Friday, January 11, 2013


Julie Coulter Bellon posted the other day about - among other things - book reviews. She was disgusted that a book had lots of four and five star ratings, but ended up being... not good. She was more vocal on twitter, but since her blog was fairly demure, I'll leave it there. 

I've posted before about my personal feelings about book reviews and book reviewers. In case you don't want to click that link, here's the TL;DR version: Book reviewers should be honest, but not mean. Sometimes they should be giving out one and two star reviews. Some reviewers don't hold to that standard, they insist on only reviewing books if they can give at least three stars (though I am seeing these people "fall" more often - they give in and post a one star review, along with a rant about the suckiness of the book).

I've created a system for judging books on Goodreads (you could easily apply this to Amazon, too).

I look at the rating details of the book. Up near the top of the page, next to the average rating, you click on rating details, and this handy-dandy little box flies out. This is for the entire Harry Potter boxset, and you can see that not everybody liked it:

This would be a good place to note that box sets and sequels are likely rated higher than the first book, or than the series often deserves. The people who continue to book two are usually those who liked book one, and so on. The people who seek out the box set or series to rate are usually fans. Not always, but usually.

In order for me to read a book, the book has to have one of two criteria met.

1) Over a 4.00 average rating.


2) When the four star and five star ratings are added together, they make up more than half of readers. If most readers rate it four stars, this can sometimes happen. For book one of the Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima, 71% of readers rated it four or five stars, even though the average was below the 4.00 average:

As you can see, The Jane Austen Book Club meets neither of these criteria. Had it not been assigned in a class (yes, for real), I would not have read it.

Of course, in order for this whole formula to work, there has to be a significant number of reviews available. My cut is usually a thousand, though I've definitely bent that rule a number of times. I would say a few hundred is necessary to be able to go off of reviews and stars alone.

And here is why:
This book, Rain Plays Barefoot, is rated as one of the highest rated self-published novels on Goodreads. Buuuuuut... only twenty-two people have reviewed it. Once you account for the authors immediate family, best friends, and possibly a critique partner or two... that's all twenty-two people who have vouched for her.

And not even all of them could bring themselves to give her five stars.

Hint: If it looks as though the author's mommy can't give her baby girl five stars, the book is probably not worth your time.

(NOTE: I have NOT read Rain Plays Barefoot. I do not know the author, I have received absolutely zero information about her book. It could be lovely. It could be life altering. I don't know. I'm simply using this one book as an example for my formula. If any of you have read and loved this book, let me know, and I'll pick on somebody else.)

That all said, it's important to remember that NO BOOK EVER will be nothing but four and five star reviews. Ever.


The most popular book on Goodreads is The Great Gatsby, with 1.2 million readers reviewing it.

The best selling novel of all time (so far as we can accurately calculate... or so far as I'm willing to research for the purposes of this blog post that only a few hundred people will read) is A Tale of Two Cities.
Two of the most popular books of all time, two of the best selling books of all time, both deemed classics by anybody whose opinion matters (no, fifteen year old self, your opinion does not matter), both influential works that have touched millions of lives. 

I've heard arguments made by well-read and intelligent people that those books are among the best, if not the very best, ever written. If THEY don't even have all four and five star reviews... then you should never, ever trust a book with nothing but four and five star reviews. There need to be detractors for me to legitimately consider reading a book.

(note that both books would easily qualify to be added to my TBR list... if I hadn't already)

Once again, the TL;DR version: 

Books should have a lot of reviews, and some of them should be bad for you to consider it a legitimate option.

I will not pick up a book that doesn't have at least a four star average, or that half of readers enjoyed. Otherwise, it needs to come highly recommended from a trusted source (there are only about a half dozen of these).

What's your criteria? How do you decide what moves to the top of the TBR pile?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fidelity vs. Reality

I was dragged to a movie the other night.

(Sidebar: the movie started at 10:30. AT NIGHT.)

(Double sidebar: Yes, I'm that old, and please tell me you get that reference.)

The movie we went to see was Jack Reacher. I was interested in seeing it, it looked entertaining, and it came highly recommended. The couple we went with had actually already seen it in the theaters, and were willing to pay to see it in the theaters again.

The only movie I've done this with in the last decade is Les Miserables. So that's a big deal in my book.

The movie was... meh. Some weird photography decisions (all the close ups! on all the things!), some melodramatic acting, only two female characters in the whole movie, and some really bad one liners. The fight scenes were entertaining, there was some funny stuff, and the twists were not too shabby.

