Why star ratings can damage your reading health.

Why star ratings can damage your reading health.

One blog leads to another

I recently read a blog post from Kate Vane (@k8vane) about how, if you review books, worrying about star ratings messes with the way that you enjoy your reading.

I couldn’t agree more. Just knowing that you are going to have to write a review changes your whole approach to your reading, and not necessarily in a good way. And star ratings are the tool of the devil.

Why I review on my blog

I’ve already blogged about how I was planning to cut back on reviewing. Since I wrote that (just six weeks ago as I write this) I’ve done a couple of book reviews. They take time to write and are in addition to my regular blogs. So why on earth do I do it? In these two cases (and there are more on the way) I was asked to: not necessarily by the author. I get asked to review by authors, publishers and journals and I get books from NetGalley who expect a review in exchange for a regular supply of quality free books. And I like having my books reviewed, so it seems only fair to review books by other writers. Even so, I do often have my doubts. Then I get thanks from a reader who has enjoyed my review or from an author who is grateful for something I have said and then I seem to keep going.

So I write my review. My reviews are quite long and will probably mention things I felt didn’t quite work as well as the things that did. Some authors are less than thrilled at this approach, but the blog post is supposed to be a ‘proper’ review for critical readers. An edited (usually totally positive) version will make its way to Amazon in time. Which is where we meet the evil star system.

Star ratings

By the time it gets to Amazon, my 800 word nuanced blog post has already been reduced to 600 words or less explaining why it’s a good book. (If it isn’t a good book, I’ll generally try not to review it, though I’m happy to make an exception for people like Jacob Rees-Mogg.) But then my 600 words have to be reduced to one of five star ratings. It’s mad.

(The obvious answer is not to post on Amazon, but writers need those Amazon reviews to make sales, so in the end I’m going to post.)

What does it all mean?

Kate (Remember her? She wrote the blog that started this off) is one of those people who avoids 5* ratings.

I only give it 5* if it’s exceptional

A lot of my friends are like that, which is annoying if they are reviewing my books, because analysis of Amazon ratings shows that most people give 5* or (much less often) 1* ratings. Basically, they rate books as ‘Great’ (5*) or ‘Rubbish’ (1*). The middle rankings are less likely to feature.

There has been a lot of discussion on this on my Twitter feed so I’m adding this useful summary graph from rendors.com (as posted by them on Quora)

But whether you tend to 4* or 5*, there really aren’t that many options for reviewers like me and Kate. Both of us avoid ratings under 3. She avoids 5 and I avoid 3 (we’ll see why in a moment), so basically both of us end up usually choosing between 3* and 4* (Kate) or 4* and 5* (me). Basically, for most books, my 800 word review has come down to a binary choice.

Interpreting the ratings

Kate gives an explanation of her ratings. 3* is ‘good but flawed’, 4* means she enjoyed it and 5*, as we’ve seen, is ‘exceptional’.

I’ve always been nervous to explain the ratings I give, but here they are:

5* — I recommend this book to anyone reading my review

4* — I think this book is a good read for anyone who likes this genre (“It’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing.”)

3* — It’s OK

2* — It’s not OK

1* — This book is a disaster.

The horror of the 3* rating

I have a friend who wrote a review of a book of mine, praising it to the skies and then giving it a 3* rating. When I pointed out that she had given it a negative review, she said that of course she hadn’t.

The thing is that if you are rating on Amazon, you are using the Amazon rating system and Amazon considers 3* a “critical” review. People are continually arguing with me about this, but Amazon are totally upfront about it. Click on ‘See all reviews’ for a book and this pops up:

Also remember that (as I said above) the commonest rating on Amazon is 5*. Most books will average somewhere around 4*. Giving them a 3* review will generally pull their rating down and, by and large, I don’t want to pull authors down. So I avoid 3* reviews. You may well feel differently, but just be aware what you are doing. A 3* review is not neutral.

Being nice – or not

This is the nub of the why I personally find the horror of the star rating hanging over me while I read.

I’m happy to say that I think a character is under-developed or that there are some unlikely coincidences holding a plot together. I know that I upset some writers by being critical, but I’m writing a review on my blog for people who are interested in writing. I doubt they will reject a book that I review (remember I generally only review books I like) because I said that I thought there was an unrealistic portrayal of women in the 19th century. It’s pretty well a given nowadays that 19th century women will be portrayed unrealistically: it’s only because I write about the 19th century myself that I either notice or care. But when the review gets onto Amazon people will reject a book because it has a 3* average rating. So what if I think that the portrayal of women as feisty lawyers is just too much to allow a 4* review? (I refused to review a book recently that centred on a woman planning a legal career before the law was changed to allow women lawyers in Britain.) If the book, apart from this one detail that hasn’t worried the publisher and won’t worry most readers, is quite a good read, do I post 3* or 4*? It’s clearly not really worth 4*, but most people aren’t going to be worried by its historical howler, so is it really just ’OK’ and getting the dreaded 3* rating? Or do I say it’s three and a bit and nudge up to four?

