Thursday, October 20, 2011

Starry, Starry Fright

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's enough to drive you crazy. Admit it, it is.

You know you shouldn't read those Amzaon reviews, except, you know , the good ones are SO good, and it's reassuring and heartwarming to see someone you don't even know have such good taste in talking about your book.

So of course, you read 'em.

Then one day, the little number by your book cover says "40" when the day before it said "39." So you know there's a new review.

And, WAAAIT a minit. Your lovely solid five * thing is now edging closer to 4 *. Huh?

My worst, so far, and I'm so sorry if this is someone reading this blog but whatever, was when one review of one of my books said that the bad guy just showed up in last chapter, and no one had heard of him in the rest of the book. That 's just--gasp, it still makes my stomach clench--not true! I mean, its not true in any way, and the bag guy is there front and center from the beginning. So the person could not COULD NOT have read the book. So WHY put up something like that? Don't get me started.

Too late.

Anyway, the good news is I get to introduce you to Catriona McPherson, who is hilarious, brilliant (truly) and a force of nature (pronounce her first name like the force of nature that hit New Orleans). Her new book is...well, hilarious, brilliant and a force of nature. More on that below. (And if you want to win a free one, keep reading. )

Today Catriona offers a new, kind of glass-half-full way of looking at reviews. You'll never read them the same way again. And that (like Catriona) is a good thing.

One starrrrrrrrr, shining in the darkneeeeeeeesssssss . . .

I know this song. It’s an emetically emotional power ballad. It’s made for So You Think You’ve Got Talent, You Deluded Schmuck. But I can’t remember the title, can’t find it by googling the lyric, so can’t give you a link to a YouTube video. Be grateful.

And besides, I’m not actually blogging about bad songs. I’m blogging about bad reviews. Amazon one stars, you see. This little fella: * Wouldn’t Amazon and the One Stars be a great name for a writers’ rock band? Almost as good as Four Hungry Children for a country and western outfit. (I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can think up band names all day.)

At Bouchercon 2011 in St Louis this year, Colin Cotteril and I got re-acqauainted after meeting once years ago and bonded over the joys and challenges of *, the topic of the panel Colin dreamed up and moderated, to the entertainment of all.

The joy is straightforward enough. Fiction writers are interested in character and the writer of a * usually reveals a lot more about themselves than about the book they’re reviewing.
The challenge is to chart a path from the universe of the special individual who wrote it back to the world where the rest of us live. Endless fun for Colin Cotteril, for me and maybe for you too.

Okay, first off: let’s not talk about * for books that deserve no more. In any merit system, the best books belong at one end and the worst at the other. No one can dispute that. And *s that start with “I’ve been waiting five weeks and my book hasn’t arrived” are just too sad to contemplate for long. Also, only a churl would take a pop at those poor, beleaguered high-school students being made to write reviews of books their teachers chose. Reading a book is one thing; doing a book isn’t.

No, I want to talk to you about the others; the delicious, moon-howlingly mad *, the *that makes you glad this reviewer doesn’t have a small country to run, the * that makes you hope this reviewer has a curfew or even an ankle-band.

There are some simple algorithms to deal with the most common egregious *s.

1: * from anyone who doesnt know how to use apostrophe’s = three stars.

2: * from anyone who thinks “loser” has two “o”s = four stars

3: * from anyone who thinks “boring” has five “o”s = five stars

And so, just as you can convince yourself that you have a diet so healthy that you make Michael Pollan look like Homer Simpson – because food you eat in the car, in other people’s houses, or standing up in front of the fridge doesn’t count – you can convince yourself that you have never actually had a legitimate *. Or I can anyway.

If you read enough of these things, you start to see other patterns too, more subtle patterns, but they’re there.

There are the Petulant Huffs. They can be paraphrased as: “I ordered a unit of stock from this writer and it was not exactly what I was expecting. This is an outrage. Get back to your computer and read my mind with a bit more attention next time, you provider of inadequate service, you!”

I get that a tube of Pringles should be a tube of Pringles and if you crack one open to find the best peanut brittle of your life you might still be miffed. But novels aren’t extruded product. A * Petulant Huff is a four star to me.

Another favourite type are the Cynical Drawls. They go like this: “McPherson (for instance) is copying a better writer/ Grafton had a deadline looming and phoned it in/Evanovich is tired of the series and can’t be bothered any more/Rowling has made her millions and couldn’t care less now. “

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t in it up to her (or his) neck, deeply involved with her characters, acutely aware that every time you publish a novel you’re cracking open your ribcage, pinning back the flesh of your chest and letting the world see, and judge, your beating heart.
So a * Cynical Drawl is a four star from where I’m looking.

