Monday, December 5, 2011

Reviewing the Situation

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's enough to drive you crazy. Admit it, it is.

You know you shouldn't read those Amazon reviews, except, you know, the good ones are SO good, and it's reassuring and heartwarming to see someone you don't even know have such good taste in talking about your book.

So of course, girlfriends, you read 'em.

Then one day, the little number by your book cover says "40" when the day before it said "39." So you know there's a new review.

And, WAAAIT a minit. Your lovely solid five * thing is now edging closer to 4 *. Huh?

My worst, so far, and I'm so sorry if this is someone reading this blog but whatever, was when one review of one of my books said that the bad guy just showed up in last chapter, and no one had heard of him in the rest of the book. That 's just--gasp, it still makes my stomach clench--not true! I mean, its not true in any way, and the bag guy is there front and center from the beginning. So the person could not COULD NOT have read the book. So WHY put up something like that? Don't get me started.

Too late.

Anyway, the good news is I get to introduce you to Catriona McPherson, who is hilarious, brilliant (truly) and a force of nature (pronounce her first name like the force of nature that hit New Orleans). Her new book is...well, hilarious, brilliant and a force of nature.
One starrrrrrrrr, shining in the darkneeeeeeeesssssss . . .

I know this song. It’s an emetically emotional power ballad. It’s made for So You Think You’ve Got Talent, You Deluded Schmuck. But I can’t remember the title, can’t find it by googling the lyric, so can’t give you a link to a YouTube video. Be grateful.

And besides, I’m not actually blogging about bad songs. I’m blogging about bad reviews. Amazon one stars, you see. This little fella: * . (Wouldn’t Amazon and the One Stars be a great name for a writers’ rock band? Almost as good as Four Hungry Children for a country and western outfit. (I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can think up band names all day.)

At Bouchercon 2011 in St Louis this year, Colin Cotteril and I got re-acqauainted after meeting once years ago and bonded over the joys and challenges of   *, the topic of the panel Colin dreamed up and moderated, to the entertainment of all.

The joy is straightforward enough. Fiction writers are interested in character and the writer of a * usually reveals a lot more about themselves than about the book they’re reviewing.

The challenge is to chart a path from the universe of the special individual who wrote it back to the world where the rest of us live. Endless fun for Colin Cotteril, for me and maybe for you too.

Okay, first off: let’s not talk about * for books that deserve no more. In any merit system, the best books belong at one end and the worst at the other. No one can dispute that. And *'s that start with “I’ve been waiting five weeks and my book hasn’t arrived” are just too sad to contemplate for long. Also, only a churl would take a pop at those poor, beleaguered high-school students being made to write reviews of books their teachers chose. Reading a book is one thing; doing a book isn’t.

No, I want to talk to you about the others; the delicious, moon-howlingly mad *, the * that makes you glad this reviewer doesn’t have a small country to run, the *that makes you hope this reviewer has a curfew or even an ankle-band.

There are some simple algorithms to deal with the most common egregious *s.

1: *from anyone who doesnt know how to use apostrophe’s = three stars.

2: * from anyone who thinks “loser” has two “o”s = four stars

3: *from anyone who thinks “boring” has five “o”s = five stars

And so, just as you can convince yourself that you have a diet so healthy that you make Michael Pollan look like Homer Simpson – because food you eat in the car, in other people’s houses, or standing up in front of the fridge doesn’t count – you can convince yourself that you have never actually had a legitimate *. Or I can anyway.

If you read enough of these things, you start to see other patterns too, more subtle patterns, but they’re there.

There are the Petulant Huffs. They can be paraphrased as: “I ordered a unit of stock from this writer and it was not exactly what I was expecting. This is an outrage. Get back to your computer and read my mind with a bit more attention next time, you provider of inadequate service, you!”

I get that a tube of Pringles should be a tube of Pringles and if you crack one open to find the best peanut brittle of your life you might still be miffed. But novels aren’t extruded product. A * Petulant Huff is a four star to me.

Another favourite type are the Cynical Drawls. They go like this: “McPherson (for instance) is copying a better writer/ Grafton had a deadline looming and phoned it in/Evanovich is tired of the series and can’t be bothered any more/Rowling has made her millions and couldn’t care less now. “

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t in it up to her (or his) neck, deeply involved with her characters, acutely aware that every time you publish a novel you’re cracking open your ribcage, pinning back the flesh of your chest and letting the world see, and judge, your beating heart.