In the case of the book I mentioned, my decision was that, as it was likely 3* and I care about basic history, I would not read or review it at all. But there are other cases which are more marginal and there my rule of thumb is ‘always nudge up’. If the author is well-known with a big publisher behind them, then my rating doesn’t matter and I can unleash my inner critical Rottweiler, but self-published authors and writers at small presses rely on those Amazon ratings for their survival. Yes, if they are seriously bad books I will not rate them. If they deserve to be driven out of the writing community I will give them 2* or even 1*. But how many writers are so truly terrible that it is for me (or almost anyone else) to say that they just shouldn’t be writing? Because, as it gets harder and harder to get books seen in a crowded marketplace, a poor star rating can destroy any chance of serious sales. (And, in this context, ‘serious sales’ can mean hitting three figures.)

When I write a review, I can speak as I find. I have annoyed friends by being less than gushing about their work. But they have (mostly) forgiven me. But when I have to produce that wretched, meaningless, frankly obscene, Amazon star rating, I know that I can do real harm. Knowing that can suck some of the pleasure out of the book.



Something different this Tuesday: instead of a book review, I’m doing a short review of a play I went to see last week.

‘Autoreverse’ is a one woman play looking at how we make sense of the world and our memories. Told by an Argentinian whose family fled to Chile during the Dirty War and who now lives in London, her personal story takes in questions of disruption and loss, migration and belonging.

The staging uses recorded speech, song, video, projected text subtitling foreign language recordings, a tiny bit of dance and even a snatch of live music. It’s imaginative and makes what could be a self-indulgent monologue into something that demands (and gets) our attention. Sometimes funny, sometimes heart-breakingly sad, it’s an evening that sticks in the mind.

It’s on until the end of next week at Battersea Arts Centre, a lovely building close to Clapham Junction station. ‘Autoreverse’ gives you a good excuse to visit.


Entertaining Mr Pepys

Entertaining Mr Pepys

Entertaining Mr Pepys is the third and, probably final, book in Deborah Swift’s series about Mr Pepys’ women. Although the protagonist, Mrs  Knepp is an actual historical character who Pepys knew, the man himself is only incidental to the story. In fact, all the scenes featuring him could be removed without affecting the story arc at all.

In the second in the series, A Plague on Mr Pepys, Swift had moved away from the privileged world of the Pepys household in order to explore the poverty and misery of the artisanal class. This time the focus is on the world of the theatre, but again we see the way in which the mid-17th century trapped and exploited women. Mrs Knepp has been cast adrift by her uncaring father into an unloving marriage. Mr Knepp is a brute, using his wife as an unpaid servant. All that keeps her going is that she has one servant of her own who, being black, is even lower down the pecking order than she is.

Other women have more incidental roles, exchanging sexual favours for better parts in the theatre or driven mad by cruel husbands (in a scene of full-on Dickens-esque madness, she stands in the street as London burns, “her arms waving like a crazy statue”). Even Mrs Pepys complains of the cruelty and meanness of her husband though, by the standards of the time, Pepys seems to have been quite a good husband and her life was comfortable, verging on luxurious.

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666)

If the first three quarters of the book reads, at times, like a feminist tract, does it give a fair picture of the position of women in the world of the period? I’m not sure that it does. We meet an orange girl whose mother was a prostitute and who is, at 14 years old, already little better than a whore herself. Bright and sassy, she still seems doomed to a miserable, and probably short, life, but this is Nell Gwynne, who is to become the King’s mistress. We hear lots about the present hardships of the characters but little about their future success.

We get a rather one-sided version of their married lives, too. We are assured that, though Mrs Knepp spends a lot of time with Pepys, they are not lovers. This is the Pepys who, we know from his diaries, will literally bend a serving girl over in a corridor and have his way with barely a break of step as he passes. But Mrs Knepp is unsullied by Pepys (though an excellent Historical Note suggests at least two lovers). Poor Mr Knepp: brute as he is, he is at least a faithful brute.

The problem that I have is not so much that the women have miserable lives but that Swift clearly believes that they are miserable mainly on account of their being women. You don’t have to be a committed Marxist to interpret the exploitation of women as an example of the general exploitation of the weak by the strong. Mrs Pepys, as we have seen in earlier books in the series, is not above casual cruelty to servants and the book does not dwell on the hardships faced by the labouring man of the period. In fact, Knepp’s business (he hires carriage horses) requires a yard full of lads who, one suspects do hard work fetching and carrying for rather more kicks than ha’pence. Even so, Mrs Knepp is quite happy to see them go without food when she spends the meat money on theatre tickets, demonstrating that the rule that the strong will exploit the weak applies across both genders.

