Posts filed under ‘Neither Here nor There…’

How to Write a Fair (and Helpful) Book Review on Amazon (or anywhere)

One of the most helpful things readers can do to help writers (and publishers, and everyone else who works with writers to create and produce books) is to write reviews of books on Amazon, GoodReads, and elsewhere.

Most readers are not aware of just how helpful this simple thing can be. (And it really is simple, as I’ll explain in this post.)

I really love the fact that thanks to the democratizing effect of the internet, readers no longer have to rely only on professional reviewers to tell them what they think about a book. I think it is absolutely wonderful that this information can be shared reader to reader.

The only drawback for writers, to the free and easy conveying of our personal opinions about books is if we write reviews that really are not fair, either to the author or to other readers.

Let me explain what, in my view, a fair book review does. In my view, the main responsibility of anyone who is writing a book review is to judge the book on the basis of what kind of book the author intended to write, not on the basis of what kind of book the reader expected to read, or wished to read.

Being fair, in this regard, means understanding at least a little bit what kind of tone the author wished to convey. For example, it would not be fair to judge all the things an author says in a book that is meant to be humorous as being meant to be taken seriously. (It might be fair to say, however, “This book is supposed to be funny, but to me it really was not, because…” It’s important to say why, so that other readers will have some basis for figuring out whether they might feel the same way.)

It’s also important to take into consideration the genre when judging a book. For example, a memoir is usually a quite personal story about some aspect of a person’s life. So an unfair review of a memoir might say something like, “This book is just about the author and his own life. How self-centered!” There certainly are memoirs that are overly self-centered, and/or arrogant, or just a bunch of name-dropping, and any of those criticisms might be perfectly fair to share with other readers. But it’s important to think it through a bit before blasting the author of a memoir for focusing on their own life. For example, is the author really “name-dropping” to impress readers? Or is he just telling stories about famous people he has encountered, or known, that others might find interesting? Is he telling stories about others that seem self-serving or unkind to the people he’s writing about? (If so, it would be fair to say that.)

Likewise, thrillers tend to have violence in them. So an unfair review of a thriller might say something like “This book is just too scary.” It could say, for example, “I generally love thrillers but the violence in this one just seemed over-the-top to me. I couldn’t read it.” That could be fair, because it acknowledges that most thrillers are at least a little bit scary, and they are supposed to be.

This also goes for content. Is the book about South Dakota, but you have absolutely no interest in South Dakota? Well, in that case, I think it would not be really fair to say that the book was boring because it is about South Dakota unless the book title (and more importantly, the book description) claimed to be about North Carolina, but then most of it was about South Dakota. In that case, it would be perfectly fair to point out to other readers that the book description was misleading. (You might want to say in such a case, “This is a really good book, but it is NOT about North Carolina.”)

Now, how easy is it to write a brief review? It really is easy, and you don’t have to necessarily have bought your books on Amazon to write reviews there. (It depends. It seems that sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.) In any case, all you have to do is go to the Amazon page of the book you want to review, scroll down the page (past Product Details, past More About the Author), and click on the bar that says “Write a customer review.” A window will open up and invite you to choose from 1 to 5 stars and then write a headline and a brief review–and it really can be brief! Remember, all most readers want to know is did you like the book or not? And if so, why? This can be said in just a few simple words, no need to be fancy, though if you want to elaborate, that’s up to you, and that’s fine.

You don’t have to use your own name to review books if you don’t want to. You can make up a name. Some people prefer to do that, and that’s fine too.

I will say, I really don’t like the star rating system. The only thing I dislike about teaching literature in college classes is having to assign letter grades to my students. It doesn’t make any sense to me. To me letter grades are strictly (and narrowly) judgmental, and they don’t really provide my students with very useful information: it is my comments that hopefully will do that.

Likewise, I don’t think the star rating system is really very helpful to readers, and it can be quite harmful to writers if reviewers aren’t fair. But sometimes you have to work with the system that exists, not the one you wish existed. And the fact is that those stars can apparently be quite important for some people when they are trying to decide whether or not to buy a book.

In my honest opinion there are very few books that merit either five stars, or just one star. But I often award five stars even when I think a book is less than perfect. (I mean, how many perfect books are there in this world? NOT MANY!!! But there are SO MANY very good books, and they deserve to be bought, and read!) And it’s hard for me to imagine ever assigning a one-star review. I would have to really hate a book and think that everyone should know how awful it is in order to do that. I personally would be much more inclined to just not review such a book.

So I would suggest, as you choose the number of stars to award, maybe try not to think so much about whether you loved, liked, kind of liked, kind of hated, or absolutely hated this book. Try to give at least a few seconds of thought to how much effort the author put into writing the book, and allow that to help you decide. It’s important to also remember that how you liked the book is not necessarily the most important thing about it: is it a book that someone who is very interested in South Dakota would love? If so, then why would you give it only one or two stars? Why would you not just make it clear in your review that the book is not really about North Carolina?