And then there are the one-offs. The randomly hilarious reviews. They light up my day so brightly, I’d rather have them with their bonkers * than a saner five-star any day.

Especially delectable is when you hit a patch of them around one innocent little book. The world’s more fun for knowing that someone reviewed How to Make an American Quilt and complained, apparently without irony, that it seemed fragmented. “Fragmented.” “Quilt.” She read over her review, saw these two words close together in the same sentence and . . . nope, nothing.

And when I went looking for this review again (it’s an old favourite) I found another * of the same book that was even better. And I quote:

“This Book is horrible! If you're thinking of buying it, don't. There's hardly anything in it about Finn, the main character.Plus it has instructions on how to make a quilt! How stupid is that! If I wanted to know how to make a quilt I would buy a book about quilting, not a book about a movie.”

“ A book about a movie.” I’m happy to be alive.

Now, for budding * fans, a couple of pointers about how to find the juicy ones.

Stephen King is one of my favourite writers. His fan-base has, at its far opposite edges, Group A. devotees of his earlier, horribler novels (I think of these readers (unfairly) as Comic Book Guy) who loathe his later, messier stuff and Group B. readers who love his characters and his towns and his big, warm heart and think he’s getting better and better (and kind of wish he’d do one without any BOO!, just to see what happens).

So Comic Book Guy is giving King a lot of * these days. Here’s a good one of Lisey’s Story, with a smidge of Petulant Huff and a pinch of Cynical Drawl too.

“As a trucker I rent a lot of books and generally grab up any Stephen King reads because his books really help me chew up the miles on long hauls. Like others have said...I too couldn't finish it. In fact after renting it for around $12 (Unabridged) I turned it back in after only getting part way through disk 4 of about a 12 disk set. . . . Some like romance novels, but when I pick up Stephen King I expect to be entertained. This book up to disk 4 was just a rambling mush fest. This has such a strong female flavor of romance to it that I can't help wonder if it wasn't Stephen King's wife who wrote it, and they slapped his name on it for marketing.”

I can’t remember how many times I’ve written a book and given to my husband to put out under his name, can you? Well, it’s the wifely thing to do.
Or you can go straight to the top.

Pride and Prejudice has 55 *s on as I write. Half of them are complaining about the price, the quality of the CDs, the kindle edit or, in one case, the paper quality. And some of them are from poor high school kids being tortured by their teachers. But others are gems indeed.

Take this one:

“I am so disappointed. Being a fan of classic literature I was looking forward to reading Pride & Prejudice. But what I got was moderately-well written chick lit. Think of Pride and Prejudice as the Bridgit Jones of the 18th Century.”

And while you’re at it, think of Romeo and Juliet as the West-Side Story of Renaissance Verona.

Think of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the Nutty Professor of Victorian London. Think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the older brother of The Young Frankenstein, and pause to wonder why she wrote a book about a movie.

HANK: Ah, I can't type. I am still laughing. Let's just say..we'll give a copy of Catriona's new book to one lucky commenter--and come on, who doesn't want to comment about reviews?

Catriona McPherson is a recovering academic and the author of six novels set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring the gently-born but nevertheless pretty kick-ass private detective, Dandy Gilver. (Hank says: It's kind of Upstairs, Downstairs meets Nora Charles.)

St Martin's Press have just launched the series in the US with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. A year ago, Catriona left a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in southern Scotland, and now lives on a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in northern California. Cantaloupe instead of rutabaga - otherwise business as usual.

Check out my website
Read my weekly blog sitting typing alone in a room.
Find me on Facebook.
Follow me on Twitter @CatrionaMcP.
In fact, good luck trying to avoid me.


  1. What fun! To wake up and laugh is a great omen for the day. I laughed out loud at your ideas on viewing * reviews, especially the Pride and Prejudice/Romeo and Juliet one. Many thanks for your post.

  2. And I loved the one about Stephen King turning his novel over to his wife. I'm going to try that today with DH--then I can go out shopping or something.

    With my new name, I have no reviews yet--which is kind of a pleasant state:).

    Thanks Hank for introducing us to the hysterical Catriona!

  3. Thank you, Catriona, for kicking me into the day laughing.

    It's great to have a mechanism to make sense of the senseless stuff.


  4. I suppose we should be glad that some of those people are at least reading, even if they're reading books about music. But it'd difficult....

    I especially like the * conversion for misuse of apostrophes. Thanks for the fun!

