Amazing reviews

To think that all these have been reviewed . . .

The thing is, you see, I never trust reviews.

Why would anyone trust them? I have reviewed a lot of books in my time. With some, such as the absolutely superb Lincoln Lawyer, or Angel’s Flight, both by Michael Connelly, I was rigorously honest and said I loved them. Good. But there were plenty which I did not enjoy, and yet I felt a duty to be kind to the authors because making a living out of writing is hard enough without reviewers screwing things up for you.

After some years, however, my generosity of spirit began to degrade.

There was a book, you see, which I liked not a lot.

Not for the usual reasons, but there were so many little snippets that were wrong. The writer was American, and clearly thought the historical period presented was so well known that basic research was unnecessary. Which is why there was a comment about the cicadas chirping in Kent.

No. Absolutely not. There are not, and never have been any cicadas in Kent, Sussex, Devon or anywhere else in the UK, with the possible exception of the channel islands.

When the writer went on the mention that the family was chilly, and therefore they put some hickory wood on the fire, it was tempting to burn the book in my own grate.

No, we have never had hickory in the UK either.

These are the sort of basic, silly errors that a good UK editor should have spotted. They didn’t, probably because the typescript came over from America and, because it had been printed over there, it was assumed that it would be OK here as well. Not good enough, I’m afraid.

I am afraid I lambasted that book and author. Not because the book was uniquely bad (that title for me goes to a novel written by a barrister, which was so stupendously painful, I forgot completely to be kind, even though she could have sued me), no, but because it was a lazy work, both by the author, who could have fact checked, and by the UK editor, who, I presume, didn’t read it.

It reminded me of a novel’s outline I once read, in which the somewhat startling first page informed me that “the body was found in the trunk of a black Sudan”.

Poor fellow must have been in agony.

But more recently I have been much kinder to writers. I cannot throw my true feelings at some of the books I have to read.

There are books I have read which I would happily burn. I loathe James Patterson’s books. Yes, I have tried to read them. Some, anyway. But life is far too short. As are his chapters.

I have read many thrillers which not only didn’t thrill, they actively put me to sleep. And in that category I include just about every book that covers the Templars, anything covering religious secrets, and, dear God, anything to do with the Iraq war. In general, I find them unconvincing, usually pedestrian, and tedious. Not because I am mean, but because I exist in an unfortunate and persistent state of having a little knowledge. I do know about a few topics. Warfare, Templars and guns are my subjects. When I read about a protagonist releasing the safety on his revolver, I know I am again dealing with someone who has no knowledge of their topic. Yes, and likewise those who make their Glocks secure by sliding the safety to ‘on’.

This week I have done something I never thought I would do. I have asked my book suppliers to stop sending me books to review. It ain’t the books. It’s me.

I do not feel comfortable reading books only to snipe. I am happier only writing about books I enjoy. And that is why I decided not to review any longer. You see, the trouble is I generally dislike many books sent to, I think, because they were so often ‘me too’ books.

Someone had written a story which was adequate, and another writer decided they could have done it better. The Da Vinci Sybdrome, you could call it. Or the Harry Potter Syndrome, perhaps. These copycat stories may be perfectly good, but they’re stodgy fare after the fourth or fifth in a month.

But each could have been, on its own, perfectly good. So, for me to diss the thing wasn’t fair to the author, was it?

Was there any point in reading these books for no money, doing something I didn’t enjoy, only to feel that I hadn’t even been entirely fair? Clearly, no. In future, only write reviews for money, then. And be honest. With luck that will mean it’ll be more enjoyable, and for the reader, more relevant.

But if that’s the way I feel about my own reviews, what do I think about other people’s?

I don’t think they’re any better. In fact there are any number of new reviewers, especially on the web, and in my opinion not many can be trusted.

Why? Well, too many are partisan. They already have their favourite authors, and review and comment on them pretty much exclusively. If they receive books to review by other authors, they will all too often not read them, but instead will parcel them up and sell them as a job lot. I know this, because of the paper reviewers I have known, the talk of black bin liners of books arriving each week and being offered to staff before the remainder were carted off the local Oxfam, proves that it was impossible to read them all. They couldn’t read them all, so how could someone like me, who is reading part time?

In the past, I used to send my books to such reviewers. Never again. When I buy one of my own books, I don’t get the sort of discounts amazon does. It costs me 50% of the cover price. With postage and so on, it’s a lot of money – and then not to see a review adds insult to injury. So, in future, no books from, I’m afraid.

Likewise the folks who call each June and July saying that they are researchers for film or TV companies must do without I have a suspicion that they were sorting out their holiday reading, rather than trying to place my books with a film company!

There is another reason why I tend to ignore reviews.

Generally, there are all too few good, professional reviewers. I recall a lengthy lunch once with one of them. During it, he mentioned that he had read and really enjoyed my latest book. He had written up a very good review. The sort of thing that would have added to my sales, perhaps even generated a marketing budget, you never know (I have never had a budget for marketing in all my seventeen years of writing). But of course the article never appeared.

In the same week as he wrote the piece about me and my book, there was a new one published by a Mr Deaver, a new one from a Mr Lehane, and a third by a Mr Child. The editor had heard of all of them, so writers of whom he had not heard were unnecessary. My friend the reviewer tried two other national papers, but received the same response.

So, good books by less-well-known writers will not appear in the press, especially now that literary pages are reducing in size.

And there is another thing that colours my perception of reviews: I have noticed that when I read them in the papers, I have tended to do so because I like the reviewer. There are only a limited number of books I have bought because of a review. Usually I read the review for the pleasure of the reviewer’s writing. I do not think I am alone in that.

So, to move on . . .

. . . No. I have tried, but I cannot leave this without mention of that pernicious, insidious example of modern reviewing, the amazon reader review.

The number of stars, the short (or long) write-up, all are supremely irrelevant to me, and I don’t care whether it’s for a book, a battery or a film. I don’t trust the judgement of the reviewer.

My first book was once reviewed and given a single star. The writer said he didn’t like the changes in point of view, hated the first person piece in the beginning, and anyway, all my historical facts were wrong.

He never listed the potential historical inaccuracies, so I cannot confirm whether he was right or not, but I do know that he was wrong on both other counts, simply because there was only one point of view, and nowhere did I write in the first person. To this day I do not know if he was thinking of a different book.

Such reviews are meaningless because there is no way of telling whether the reviewer was good or bad, or whether his or her judgement was valid or worthless. How could anyone rely on his words? But some will.

As the extreme end, there appear to be several examples of academics now going to amazon and elsewhere, and rubbishing other authors’ works, while also singing the praises of their own works, using a pseudonym. Trusting such reviews is like trusting unconfirmed or corroborated comments on the Internet. You cannot trust them.

So, in short, the only valid indicator of the value of a book is, the comments of readers with whom I have built up a relationship. They can be readers of my books, they can be writers whom I know, they can be friends, editors, agents, anyone, but not strangers.

There it is. I don’t trust reviews.

But, having said all that, there is nothing like reading a good review about one of your books in the press.

This week I have had an excellent review in The Scotsman, another on Lexis on the web, and now I hear that there is a superb review in The Literary Review, perhaps the most prestigious magazine I could hope to get into. Making me feel remarkably smug.

So no, I don’t tend to read or trust reviews. Ever.

Unless it’s a good one.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

2 Responses to “Amazing reviews”
  1. I love all of your books. Whenever I read a historical fiction novel I usually google various characters
    to see if the depiction of them is accurate. Yours are right on.

    Now if we could only convince your publishers to have them on a kindle.


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