Finally, please don’t let your own ego get in the way of writing a fair and helpful review. Does it make you feel powerful to judge someone else’s work harshly? Does it make you feel smarter to say that the author of such and such a book is not very smart, or is not a good writer? If you are about to write a very negative review, I would urge you to ask yourself whether these kinds of ungenerous thoughts might be lurking somewhere in your mind. And if they are, I would hope that you would reexamine your reasons for writing the review.

In my opinion, the reason for writing a book review should really be just to help readers find books they will enjoy, and writers to gain new readers. And in my opinion, there’s plenty of power in being part of that kind of conversation.

Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

October 6, 2020 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

Déconfinement continued…

I could start by saying I’ve found it hard to know what to say about anything recently. The words of the poet W. B. Yeats come frequently to my mind about “the center not holding…” It does feel like the world as we have known it is coming apart at the seams, which is unsettling…

Continue Reading June 25, 2020 at 9:33 am 1 comment

Minneapolis, City of Lakes…and Police Brutality

Minneapolis, Minnesota. My hometown.

I am from a city in Minnesota called Minneapolis.

It is a place that, until recently, was not very well known outside of the United States, and even, to some degree, within the United States.

Minneapolis is a beautiful city of lakes and parks. It is a city that is rich in cultural activities and the arts. It is very cold there in the winter, and the winter is long. And it is my beloved hometown. That is how I have always thought of it, until now.

But now everyone in the world knows that Minneapolis is also the place where last week a horrific act of murder was committed, by a police officer, as three other police officers stood by and did nothing, or actively aided and abetted the murderer.

And that the outrage over that murder–combined with the cumulative weight of so many many many terrible murders before it–has rocked our nation and spread a cry of fury, anguish, and vigorous protest around the world.

It’s about time.

I am filled with both grief and shame over the treatment of this man, George Floyd. I grieve for his family, and for the families of so many other African Americans, and others, who have suffered for not just decades but centuries from this horrific kind of hatred, this unspeakable, unfathomable, unforgivable violence.

I don’t, and can’t, understand it. It sickens me. And I don’t really know what to say about it except that this murder–captured on camera so that anyone who can bear to watch can see it–does seem to perhaps be the last straw.

I hope it is.

Yesterday I saw a news clip of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, whose mother has not yet told her exactly what happened to him. All she knows is that her father is gone, that he died “because he couldn’t breathe,” and that huge crowds of people are calling out his name. “My Daddy changed the world,” this innocent child has said. It is heartbreaking.

Will his unnecessary, terrible death change the world?

Right now, nothing is certain, and things are not good in the not-very-United States of America. In many cities, the police are acting out violently, out of control. The president is completely incompetent (to say the least). The Republican leadership (still, unbelievably) stands by and does nothing.

It’s hard not to despair.

But that is not a choice. It’s not a choice.

Americans tend to feel that “failure is not an option.” But when it comes to humane treatment of our black brothers and sisters, the truth is, we’ve been failing for far too long. Failing, and failing, and failing again.

Our president promised to bring “winning” back to our nation. Somehow I don’t think he defines winning in the same way I do.

But I trust–and fervently hope–that we can start winning the only game that counts.

That we can find a way to love, and support, and help each other through this terrible terrible mess we’re in.

Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

June 4, 2020 at 5:52 pm 1 comment

Back Home in Essoyes…

Well, after six weeks away–nearly a week in Paris in February, followed by five weeks in Washington–I am back home in Essoyes….

Continue Reading March 26, 2019 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

An interview with Lin Wenjie, recipient of the Bourse Renoir

An interview with artist Lin Wenjie, recipient of the 2016 Bourse Renoir….(in English and in French)

Continue Reading October 26, 2018 at 10:01 am Leave a comment

Here comes autumn…

Almost immediately after the big trucks hauling grapes had stopped making their several-times-a-day runs from the vineyards to the pressoir in Essoyes during the vendange, they were replaced by big trucks hauling loads of wood out of the forest…

Continue Reading October 1, 2018 at 6:50 am Leave a comment

A Peek into the Heartland (Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, 2018)

“Can you pick up some drums on your way out here?” my cousin emailed me. “I was planning to do a quick run in and out to get them, but since you’re coming this way anyway…”

Continue Reading July 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment

Riverdog: A Rural Retreat in Ohio

An interview with the artist/host-proprietors of Riverdog, a delightful rural retreat center in northern Ohio…

Continue Reading June 28, 2017 at 6:25 pm Leave a comment

The Women’s March: A Rare (and Wonderful!) Display of Unity Around the World

…I want to say how grateful I am to the many French women, Frenchmen (and other men), and children who joined us in marching through the streets of Paris to express our solidarity
with those who have already felt slighted, threatened, or otherwise badly treated by the new president of the United States…

Continue Reading January 23, 2017 at 5:29 pm 2 comments

Interview with Siffy and Tor Torkildson, editors of “The Walkabout Chronicles”

“The Walkabout Chronicles: Epic Journeys By Foot” is an illustrated collection of 35 essays about walking. The writers include scientists and archeologists, artists, explorers, and “ordinary people who do extraordinary things…”

Continue Reading November 29, 2016 at 11:01 am 2 comments

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