  5. If her books are as entertaining as this, I would love to win a book.


  6. What a great way to look at reviews. I'm sure a sense of humor is an asset. I'm gearing up for my * reviews once my book is released next year. The conversion chart is much appreciated. :)

  7. I prefer Paul Newman's take on reviews:

    "I don't read them. If they're good, you get a fat head and you're difficult to live with. If they're bad, you get depressed and you're impossible to live with."

    As usual, I think Mr. Newman nailed it perfectly...:)

  8. If I recall correctly, Diary of Anne Frank got at least one terrible review on Amazon because it was "a downer." Gee. You think?

  9. It's nice to be among friends. ... I remember when a PW critic called my book a "well-intentioned Christian novel." I was incensed. I'm a Unitarian, for pete's sake!

  10. Thanks for the five star laugh, Catriona! I wasn't aware of the Dandy Gilver movies, so it's good of you to bring them to our attention by putting them in book form.

  11. Brilliant! SF author John Scalzi once put some of his one-star Amazon reviews up on his blog and challenged other writers to do the same.

    I don't know about the rest of you getting reviewed out there, but I find a well-written two- or three-star review, where the reviewer takes the time to elucidate what didn't work for him or her, to be thought-provoking and even critically helpful. On the other hand, this:

    "However, despite the plot twists, and the continuing excellence of written prose, this book is a complete disappointment on the christian values front."

    ...not so much.

  12. Also, I just read Betsy's comment and LOL'd!

  13. Nicole! I'm stealing that line.

    And Betsy, that is SO funny.

    Can you believe the line about the apostrophes? And loser? And boring?

    Catriona is this funny in person, too. But I've read this blog about a million times, and I find something hilariously new every time...

  14. OK, I can't help but point out (not that I ever read my bad Amazon reviews - oh, of course I do!) that you can get the off-topic reviews removed from Amazon - you know, the ones that complain about late shipping or lack of a recorded version or review, well, the wrong book. And yep, I've done this for friend's books, and those reviews disappear post-haste. (Here's the link that describes what's allowed, and link at the bottom to email.) In theory, you can get ones removed that contain spoilers, but I've yet to see that happen.

  15. Very funny take on reviews, Catriona! I do love your * = **** new math. I'm very happy that I have your new book already on my TBR pile. Looking forward to it!

  16. Love it! My own favorite one-star was "if I wanted an old library copy I would have ordered one."

    People say the dumbest things. I once bought ten copies of my first book at Costco (hey, royalties!) and when I checked out the checker looked at them and said: "Are you going to read all those?"

    Yes, over and over and over.

    Thanks, Catriona. Can't wait to read your book!

  17. Lise, that's too funny..well, yeah, you;re gonna see if that darn typo is in ALL of them.

    Sara, I didn't know that! That's definitely news you can use. Thanks..

  18. Welcome Catriona,

    What a great blog post!

    HOw about this? I once got a five star review from a reviewer -- a professional reviewer - where I could tell she hadn't read the book. At all.

    I guess it was better than a one star review where the reviewer hadn't read the book. At all. But still made me wonder about the entire system.

  19. Nothing to do with reviews, but the Starry Night image: Did you see the piece on 60 Minutes on the new theory -- and book, natch -- about Van Gogh's death? That it wasn't suicide but an accidental shooting by some neighborhood kids? Fascinating!

  20. Betsy - I just inhaled some coffee. Thank you, red junglies, for your comments. I actually took Rules 4&5 of Writers' Maths (thanks, Nicole) out - I thought maybe I'd seem weird if I admitted to them. Here they are.

    * with "most boooooring (or similar)book ever without evidence of every other book having been read = *** (of course the five "o"s in boring make add the other two anyway)

    * with misuse of literally e.g. I literally gouged out my own eyes to stop reading = ****

    And Sara - I've now got my new career: services to Jane - getting sll the kindle grumbles out of P&P's star-rating. . . . (thinks) . . . should maybe start with living writers/less obvious no-brainers.

  21. Well put. I have a woman who hates my US Grant series because I don't write the Grant that she imagines him to be. She gives one star to any book involving Grant that does not agree with her view (which is pretty much everyone including a Pulitzer winning bio of Grant.) But it still stings.

    What I don't understand are the praising reviews that only give 3 or 4 stars.

  22. Loved this, Catriona! All so true. My favorite misunderstanding of my work was a book called Evan and Elle. I had several people complain that Elle never showed up (one of the main characters was a Frenchwoman!!)

    Where in Northern Cal are you? We might be neighbors.

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  24. What a delight to finally see reviews of reviews! I seldom read any book reviews, preferring to find out for myself. Amazon reviews? Just plain absurd. But great thanks, Hank and Catriona, for today's hilarious trip through *s.