Sadly (and uncharacteristically), Swift allows the requirements of the plot elements to over-ride the characterisation at the beginning of the story. Mrs Knepp has apparently had a very happy childhood with a father whom she loves and who seems to have loved her back. With her mother’s death, her father marries a wicked step-mother and the poor girl is foisted off on a clearly unsuitable husband after which her father cuts off all contact. It doesn’t ring true and sticks out as an obvious plot device in a book in which most of the other relationships are lovingly and credibly delineated. Even the ghastly Mr Knepp is given a back-story that makes him a sympathetic character despite his frequent cruelty.

Even with these reservations, the book demonstrates Swift’s fine grasp of her period. It’s full of convincing detail: the use of limes to avoid pregnancy; the actor-manager’s insistence on women playing roles where they are disguised as men because “Killigrew likes you in breeches so they can see your bum”; the casual prejudice against Catholics. She takes you into that world and makes it real. You hear the noises and smell the smells (and how revolting many of those smells are). If the miserable domestic life of Mrs Knepp sometimes acts as a bit of a drag on the plot we, like her, can at least escape to the theatre and the world of the King’s Players is as lively as the world of Knepp’s stable yard is dull.

The book, like the theatrical performances that are such an important part of the story, is divided into three acts. Act Three sees a dramatic change of pace. Domestic drama and sexual politics give way to the horror that is the Great Fire of London. Here Swift comes into her own. She has a flair for melodrama and, with the fire, melodrama is clearly appropriate. Swift first describes the fire as we see it in Pepys’ diary.

Elisabeth peered over Janey’s shoulder. There was an orange glow a little way off on Marke Lane.

“Fancy you waking us up for that,” Elisabeth said. ”It’s just someone’s bonfire. Someone could piss it out.”

By the morning more than three hundred houses have been burned down and the Thames is clogged with the boats of refugees fleeing the flames. We see the disaster from the point of view of several of the characters: Pepys burying his parmesan cheese in his garden; a Frenchman returning up the River from a trip across the Channel; Knepp with a stable full of straw and horses terrified by the smell of burning. We move from the detail of horses trapped in their stalls and people staring in dismay at the wreckage of their houses pulled down to make firebreaks, to a broader view of the impact of the fire on the city.

Burning of old St. Paul’s, by Wenceslaus Hollar Engraving (Yale Center for British Art) 

The landscape of London was like mouth with missing teeth, full of blackened stumps and gaps. The view was alien; unrecognisable. Half-burned joists and rafters stuck out from church steeples, in the distance something exploded.

By the time the fire is burned out, relationships have been changed for ever. “It’s a purification,” one character says. “London needed it.” There is talk of how the city cannot survive, though we know, of course, that it did. Out of the fire, came a better London and, in this book, better people. Even Knepp is redeemed and, at last, Swift allows that some men do try to be decent people, even prepared to sacrifice themselves for the women they love. (No more details because spoilers!)

In the end, the fire redeems not only the characters but the book. Any criticisms that the reader has in the earlier chapters are likely to be burned away in the flames. If some of the reconciliations seem a little pat, well, it worked for Dickens, so I don’t see why Swift shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it too. She has, once again, produced a gripping and convincing tale of the Restoration. If you enjoy this period (and books like M J Logue’s An Abiding Fire) you should definitely read this one.

[This is an extended version of a review that first appeared in Historia, the on-line magazine of the Historical Writers’ Association: http://www.historiamag.com/ ]

Blackthorn: Terry Tyler

Blackthorn: Terry Tyler

Terry Tyler’s latest, Blackthorn, is another dystopian novel set in the world she initially established in the Renova trilogy, but it stands up perfectly without you reading the others.

Blackthorn explores a Britain (and probably the rest of the world) that has collapsed and is being rebuilt with England having a tribal structure. A few small towns dominate the countryside with villages and other communities gradually falling to bands of travelling outlaws. Blackthorn is one of the most successful of these towns.

This isn’t a political book and a political theorist would, I suspect, struggle with the economic basis of Blackthorn. It isn’t quite a feudal system, because it’s not based on ownership of the land, but it does reflect the feudal era in that there is a strict hierarchy within the village with a hereditary leader supported by guards (equivalent to nobles) and then skilled workmen working its way down to people who are essentially serfs. There is a lot of exposition of the nature of the society, which made the book hard for me to get into. It also has an enormous cast with lots of minor characters and I initially found it quite difficult to keep track of everybody.

