whose prose feels a little like walking through mud.’ Or ‘I didn’t love the arguably unnecessary violence in this novel and you might not either.’ That’s useful. I want to know if a book deals in heavy themes with all the nuance of a sledgehammer. But who are you really serving by spending paragraphs and paragraphs talking about each and every terrible aspect of the book when you could say the same thing in a couple of sentences?

Maybe I’m overthinking this. One reader’s five star review is another’s one star, after all. ‘The prose felt childlike and the plot moved too fast; this is a juvenile waste of my time,’ is another reader’s ‘the writing was direct and didn’t faff around. The pacing was so fast, I was on the edge of my seat and couldn’t put it down.’ I think I’m really just in awe of the length and detail of some of these Epically Long Bad Reviews. It’s the love that goes into them that bemuses me.

Kermit the frog typing manically from Giphy
from Giphy

Time to declare my conflict of interest

Obviously I’m biased about reviews when it comes to one particular writer over all others. I’m a newly-published author who needs good press. At time of writing, I’m organising that blog tour for The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes and crossing my fingers for good, or at least neutral, feedback. At the moment, as there are so few reviews up for the book, I’d rather none of them were less than four stars. If they are less than four stars, I’d prefer there wasn’t a five paragraph explanation of everything the reader hated about it. Not because I’m personally offended by the review or the reviewer – I know they aren’t being personal. I also know I wrote a book that stands up with, if not the best of them, than at least not the worst. I feel reasonably confident in saying that because I’ve read thousands of novels in my life and watched thousands of films and TV shows: I can tell the difference between a well executed plot and a badly executed one. I can identify good prose versus prose that just needs a bit of polishing versus prose that’s genuinely terrible. I know the next novel I write will be better, because I’ll have had more practise and read more books. So although I may spend a few precious seconds of my 40,000,000 minutes reading that Epically Long Bad Review, thinking ‘god that reader has no taste,’ I’ll survive.

Plus, in ten years’ time, if The Princess and the Dragon has hundreds of four-plus star reviews, reports solid royalties and remains a piece of work I’m proud of, I’m not going to give a shit if Briana from Nottingham found the writing immature and the sub plots boring. I might get drunk with my mates and read Briana’s review out loud when we have a get together, because I’m drinking a gin and tonic purchased with those sweet royalties (you would too, don’t pretend otherwise), but I will be fine. And I won’t nurse a grudge against Briana for her honesty.

That’s ten years’ time, though. While I’m getting this book off the ground and trying to recoup some of the publishing costs, I’m mindful that Briana and her Nottingham-based book-themed Instagram could impact my burgeoning reputation. Does that mean Briana shouldn’t post her honest opinion? Of course not. Free speech, man. I might curse you and the potential damage to my gin and tonic money, but your time’s your own to do with what you will, and freedom of expression is as important when you disagree with that the thing being expressed as when you agree with it (it might be more important when you disagree). If you think my work should be thrown in the proverbial bonfire, you’re more than welcome to tell people that. But what do you really want to achieve by it? Do you want me to see fewer sales? Do you want to dampen some of the noise around my book’s release?

I respect that if you also think that I should be thrown in the proverbial bonfire – maybe we disagreed on Twitter once, or you don’t like how I run my businesses, or I stepped through a door you were holding and didn’t say thank you. If that’s the case, I understand that telling people to avoid me and avoid lining my pockets is something you might want to spend time doing. (I especially respect that if you’ve had experiences with an author who’s been racist towards you, or you saw them being rude to fans at events, or they’ve been accused of plagiarism by a credible source, etc. There’s another conversation to be had about the line between a creator and their work, and how much one can be considered separate from the other, but if you think a person’s actions cause another person harm, you arguably have a moral duty to do your level best to talk about it.)

But if you just didn’t click with the book I wrote? I’m not sure what you’re aiming to do in five paragraphs that you couldn’t do in five sentences or less: ‘this book wasn’t for me, because of [reason]. I also didn’t like the way [something] was portrayed and I thought the prose was [something else]. If you do like those things, you might have better luck than I did.’

Alice curtsying
From Giphy I believe

Just saying. You stretch your free speech muscles, woo. I’m glad that you didn’t feel like you had to lie about how you felt while also feeling relieved you were reasonably objective. My sales and reputation can continue growing, woo.

