Kate Rothwell asks an interesting question in this post:

I wish there was a subjective method of measuring which aspects of a book—other than the story—hold the most power for reviewers.

Let’s say you don’t know the author, so you can’t really base future expectations on past performance. What do you go with instead?


We got the expectation based on the cover and the context. I suppose the reputation of the publisher goes with the expectation.

What else? Maybe how well the back cover and the contents match? Okay, yes, there’s a matter of the damn story.

Personally, for me? If starting out with a clean slate, i.e. I’m reading a book by a new-to-me author, my expectations are almost entirely based on the story. Specifically, within the first 50 pages of the book. God knows I have learned not to expect ANYTHING based on the cover or the blurb, especially for romance novels.

It doesn’t bother me to read novels that have been mis-categorized by publishers or bookstores. It doesn’t get my hackles up when I pick up a book marketed heavily as taut romantic suspense and find it to be a light-hearted romp that just happened to involve a murder investigation. I might put it down once I realized the mistake and seek another book if I was really, really in the mood for romantic suspense, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t hold this against the book because I wouldn’t have been invested enough in the book to care how it turned out one way or another.

What DOES bother me is a situation like this: the book sets itself up as taut romantic suspense. The first 50 pages involve a grisly murder, with the hard-nosed detective investigating the case and becoming sexually involved with a mysterious Eastern European secret agent who may or may not be the key to the killing. And then on page 51, dotty Aunt Mabel shows up with her yappy Pomeranian, Poopy-Pie, hilarious hijinks ensue, and the dog ends up solving the mystery.


Or, as in one Cassie Edwards novel reviewed by some poor schmuck on AAR, a novel that gave no indication that it was a paranormal of any sort had an eagle talking to one of the protagonists just to further the plot. What. The. Fuck.

Hype does play a small part in my expectations. They used to play a much bigger role, but after getting burned over and over by hyped-up books that turned out to be either mediocre or downright awful, I’ve learned to a) not buy books solely because of hype, and b) forget as much as I can about the hype and evaluate the book on its own merits.  How successful I am in achieving b), I don’t know. Would I have hated, say, Liz Carlyle’s books less if everyone hadn’t been touting them as The Greatest Love Stories EVAR? I don’t know. Maybe, but it’s hard to tell. For what it’s worth, when I think a story sucketh the big hairy one, I have very concrete reasons, and “I was soooo disappointed that this book isn’t as good as what everyone says it is” isn’t usually one of them—not for new-to-me authors, anyway. It’s definitely a factor when reading a book by a favorite author; for instance, I’m not sure if my disgust with The Last Hellion is because it’s a genuinely bad book, or because I placed impossible expectations on Loretta Chase.

I may be full of shit, of course. I may be subconsciously applying different standards when reading different genres, have different expectations based on covers, blurbs, format (trade vs. mass market vs. hardcover vs. e-book), etc., expectations that DO affect how I perceive a story. But from what I can tell, I don’t think these different expectations affect my reading experience in any significant way.


Random Musings

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  1. 1
    fiveandfour says:

    I’m not sure if my disgust with The Last Hellion is because it’s a genuinely bad book

    I’ll help you out here and say The Last Hellion was a genuinely bad book.  Terrible.  Should have been completely revised starting around chapter 3.  If there were a way for Loretta Chase to grant each person who read it the time back that was spent reading it she should be forced to do so.

  2. 2
    Candy says:

    Did the cutesy little kid thing make you gag as much as it did me? I mean, I like having my emotions manipulated to a certain extent, but really, that was a bit much.

    Also the recycling of villains. Oy.

  3. 3
    Sarah says:

    If I don’t know the author (which happens a lot when I’m reviewing books by request) I measure it against the internal “Good Romance Feeling,” that is, the feeling I get when reading a really good romance. I can’t put it down, I’m all tingly – I go back and reread sections.

    With what I’ve learned about back blurbs, covers, and publishing houses with cranio-rectal syndrome, I put little stock in the back text or the cover, and have to close my eyes and jump. Usually (USUALLY!) the author has nothing to do with the back or the front, and only with the creme filling. And that’s the best part anyway, right?