Fortunately, not that many of Terry Tyler’s readers are likely to be political nerds and once the story really gets going we begin to focus on a more manageable number of characters. The characterisation comes alive in a way which seemed unlikely in the opening chapters. I began to wonder if the characters had taken over from the author, because the plot, too, becomes much livelier. We move away from the details of the village economy, with its peculiar currency of chips and crowns (surely eaten away by inflation in any real-world economy expanding at that rate) and its tightly defined social structure and start getting into something more interesting, centred on the strengths and weaknesses of the people living there.

I had started reading almost with a sense of duty, but, as the plot picked up, I was increasingly drawn into it and by the end I was sitting up late to find out what happened next. This is encouraged by Terry Tyler’s prose style which is, as always, fluid and engaging.

I’m not going to say anything about the plot because it’s almost impossible to do so without spoilers. At first I thought it was boring and predictable, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. That’s all I’ll say and that’s probably too much.

There are a lot of people who will be put off this book, with its dystopian background, its detailed invented society, and its discussion of religion, but they, like me, will probably find that it draws them in if they stay with it.

Definitely worth the read.

Frank Prem: The New Asylum

Frank Prem: The New Asylum

I’ve been very enthusiastic about Frank Prem’s first two books of poems, so he kindly sent me a copy of his latest, The New Asylum.

I’ve taken a while to read it and I’m finding it quite a difficult book to review. When I was at university I spent one summer vacation working in a psychiatric hospital. It says a lot about the period that the official name of the hospital was the – Hospital for the Mentally Subnormal and Severely Subnormal. I doubt it’s still called that these days, although the cruel bluntness of its name was at least honest, unlike the weaselly ‘learning difficulties’ of today. I was on a ward for ‘psychotic and disturbed’ patients. Daily life could include violent attacks, trying to reassure a paranoid patient that the others didn’t all hate her, and dealing with random chaos. A tutor at university said that I described behaviour that was already unusual as the increased availability of effective drug treatment meant that patients seldom exhibited such florid symptoms. Perhaps part of the problem was that we had only limited access to drugs that could be used for acute interventions because they had to be administered by a qualified doctor and there was only one on duty in the whole hospital. By the time he got round to our ward in response to an urgent phone call we usually had the patient in a straitjacket (yes, we still used them) and the immediate crisis was over. Despite all this, though, it was a happy summer. I won’t say I made firm friends, but I did go back to visit patients I remembered with affection. There was the woman who was being prepared for a half-way hostel. “What do you want to do when you get out?” “I want to rob gas meters, Tom.” I wished her luck. She was a pleasant person and it’s good to have a goal in life. And the lady who thought she was the Pope always tried to be nice. “Do you want to hear a dirty joke, Tom?” “Go on then.” (It was always the same joke.) “A white horse down a coal mine.”

Why am I telling the story of my summer instead of reviewing Prem’s book? Because his poems took me back to that summer, which I haven’t really thought about for decades and it has aroused emotions I had forgotten. The hospital, by today’s standards was (like Prem’s) a dreadful place. And (like Prem) I had no idea what I was doing. The nurses had little formal training and relied on experience and instinct. They were wonderful and, like Prem, I am amazed at how they just kept on dealing with the blood and the mess and the violence and, despite everything, created a safe and, astonishingly, kind place for the people who lived there. The doctors (noticeably absent in Prem’s poems too) were never around, leaving the nurses and the nursing assistants (that would be me) to cope, and we despised them. But we got along and nobody died. (Given that we had actual murderers on the wards, this wasn’t something you could take for granted.)

Take it away, Frank:

today they’re okay
on this day at the start of october
I’m proud

this crew of mine
a random ragtag of workers
has pulled together
to make it through the shift

it wasn’t without drama
sickness left our numbers down
experience was light on the ground
and there was madness in the air

but today the shift held up
they worked for each other
for the people they’re here for
and it went okay

I feel proud

A good poem can touch the heart and take you to places you may have lost and it can bring back the sad things and the happy. These are good poems. I found them difficult to read, but I’m glad I did. They may not have as much effect on you as on me, but I hope you read them. Frank has things to say and it would be good to hear them.

in aftermath
it seems so clear

there are few mental-health
happy endings

and there are no
simple cures

there’s just the risk
of cynicism
among repeat offenders
with bad habits

and minds that won’t
take the time
to learn

there’s only so much
before enough
of trying to change worlds

enough of listening
catching flak
and shouldering tears

of bearing
other people’s burdens

there is no room
no role for heroes

there is only mental health
and all it requires is you
and I
to be its creatures