When it comes to my own reviews or recommendations, I don’t review anything on Goodreads that I consider anything less than four stars. It doesn’t feel necessary. Not when my three stars is another person’s five. Not when I know how long it takes to write a novel, and how much soul goes into each draft and edit and late night hunched over the computer. It feels like I’m being a bad author by talking shit about another author. We all earn peanuts at the end of the day, we all do the work because we love it and we all want the publishing industry, book selling industry and reader communities to thrive. Like I said, I’ve got better things to do with my 40,000,000 minutes.

What are your thoughts on the Epically Long Bad Review? I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you’re a vivacious reviewer, a causal reader, an author or a mix of the above. Do you write long reviews? Do you write short reviews? I think that, as a reader, I’m still perplexed. As a writer, I’m definitely slightly nauseous every time I see there’s a new review for The Princess and the Dragon. I don’t think that will go away any time soon, even if I do figure out the point of the five paragraph bitchathon.

Look after yourselves!

Francesca


Want to support this blog and/or enjoy exclusive access to stories and chatter from me? Join the No. 1 Reader’s Club on Patreon! Or we could just get coffee? If you’re into fairy tales and/or want a brief respite from reality, you can also buy my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes, from most ebook retailers.

Read, If You Like: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe

Full disclosure: I was sent this book by the lovely Nina Douglas, a PR aficionado  I met at YALC a couple of years ago. I used to be a bit uppity about accepting books and things for reviews, but then I decided that a) this blog is a hobby, b) reading is a hobby so, c) LET’S READ EVERYTHING. Also, I’m not exactly the sort of blogger to shy away from blatant honesty just because I got a product for free.

Second full disclosure: I first started reading this book in January. If I had realised that writing a book was going to make it much harder to sit down and read books, I may have started dragonnovel. I suppose I have a reason to hurry up and finish it, ha. Anyway, I really struggled to get into A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars. I could blame the first person narrative, which is not my favourite narrative, or the general writing style which I found hard to follow on occasion, but to be honest I think if I had taken book to a beach holiday and read it in a day, I would have enjoyed it much more. My bad. I need to finish dragonnovel and go on holiday immediately. Right, the review:

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe (2017)

Read, if you like…

  • Circuses
  • First person narrative
  • Ghosts
  • Ghanaian folklore
  • Beautiful book covers. I mean, look at that embossed gold type. I want to frame it
  • Spain
  • Books that aren’t all about white people doing the same white people things you’ve read about in 80 other books
  • Stories about people trafficking, but not like on the news
  • So, humanised stories about people trafficking. Stories where people have names and ambitions and family members and that sort of thing
  • Magic
  • Really shady adults
  • The sort of family you choose for yourself
  • Birds
  • Precocious teenagers
  • POC and LGBT rep, but not in a way that swallows up the whole book. This is a book with people of colour and LGBT people, in the same way as it’s a book with magic and ghosts and circuses. It’s there, but it isn’t preachy and it isn’t tokenism. WE NEED MORE OF THESE BOOKS PLEASE AUTHORS. AGENTS, PLEASE SIGN MORE AUTHORS WHO ARE WRITING THESE BOOKS. THANKS.

No seriously I wasn’t kidding about the cover. I would usually go for some sort of background for #bookstagram goals but no adornment is necessary:

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe cover on white background

I saw online that the novel isn’t available on the US, but I’m not sure if that’s still true (or if it ever was true) so if you want to read it, I reckon you should either hit up Google or ask Ms Badoe about stockists on Twitter.

Read, If You Like… Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

This is the second in a series. Possibly I am onto a good thing here. It helps I can write them in ten minutes, but let’s not be picky…

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (2015)

Read, if you like:

  • Shapeshifting
  • Heroes versus villians
  • Male characters with beautiful flowing hair
  • Female characters who don’t have beautiful flowing hair
  • Comics (this one’s a dealbreaker; it started as a webcomic)
  • The illustrations in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl; Noelle Stevenson did those too
  • Dragons

Nimona graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
I know I said I’d work on my #bookstagram, but there’s so little light in Southend at the moment that I dashed outside in my socks, put the book on a stone table, snapped and dashed back. It’s artfully crooked amirite

I don’t read a lot of comics, so shoutout to Ruby for giving me this a couple of Christmases ago. I’ve misplaced my library card so I’m making my way through the Shelves of Ignored Books in my room instead of just borrowing everything that sounds good (there is so much that sounds so gooooood). Be prepared for a mishmash of novels I’ve been too busy to read or novels with covers I don’t like. I started Oliver Twist this week – I managed to go 15 years in British education without ever studying Dickens, so my lazy Twitter-accustomed brain is struggling a bit – and I’m pretty sure there are some other total classics waiting to be discovered. The second Game of Thrones is a classic, yes?