  4. 4
    fiveandfour says:

    My gripes seemed so petty when taken individually that I felt maybe I was being a bit hard on it.  But further reflection has me trusting my initial opinion.  My annoyances were that the heroine’s loss of reputation story in the past and the re-emergence of that guy in the present were a little *too* pat (or coincidental, if I can get on that high horse again today), that the personality and motivations of the hero never really gelled for me, and that the universal admiration of the heroine’s serialized stories and how that opened so many doors at just the right moments happened a time or two too many.  There were some other things that also seemed to come straight out of a romance novel build-a-plot kit, but I’ve successfully scrubbed them from my memory.

    Still and all, much as this book annoyed me, that was all nothing compared to my complete and utter abhorrence of The Sandalwood Princess.  That one made me want to start a book burning pyre like never before seen in the history of man (everyone who had a copy would have been invited to throw theirs on the pile).

    If not for Mr. Impossible there would likely be no force on earth strong enough to have me trusting Loretta Chase again after my Last Hellion and Sandalwood Princess experiences. 

    OK, ending rant and switching gears now…

    Recent discussions here have made me realize just how much I do, in fact, depend on the cover and back blurbs when I come across an author that’s new to me.  I’m going to have to re-train myself to stop that habit I suppose.

    Finally, I’ve also recently realized just how difficult it is to review a book because, really, it’s an opinion and opinions are subjective things.  The trick is to back that opinion up with tangible thoughts that others can grasp and from that they can choose to agree or disagree both with the merit of the story and the accuracy and fairness of the review.  I find myself directed to a lot of authors that are new to me based on the opinions of others that I generally agree with on other things (or consistently disagree with so that I can usually say if she hates it I’ll love it and vice versa).  So, as a reader, my influences are: formal reviews, opinions of people I don’t necessarily know but generally trust, recommendations of friends, and sometimes the cover and back blurb.

  5. 5
    FerfeLaBat says:

    FROM TODAYS NEW TIMES http://www.miaminewtimes.com—Seven weeks since its May 24 release, and despite a New York Times profile by former Herald reporter Mirta Ojito, morning face time on NBC with Katie Couric, and a wealth of in-store appearances, the great bulk of Dish & Tell’s first printing of 40,000 appears headed for the remainder table—or the pulping machines. At press time a scant 3404 copies had been sold, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales in 70 to 75 percent of the nation’s stores, from behemoths Amazon.com, Borders, and Target to local independents like Books & Books. And while Random House still has paperback and Spanish-language versions slated in hopes of recouping the losses, it’s doubtful the publisher will be throwing good money after bad in ponying up for a sequel. Don’t feel too bad for the Bombshells though. They still get to keep every penny of their reported “low six-figure” advance.

    Hype does not always sell.

  6. 6
    Candy says:

    Speaking of coincidences in The Last Hellion: making the heroine a long-lost relative of Dain’s was just the outside of too much.

    Grrrr. Just thinking about that pointless plot point makes me fume.

    I read The Sandalwood Princess a while back and liked it OK, though. Didn’t love it, but it didn’t make me want to claw my eyeballs out or anything.

  7. 7
    Roseread says:

    Um, I liked The Last Hellion.  Maybe I was just blinded by the gloriousness that is Loretta Chase, but I actually rather enjoyed it.  Does that make me a bad person?  There are certainly other authors who have disappointed me a lot more—Lisa Kleypas, for example.

  8. 8
    Candy says:

    Does that make me a bad person?

    I don’t think someone who disagrees with me about a book is a bad person.

    And you’d be hard-pressed find a bigger Chase fangirl around than me. I like—if not outright love—all her books; I even own her Regencies in both first-edition paperback AND hardcover, except Isabella, which is ungodly expensive in the first edition HC. All, except The Last Hellion.

    There are certainly other authors who have disappointed me a lot more—Lisa Kleypas, for example.

    Loretta Chase just happened to be a handy example of someone I’m all fangirly over who has disappointed me greatly. I agree with you about Kleypas. Her books have disappointed me more often, which interestingly enough lowers expectations so the depth of disappointment isn’t quite as severe when it happens. When TLH bombed for me, it bombed in a big, big way.

  9. 9
    Robin says:

    “Finally, I’ve also recently realized just how difficult it is to review a book because, really, it’s an opinion and opinions are subjective things.  The trick is to back that opinion up with tangible thoughts that others can grasp and from that they can choose to agree or disagree both with the merit of the story and the accuracy and fairness of the review.”

