However, just because it's easy to write a review of a book or movie now -- most everyone has a blog, writes reviews on Amazon, etc -- doesn't mean that everyone writes useful reviews.
Now, some of you might (or might not) be asking what I mean by calling a review "useful." Take a recent review on Amazon for Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
I loved the book, so we're separating my opinions for a second. Deconstructing this review, I can tell you two things: 1) the reviewer expected a lot more than he felt he got and 2) that he praises the author while slamming the work.4 of 14 people found the following review helpful:Mediocre; 2.5 stars,
January 10, 2010This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)A promising idea - steampunk in the mid-19th century American northwest combined with a zombie theme. The execution, however, is poor. The plot is a mechanical regurgitation of an average zombie movie, the characters aren't particularly well developed, and there simply isn't enough fleshing out of the parallel universe. Priest is not a poor writer, as the quality of prose is more than adequate, and indeed, better than quite a few popular books. The lack of imagination and rigor in working the parallel world, the complete lack of humor, and the jaded subplot concerning the heroine are simply inadequate.
Notice the stat above the review though -- only 4 out of 14 respondents found this review helpful in making their decision about the book. Why, perhaps do you think this is?
My own theory is that the review writer offered no specific examples of what he disliked about the book. When composing a review of anything, generalizations are the enemy of usefulness. Here's another review of Boneshaker, taken from the same two-star level:
Nearly all the people who read this review found it helpful. Why? Because of those same specific examples that I mentioned before. This reviewer mentions clear points at where he felt the book fell flat and why he feels that way. He also instinctively performs my second point -- people will not find a completely negative review nearly as useful as they find a review with a grain of positive mixed in.15 of 19 people found the following review helpful:apparently I'm the voice of dissent,
January 30, 2010Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)This review is from: Boneshaker (Sci Fi Essential Books) (Paperback)Pros:
Compelling setup and central mysteries. Thought the story between the lead protagonists was reasonably well done.
Cons: Author did not care to develop her world.
Example - Head villain has a scary right hand man, as is typical of adventure stories. He strikes fear into the hearts of the locals. Yet in the final battle, he appears briefly and avoids the final confrontation. Why introduce him? The secondary characters are compelling, until they're abandoned. The lead fighter amongst the good guys appears to be dying, yet we're led to believe he might be saved by 19th century medicine?
Additonally, the central threat within the town (the zombies dubbed rotters) are never well developed. Minnericht can send them at his enemies, but loses control of them in the end. Why? They run the streets of the city, forcing the human residents into a subterranean existence, yet they can be repelled by bonfires? Moving a block or two in the city calls up hordes of rotters, yet the leads can linger in a house for nearly an hour? And what of the citadel like fort within the walls? Everyone agrees it's safe from the rotters, yet it's abandoned.
But the biggest problem with the story: it hints early on that living within the city walls is near suicidal (and even life in the outskirts is pretty illogical), yet no compelling reason is ever provided for why the residents stay. It's apparently not too difficult for humans to leave the city. Yet many reasonably upright citizens have spent a decade or more running for their lives from the rotters while being manipulated by a mad professor. Say what? I know the setting is an alternate history where the civil war rages on, but America is a big and open country in the late 19th century. People set out for the plains and southwest on a regular basis. Yet cleaning contaminated water all day or relying on filter masks to step outside is the best existence these people can imagine?
The beauty of sci-fi/fantasy as a genre is the ability of authors to create worlds that operate on their terms. But there need to be terms. The whole project feels adrift.
The illustrious Nathan Bransford uses the following formula for critique -- positive, extremely polite constructive criticism, and positive. He calls it the sandwich method, and I propose that a similar method be followed when writing a useful review:
Positive -- Say what you liked about the book/movie, if anything and why
Negative -- Say where the book/movie didn't work for you and why
Positive -- Say something else you liked about the book/movie and why
The end result of all this is to craft the most useful review you possibly can. Why is this important? Well, in the words of Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr, he writes reviews to turn people on to something they might not have thought of before. And that, dear readers, is what a useful review can do.