Review hype

Do the book reviews and recommendations that we read raise our expectations to a height that cannot be satisfied, no matter how well-written a book is?I had sort of planned on making a discussion of Balogh’s The Secret Pearl the heart of my SBD entry. Was going to talk about characters and plot: heroine is a prostitute (if only for a night), ultimately marries the duke who was her first and only customer, how unlikely is that? Was going to try to parse out why this book was beloved enough sell for major bucks on eBay and Half.com before it was reissued earlier this month. But I just don’t have that much to say about TSP. Never really connected to the heroine, the hero was okay but a little too noble, the plot reminded me of another Balogh book, maybe More than a Mistress. Not a bad book, but not one that I would go out of my way to recommend to anyone, really.This is the second or third time lately that I have read a much-lauded book, only to be not-so-enchanted (TSP; Kostova’s The Historian; Gabaldon’s Outlander). This makes me wonder, am I subconciously harder on popular books? Are my expectations too high?Back to my original question: are our expectations inflated by book reviews and recommendations? I think, ultimately, the answer to that question can only be answered individually. My answer is yes. The inflation does not come from the recommendation itself, but is done by me internally. I read a review, then see another or see a thread on a message board. The more discussion I see or participate in that praises the book, the higher my expectations become. As I read, I ask myself questions about the book. Is the author’s style working? Voice? What about characterization? Is the plot believable? But after reading, in addition to a mental summing up of the stylistic points, I ask myself how the book made me feel, which is completely unrelated to the mechanics of the writing and style. That feeling can bump an average book up into Desert Isle Keeper status or demote it to merely average. As an example, Marsha Moyer’s The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch was very well done, but my personal grade for it was a C+ and I’m never going to reread it. That’s because ultimately, it didn’t give me a happy feeling [and frankly, the sequel, The Last of the Honky Tonk Angels, was a wall-banging book that I could not finish because it irritated me so much]. On the other hand, there are stylistic things that I don’t like about Deborah Smith’s A Place To Call Home, but I love the story itself and the characters, and the book is on my keeper shelf. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is another example: the first half was excellent but the second half dragged; she did wonderful world building, but only a so-so job explaining some of the details of that world. Despite the clunky-ness, I loved Sunshine and wanted more, and I want to know what (if anything) may happen next, so it’s a keeper, too.I don’t think I am subconciously harder on popular books in the sense that I judge them by different standards. The thing is, although I ask the same questions of myself when I’m reading a highly recommended or hyped book, the expectations that were built based on the recommendation feed into the final question. How did I feel about the book? If my purchase of the book was based on a dozen positive reviews or several recommendations from other readers whose opinions I trust, but it hasn’t hit on all cylinders for me, my grading of the book is going to be lower. I haven’t figured out what to do about this yet. Stop reading reviews? Stop buying books? There are enough books published every month that I could easily buy only books that I haven’t seen touted anywhere on the internet or been told about by my circle of reading friends. If I had done so in the past, I would have missed out on authors like Carla Kelly, Charlaine Harris, MaryJanice Davidson, etc. Do I need to start restraining myself when it comes to checking multiple sources before buying a book? Maybe. I don’t know. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is next on my reading list. It’s been well-reviewed and was recommended by a friend. I’ll let you know how it turns out, and if my expectations were too high again.Post script: my meandering entry begs another question, which I originally omitted because it seemed, well, bitchy. But today is Smart Bitch Day, so here it is. When I am disappointed in well-reviewed books, is it because I’m being too demanding or because my taste is different from the reviewer’s? Or is it because reviewers in Romancelandia are reluctant to diss any books for fear of damaging the genre? Is my dissatisfaction because I’m a bitch or is it because the romance community is playing nicey-nice, rather than writing real reviews with real opinions that might say somthing *gasp* critical about a book? Just some food for thought.

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