My problem was with the fidelity of the story.

Within the world the story was set in (which happened to be modern day Pittsburgh, a place I can identify with, even if I've never lived there) there were certain rules set, and the story did not play by those rules. For example:

- A cop asks after a guy who "could kill a girl with one punch." The answer? Tom Cruise's character. To clarify: when asked who in the area was capable of killing a young woman with his bare hands, the person figured a fifty-year-old, five-foot-seven, clean cut, well dressed, well mannered guy was the killer.

- In Pittsburgh (metro area population: 2.4 million), there is ONE auto parts store that everyone thinks of first. When we arrive at that one, single, solitary auto parts store in the middle of the day, there is nobody shopping there. In a big city, there is ALWAYS a customer in your store. If you're the only store in town, then there would be a LOT of customers in the store.

- A woman was raised by the District Attorney, but becomes a pacifist, idealist, criminal defense attorney. That is a contradiction. I can believe contradictions.


- That woman also drives an expensive Mercedes convertible and wears designer suits.

So which is it? Is she fighting against the man, or is she working for money? The likelihood of all of these being the same person is... slim. And while it might be possible, it makes me not believe in the character. It takes me out of the story.

- Most (and I do mean most, as in, a majority) of the dialog in this movie was made up of catchphrases, cliches, and one liners. People just don't speak to each other that way. Was it funny? Sometimes. Was it true to the world they were operating in? Not even a little bit. 

After the movie was over, we debriefed. The other couple was really, really, really upset at me pointing out these flaws. Their response?

"Oh, you can watch Harry Potter with the magic and the unicorns, but you can't believe this???"

And that's where people get lost: the difference between FIDELITY and REALITY.

I can suspend belief and enjoy things that are obviously NOT REAL. Harry Potter, World War Z, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Avengers... really, this list goes on and on. Even in the absence of reality, these stories still have fidelity. Within the world that was built by the creator - the author, the comic book writers, the screenwriters, whatever - there are certain rules. So long as the story plays by those rules it has fidelity.

You can be UNREAL and still have FIDELITY.  Even in fantasy stories, there are times the storyteller unveils a critical piece of information far too late in the game (Harry Potter treads the line here), or adds a twist, or has a character do something that doesn't make sense. Even within these fantastical worlds, people still interact in expected ways. Teenaged boys are awkward around pretty girls, people fight for things that matter to them, sometimes people are cowardly or clumsy or just plain stupid. We expect those things and we relate to them because they are grounded in reality, and they are consistent with the way people really act.

I know there are a million examples of movies, books, and TV shows that do not have fidelity (on Friends, did anybody wonder how Rachel-the-waitress or Phoebe-the-often-unemployed afforded designer clothes and big, gorgeous apartments?).

What are some of the worst examples you've seen?

Do you agree that fidelity and reality are two separable concepts?

Can you believe a story, despite it not having fidelity? 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Reading everyone's end-of-the-year/beginning-of-the-year posts made me feel more than a little... insignificant.

I had a good year in 2012. I read a lot of books. I wrote a book. I wrote a first draft of a second book. I had a lot (LOT) of personal stuff happen too, some of which I've shared here on this blog, some of which I haven't.

I read 70 books - by the skin of my teeth - and wrote one and a half. And I read fast. And type fast. So I felt like I was doing pretty well.

Then I read everybody else's lists. Everybody else read eighty, ninety, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred books (no exaggeration). They wrote five books, ten books, twelve books. They published six books, in three different markets.

This coming year I have a goal to read 70 books again. And to write two books. I hope to have one in pre-publication and one with an agent by the end of the year.

Then I read everybody else's goals. To write five books. Publish ten books.

You get the idea.

But one person put a non-book related goal on her list.

She wanted to spend time with her family. She wasn't sure she had done a single family-centered activity last year.

And then I got it.

I'm a wife, a mother, a homeschooling parent. I am all of these things before I am a writer. I may not have written as much as you, but I took my kids to Disneyworld nine times this year. I took them to the science center. The pool. The beach. The playground (oh, the number of playgrounds we've seen this year!). The dinosaur museum. The zoo. The splashpads, the playplaces. We've wrestled and built forts and Lego castles and puppet stages.

I'm living outside my books, too.

So I'm okay with my goals. They're smaller than yours. But that's my idea of balance.