  25. Yeah, Jeffrey, someone gave PRIME TIME a STELLAR review yesterday, just glowing, fabulous--then gave it four stars.

    As for the US Grant thing--that's so head-shakingly sad.

    (Oh,and yes, Leslie, I did see that. SUCH a good story...)

  26. Oh my, it almost msakes me wish for * (well, no). But I'd love to meet the person who complains that someone wrote a book from the movie. Priceless!

  27. Evan Ellp us! Rhys, that's a scream. I'm near Davis.

    (A whole town full of disappointment on the christian values front, Julia. Needless to say, I'm very comfortable here.)

  28. Hilarious insight into the one-star review mentality! A couple of years ago I was appalled when dozens of "reviewers" gave JR Ward's new Black Dagger Brotherhood release one star on Amazon because they were angry it wasn't available on Kindle. Such a dumb and dumber scenario!

  29. Hi Catriona!

    As others have said, hysterical post--thanks so much. I've got Dandie on my bedside table, queued up on my TBR pile. Can't wait.

    Oh, and the song quote is from "One Voice" by Barry Manilow. (And my needing to point that out probably says as much about me as if I misused apostrophe's or misspelled an authors' name in a review.) :-)

  30. "Get back to your computer and read my mind with a bit more attention next time,"

    Perfect! You're one-of-a-kind, Catriona, and as brilliant in your nonfiction as your fiction.

  31. That was wonderful! Thanks for the dose of humor in something we can take way too seriously. I'm looking forward to reading your book!

  32. I'm sorry, I'm a sap. But you guys are so wonderful. xoo

  33. Pretty sure the song is One Voice by Barry Manilow - One Voooicccceeee singing in the darkneeeesssss.... okay, I'll stop now *grin*.

  34. Wonderful perspective. I say anyone with juice enough to review a book they haven't read deserves at least a raspberry. Looking forward to reading your books, Catriona!

  35. One voice singing! I wondered why I couldn't find it. Laura and Shel, there's no shame in knowing Barry Manilow lyrics so well that you can even spot them through a disguise.

  36. Hi Catriona,

    I love the Review Math and your upsidedown view of the * review. And I need this Paul Newman quote next to my computer. However, if by chance I forget and actually read reviews, I will think of your humor and imagine the reviewer/characters from the movies LAURA and RATATOUILLE. Really, what can one expect from either a murderer or a cartoon in the way of a review?

    Thanks for all the wonderful, laughable gems in this post. I thoroughly enjoyed checking out your website today -- and I'm looking forward to discovering your books!

  37. This was the perfect day to read this. I was feeling a bit bad about getting a * that was pretty much "Aha, You're way off base and I found a few errors that made it past the proofreaders so I didn't finish reading it," then an email followed with a 5* and a big thank you for writing the book. I went from dejection to elation. Opposite ends of the pole, and this article put the whole thing in perspective for me. You defnitely have to consider the source and whether the reviewer is writing a "gotcha" review.

  38. That was great. I love your reasoning. Thanks for the laugh.

  39. Fine, fine you all. Now that song is stuck in my head. Luckily Shel is such a good singer.

    Catriona--are you working on another Dandy?

  40. I co-edit anthologies, one of which was published with the name of FOUR contributors on the cover, and all contributors on the back. Yet we got this * review:

    "This book is awfull i mean one sookie story thats crap i got the book today sat down so happy to the first story so happy then the other story are not about sookie i guessi made mistake so im going go drop it off half price book story ,damitt ,.i guess i guess miss sookie and eric"

    How many * does that convert to?

  41. Toni...dying. YOu'd think someone who reads-- could read.

    Oh, my captcha word is "quabby." Maybe that's what we should call people who write those "reviews."

    "He's so quabby, he's an idiot."

  42. I've just taken the perfect cur for Barry Manilow lyric stickage - a kd lang concert. She was perfect, but endearingly uncool (she can't dance and doesn't let it stop her).

    Toni - (who can dance) - that might just take the biscuit.

    Hank, I'm waiting for page proofs of Dandy's next adventure - A Bothersome Number of Corpses.

  43. I meant perfect *cure*

  44. And the winner of Catriona's book is:


    Hurray! And see you soon..

  45. Oh, and PS - some folks do write their spouse's books. Not at all sure I understand why (not wanting to cross genre in one's own name?) but it happens.

  46. I'm late to this party, but my all time least favorite Amazon comments begin with, "I only read the first two chapters but, trust me, this book is terrible!" In my world, one should not be able to write a review without at least reading the entire book.