So a * Cynical Drawl is a four star from where I’m looking.

And then there are the one-offs. The randomly hilarious reviews. They light up my day so brightly, I’d rather have them with their bonkers * than a saner five-star any day. Especially delectable is when you hit a patch of them around one innocent little book. The world’s more fun for knowing that someone reviewed How to Make an American Quilt and complained, apparently without irony, that it seemed fragmented. “Fragmented.” “Quilt.” She read over her review, saw these two words close together in the same sentence and . . . nope, nothing.

And when I went looking for this review again (it’s an old favourite) I found another * of the same book that was even better. And I quote:

“This Book is horrible! If you're thinking of buying it, don't. There's hardly anything in it about Finn, the main character.Plus it has instructions on how to make a quilt! How stupid is that! If I wanted to know how to make a quilt I would buy a book about quilting, not a book about a movie.”

“ A book about a movie.” I’m happy to be alive.

Now, for budding * fans, a couple of pointers about how to find the juicy ones.

Stephen King is one of my favourite writers. His fan-base has, at its far opposite edges, Group A. devotees of his earlier, horribler novels (I think of these readers (unfairly) as Comic Book Guy) who loathe his later, messier stuff and Group B. readers who love his characters and his towns and his big, warm heart and think he’s getting better and better (and kind of wish he’d do one without any BOO!, just to see what happens).

So Comic Book Guy is giving King a lot of * these days. Here’s a good one of Lisey’s Story, with a smidge of Petulant Huff and a pinch of Cynical Drawl too.

“As a trucker I rent a lot of books and generally grab up any Stephen King reads because his books really help me chew up the miles on long hauls.

Like others have said...I too couldn't finish it. In fact after renting it for around $12 (Unabridged) I turned it back in after only getting part way through disk 4 of about a 12 disk set. . . . Some like romance novels, but when I pick up Stephen King I expect to be entertained. This book up to disk 4 was just a rambling mush fest. This has such a strong female flavor of romance to it that I can't help wonder if it wasn't Stephen King's wife who wrote it, and they slapped his name on it for marketing.”

I can’t remember how many times I’ve written a book and given to my husband to put out under his name, can you? Well, it’s the wifely thing to do.

Or you can go straight to the top.

Pride and Prejudice has 55 *s on as I write. Half of them are complaining about the price, the quality of the CDs, the kindle edit or, in one case, the paper quality. And some of them are from poor high school kids being tortured by their teachers. But others are gems indeed. Take this one:

“I am so disappointed. Being a fan of classic literature I was looking forward to reading Pride & Prejudice. But what I got was moderately-well written chick lit. Think of Pride and Prejudice as the Bridgit Jones of the 18th Century.”

And while you’re at it, think of Romeo and Juliet as the West-Side Story of Renaissance Verona. Think of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the Nutty Professor of Victorian London.

Think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the older brother of The Young Frankenstein, and pause to wonder why she wrote a book about a movie.

*************Catriona McPherson is a recovering academic and the author of six novels set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring the gently-born but nevertheless pretty kick-ass private detective, Dandy Gilver. (Hank says: It's kind of Upstairs, Downstairs meets Nora Charles.)

St Martin's Press have just launched the series in the US with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. A year ago, Catriona left a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in southern Scotland, and now lives on a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in northern California. Cantaloupe instead of rutabaga - otherwise business as usual.
Twitter @CatrionaMcP.


  1. I loved this! Thanks for the laughs--my Monday morning needed a kick!

  2. Wonderful. Thanks for stopping by, Catriona. I've had my share of awful reviews.

  3. This was fabulous, and made me laugh out loud. Thanks for getting my week off to a good start!

  4. I give this post ***** and * for good luck. Loved this. Would love to post on Amazon before customers read a review. Thanks for the day brightener.

  5. Yes, isn't she AMAZING? I've read this a dozen times..and I laugh out loud every time.

  6. I try not to read my *'s, but now that I've been instructed, I will go back and check them out. I might discover that, according to those * reviewers, I just phoned it in. (Can someone please tell me how to phone it in? That sounds so much easier than actually writing the damn book!) Thanks for the LOL's!