    It’s so interesting to me how being “subjective” has come to mean something bad—akin to political correctness (and something is only “PC” based on your own subjective standards of conduct right?).  I think we’ve bought into the illusion of objectivity to a dangerous degree (i.e. the “constructionist” propaganda accompanying the new Supreme Court nominee).  What you say about a detailed and well-supported review is key, IMO, because it provides a reader the opportunity to understand the logic and mental process of the reviewer, which is the closest I think any of us can come to “objective” appraisal, either of a book or of all the publicity tools that may influence us.  What’s always interesting to me is how two people can share the same opinion (good or bad) of a book, but have totally different reasons and rationales for that view—that’s why the details and the logic matter for me.

  10. 10
    Amanda says:

    My favorite method of whittling down the To Be Bought list is reading excerpts online- especially for new to me authors.

    Failing that I read the first chapter or two in the store. If I’m bored or distracted already, it’s hopeless no matter how big a seller you are or how much I loved your last two books.

    Bad cover art can be a nonstarter unless I’m completely hooked.

    Specific examples of horrible prose or ab fab scenes can help me decide as well, depending on the quality of the review & the context of the example given.

  11. 11
    bam says:

    If I’m just browsing at Barnes & Noble looking for something to read, I usually pick up cartoon covers. I find them cute, I guess. I read the back blurb and if it’s not an old western, doesn’t have a hero named Zeke or Caleb, doesn’t feature a dotty old matchmaker type, a pirate, or a heroine younger than twenty, I usually read the first chapter. If it hooks me, I buy it. If it doesn’t quite hook me, but I get past the first five pages, I make note of the title, and get it from Booksfree.

  12. 12
    Stef2 says:

    I just cleaned out my to be read bookcases – I have 2.  It pains me terribly to get rid of books I’ve never read, but there’s just no way I have time.  I did keep a lot, but knowing me, I’ll wind up getting rid of two-thirds of those a year from now.

    Writing and the day job take all of my time.  I just don’t have the luxury of diving into so many books.  I guess that’s why, when I DO take the time off to read, it pisses me off so bad to pick one that doesn’t deliver on the promise.

    On the other hand, if I pick up a new to me author and fall in love, I’m off to the bookstore to buy all the other titles and the rest of my week is shot to hell.

    God, I can’t not complain, can I?  HaHa!


    ps – lest anyone think I’m an idiot who buys books then dumps them without reading – you’re only partially right.  A lot of them are freebies I got at writing conferences, or friends’ books I bought because I wanted to be supportive.

  13. 13

    Every now and then I’ll buy a book by a new author partly because my conscience kicks in.  I feel obligated to give a newbie a chance, ‘cause so much of the stuff from the establishment is same old, same old.  And I always hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  What hooks me?  Back cover blurbs, sometimes recommmendations from authors I like and on rare occasions, cover art.

    Let me put in a plug here for A PERFECT RAKE by Anne Gracie.  I’d still classify Gracie as an up-and-comer, but I found this book completely enjoyable.  I asked for a review copy because I’d read a Regency by her and her name stuck in my mind as a writer to watch, and this book lived up to my expectations.  A nice feeling.  My review will be posted at BooksForum in a few days, but so often romance book buying is hit-or-miss that I wanted to throw in a plug.

    BTW, one book that left me cold despite its hot and steamy hype was THE LADY LIES by Samantha Saxon.  Another up-and-comer, but she had so many Regency era mistakes I couldn’t get into the story.  That plus the “OK, I know she’s not a skank but I’m going to disbelieve all the evidence ‘cause I’m a dick” penultimate scene was annoying.

  14. 14
    PC Cast says:

    After reading all your posts I realize that I’m totally awful about expectations for authors I adore.  Example: Diana (god I want to have Jamie’s babies) Gabaldon.  Totally adore her stuff.  Loathed Fiery Cross with an intensity which I’m quite certain was out of proportion with its awfulness.  And just because of my drooling expectations.  That’s probably not “fair.”

    I give new authors a much better shot.  (So says the midlist author…sigh.)  I don’t pay much attention to blurbs and cover copy.  Authors don’t write them.  I, too, sit in the bookstore and read the first couple chapters.  If it hooks me I buy it. 