Review: ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’, Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is a spoiler-free review except for the bits you can guess from the title.

Oh look, something else I originally saw on Tumblr, probably courtesy of feistiest. You know how they say you should never judge a book by its cover, but we all do? With this, the cover – by  Chloë Foglia -made me want to get the book. Look at that typography and those colours and those illustrations this is going to be a beautiful novel.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from Wikipedia.org
I couldn’t find a cover that wasn’t covered in award stickers. This is from Wikipedia. Look at that night sky.

It is a beautiful novel.

Like the best books, the action starts from the very first sentence, so I can’t tell you too much background information without spoiling the story, but the title pretty much implies the premise: a guy called Aristotle meets a guy called Dante and together they discover the secrets of the universe/survive their teenage years. Set in El Paso, Texas, across a couple of years in the 1980s, the novel is a lot like The Perks of Being a Wallflower in that it could have been set last week and will be devoured by teenage readers for decades to come (it was actually published in 2012).

I had never heard of Benjamin Alire Sáenz before I read this – and I am definitely pronouncing his name terribly wrong – but I think he is a writer I would like to read more of, because Aristotle and Dante, and Aristotle and Dante, are wonderfully written. Some topics are quite hard to cover without sounding like a textbook or news story – again, I can’t really tell you what they are without wrecking the plot – but it’s funny, occasionally irreverent and often slightly uncomfortable. The whole book is just like seeing inside someone’s head, which is so hard to achieve as a writer and so satisfying for the reader.

It also won a handful of awards, which is nice because it’s quite rare to find a critically acclaimed novel that’s also fun – I finished it in an evening. If you liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower, if you’re interested in what it was like to live in Texas in the 1980s (I wasn’t but now I am), if you’re interested in Mexican culture, if you like scruffy dogs (it is not a spoiler to tell you there is a scruffy dog), if you like boys with long names and books with pretty covers, go find a copy and curl up for an evening with Ari and Dante and watch them discover the secrets of the universe.

None of them are about the science of life on earth, by the way. I did originally wonder if it was a story about physicists.


My previous reviews are here; you can support my work on Patreon every time I review here.

Singing for My Supper – New Patreon Page!

You know how I said on Monday that I’ve been working loads and I’m all blurry eyed? Still true, except now I have something to show for it… a god-awful video I shot in my garden this afternoon and had to mute because otherwise you could hear my neighbours discussing their gardening.

Maybe I’ve been watching too many YouTube videos where people have linked their Patron pages, maybe I’m a raging narcissist, maybe I’m fed up with choosing between researching new products and giving myself a wage… either way this seemed like a good way to earn some consistent money – if you guys are up for it, anyway.

Here is how Patreon works, and what I’m doing with it (lifted from my new page there because I’m amazed I learnt how to work it in five days).

The sob story
I’ve started a Patreon because although my freelancing work, blogging and general writing is going really well, it’s not the most stable profession. Getting part time ‘other work’ is kind of difficult when I can only work certain days or times on account of the freelancing – so this is here to alleviate the, er, issues that come with living a dream that doesn’t pay consistently.

I’m not comfortable with asking you guys to send me money each month – or ever – so I’ve come up with a system where I read books, then you donate, and I send you cool things in return.

Here’s how this works
  • I read a book and review it on my blog. [That’s here.] Then I create a post on here [Patreon] announcing my success
  • If you signed up to pledge $1, you’re charged $1 and get to suggest a new book. If you pledged $35, you’re charged $35 and you get to choose a blog topic (plus everything else for every lower tier).
  • If I don’t read and review, you aren’t charged – and you can opt out at any time. I’m aiming to upload a review every four to six weeks and I’ll keep you updated with progress on my Patron page.
Why I’m reading books in return for money
  • Well, if you guys are going to give your hard cash to a writer, the first step to earning your trust is proving I can read
  • I don’t read enough
  • It’s less weird for me than asking you to send me money each month. No one likes monthly expenses.
Where your money goes
  • Under my mattress I’ll set a few goals to work toward, like funding for my blog domain or researching new products for my Etsy shop.
  • Other than goals, the general aim is to help keep the proverbial lights on, afford to take Sundays off and maybe retire before the age of 95. Don’t worry, I won’t spend your money on duck houses or apartments in Trump Tower for my cats. (I have dogs, silly.)

So yeah. My first book is going to be The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, because it’s been on my shelf for a while – I’m going to start with books I’ve got and not read, then branch out, hopefully with your help.

… and I think that’s it. Except to link you to the page again. Oh and I suppose you guys will be seeing a lot of book reviews from me from now on!