Of books and reviews

Goodreads, I can safely assert, is a blog-killer. I get a lot of review-writing done there and writing book reviews used to be a filler for me to drop by and update things here. And they drive the most views too. Especially when you write about stuff that doesn’t get reviewed by a million readers. 

Coming to book reviews, have found that the more I read reviews, my opinion of the book somehow gets tempered by the reviews. Of course the reviews have to be well-written for that to happen.

Sometimes I wonder which part of it is really true, if any of it is actually absolute. That there is a particular opinion of a book that is indeed true and I need to aspire to achieve that level of satisfaction. Of course when it comes to books, movies etc that is total BS and you go by what you like. But the more I think, the more it sounds like Quality in ZAMM. Let’s not go there.

To start at one extreme there was the ‘Immortals of Meluha’ which made me laugh at the wrong places thanks to the extremely lame writing and the very lazy plot. But it’s one of those things that you can sense would work and rake in the money. It seems to tell you about ‘mythology’ whereas all he had was an India-Pak enmity presented with a Bush-Afghan philosophy lazily covered to make some feel intelligent. Almost a Dan Brown, but not exactly there. But then when I present that opinion to someone about to read it, I have to check myself as I feel I shouldn’t be biasing them about that book before they even start.

But the book that truly challenged me was ‘The Book Thief’. Presenting the story of a pre-teen girl growing up in Germany with foster parents during the war while the tide turns slowly against the country, it even had Death as a narrator. Starting off really well, it gradually settles into familiar territory checking all the boxes to make a ‘good’ novel that you can safely say will be a “New York Times best seller #1”. And for the most part it keeps you engrossed in the characters. But then, coming back to the issue, I read some reviews on goodreads and it made me sit back and think.

There was the girl, her best friend, another kid who’s sketched to be adored. The foster father who’d put Atticus Finch to shame and the ever swearing foster mother, who, no points for guessing, actually has a heart of gold. What works is the writing style, which is kind of staccato, but works. And then there’s a tear jerker ending which you know he’s setting you up for. When you load a book with the usual, predictable ‘Aww’ moments, you can smell the big tear-jerker moment coming from far off! But to his credit, he second-guesses you and tells you the ending almost at the start. It’s not a spoiler, he provides most of them on his own.

With most books, however, there are always reviews that give 1 or 2 stars. Like Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ there’s the reviewer who has to offer “What a whiny little punk!”. And if you look at Quora there’s the question for “Which is the most overrated book ever?” who’s answers include almost every book on the planet. Goes to show that nothing ever works for all!

The trouble, however, is that it’s hard to stay objective when you get a review and someone’s opinion. “Am I buying into a book that is overrated?” “Should I see through an apparent lack of plot and depth in characters?”, how do you deal with it? I guess the simplest solution is to just look at the average rating 3 or 4 over all the reviews and go for those which are good. But then ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ garners close to 4 which is more than Ghosh’s “Shadow Lines”.

It’s hard reconciling to those ratings because it might be a 5 for someone who’s staple diet is Chetan Bhagat, and much lower for someone who reads Ghosh for instance. I guess a better rating would be, what did people who read books similar to what you read, think? But then, that poses its own set of problems, as you not only have to come up with readers who have the same set of books as you, but also their rating has to match within a particular band with yours.

Oh well, that’s why there are friends and cousins who read and descriptions on the backside. No book ever prints brickbats received. Maybe they should?



2 thoughts on “Of books and reviews

  1. Guess it is difficult to go by rating.. deciding to pick up which book to read is a little complex and layered if you are the serious reader. A statistical rating like that may not be able give you what you are looking for because it is a function of who uses the internet and good reads, it would be a certain profile of people and not all of them would be serious readers. There will be a lot of serious readers who are outside! The example of Meluha and shadow lines illustrates that , don’t you think?
    I have been disappointed quite a few times while reading highly rated bestsellers. I read Dan Brown’s angels and demons recently and it was racy no doubt. And it is okay for a mindless day.. a change from the richness of good literature perhaps!

    PS: Did enjoy the Da vinci code when I read it first.

    1. Statistical function wise Goodreads is pretty good, but then for the more famous books. If I have to check out a Kannada book, would probably find some 10 ratings. An Indian author who doesn’t get published outside or a not so famous work, probably in the 100s. But I do read reviews for books to see if there’s something I should be looking for in the book.

      For simpler reads I probably would pick up an RKN, McCall-Smith(thanks for the reco btw) or a PGW. I sound like a snob, but then the stories are simpler and I like the fact that these don’t pretend to be something bigger like a Dan Brown work does. They don’t try to spin an intricate web of plots with all kinds of jazzy things cooked up with really cliched language which tries to pass off for something big. I guess I am not the kind to go for a racy one if I want a mindless read anymore. And with these authors you get the sense of returning to a familiar place where a new thing takes place. The same Market streets, the Blandings Castles and Aunt Agathas.

      Or maybe am growing old. :-/

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