    Sarah, Candy, and all of the rest of you reviewers – I soooo wouldn’t want your job!  I’d be a shitty reviewer.  But I do tend to agree with the reviews on this website.  So whatever y’all are doing – well done you. 


  15. 15
    Anna says:

    This may be too OT, but that unexpected genre-twist in a story can work in a film, don’t you think?  I’m thinking of From Dusk till Dawn where what looks like a straight-forward heist and hostage story turns into a vampire shoot ‘em up.

    For me, anyway, that worked.  Boy, did it work – I loved it!

    Now I’m trying to work out why that worked, but the taut romantic suspense being hi-jacked by the cutesy dog would have me hurling the book at the wall.  Or hurling on the book.

    Perhaps because From Dusk till Dawn kept its edginess?  Because the twist didn’t change the character development?  Because it had George Clooney?

    Not sure.

  16. 16
    Maili says:

    Anna, it works because of, I think, three things: 1) humour, 2) the settings; the change in settings – from the road to the bar – makes it easier to accept the genre twist, and 3) our ‘villains’ are forced to become heroic, showing that they aren’t as bad as they seem. 
    When I get a hyped book, I usually leave it in my TBR pile for about six months or so [or until I partly forget what everyone’s comments about the book] because I’m not good enough to keep hype-based expectations out of my head when I read it.

    I *love* picking up debut novels, though. If the author is new to me [a rarity these days :(], I’m more likely to try to get a copy, regardless of my serious hatred for bad covers.

    On the other hand, I do tend to ignore authors – new or not – if their books are published by a publishing house that consistently produces the kind I dislike. Avon is currently on my ‘To Avoid’ list. Ack. I don’t know I should admit to that, but there you go.

  17. 17
    Gabriele says:

    I think Gabaldon suffers from the Series Wear Out syndrome. She lost me halfway through book 4, and she isn’t the only one by far, no matter which genre (fe. Auel, Collen McCullough’s Rome books, Hobb’s Farseer, and don’t get me started on Robert Jordan, lol). The exception is GRR Martin, and in a way David Gemmell, but his Drenai saga covers several centuries and thus he has new characters and even a slightly changed world all the time. It’s actually closest to my own Historical Fiction which is basically Late Roman Empire to Mediaeval Europe, and the books I plan are standalones with different characters.

    Long series often get boggled down in details, the characters have grwon out their growth and development potential, and the editors obviously interfere less than with beginners (someone really should have told both Auel and Gabaldon to cut off some 300 pages of their later books). No, give me standalones or trilogies, no series, please.  :)

  18. 18
    Gabriele says:

    Recent discussions here have made me realize just how much I do, in fact, depend on the cover and back blurbs when I come across an author that’s new to me. 

    Ouch, then I can only hope that I won’t get back blurbs in the way of: “This tale of love and betrayal will sweep the reader off to a Britain just abandoned by the Roman Army and to Rome itself where the Celtic chief Ciaran has to decide his future.” Or something.  %-P Because the love aka romance part is only a subplot, the female character involved secondary at best, and there will be no HEA.

    So if someone who likes historicals and wants a change from regencies picks it, the poor book will surely get thrown across the room.  :-/

  19. 19

    I’m just glad that you grasp the proper way to write a review. We had a detailed discussion on a listserv about the difference between a professional review and just expressing your opinion.

    There are many who don’t put forth the effort you do to give a proper and useful review.

  20. 20
    Alyssa says:

    With authors I haven’t read before, I judge a book by the story. I have been frustrated on occasion when a book is incorrectly classified, but it has to be a serious error—mystery when I am expecting light romance, for instance. It has to be marketed incorrectly to affect me, though.

    I do buy some books after hearing a lot of buzz, but I try not to have expectations when I read them. That may sound funny, but when it helps keep me from disappointment. I think I’ve gotten a bit better at determining whether I would enjoy a book, too.

  21. 21
    Anna says:

    Anna, it works because of, I think, three things: 1) humour, 2) the settings; the change in settings – from the road to the bar – makes it easier to accept the genre twist, and 3) our ‘villains’ are forced to become heroic, showing that they aren’t as bad as they seem.

    Good points, Maili!  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, there.

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