Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why I Hate Book Reviews: A Book Review

So I recently finished reading the book Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really liked it. A lot.

I purchased Cinder from the Bargain Books section at B.A.M. Admittedly, I did not have high expectations for the book; I typically do not like adaptations of classics and while scifi is close to my heart, the robot subgenre is my least favorite. The cover looked typical of most Post-Twilight Saga young adult books -- black and white with the literary symbol in bright colors (red, in this case) -- and I picked the book up simply because it was cheap and I thought it could go in my new classroom library.

Because I like to sample some of the books that go in my middle/high school classroom, I sat down one afternoon with Cinder, telling myself we only grow as readers by occasionally reading things we aren’t drawn to. Meyer’s storytelling captured my attention and held it for ransom.

I was fascinated by Cinder’s life as a mechanic/cyborg/orphan/outcast and loved the way Meyer neatly tucked select elements from the classic Cinderella tale into her storyline, like the bright orange VW Bug that Cinder and Iko refurbish and which Cinder later drives to the Coronation Ball. I especially appreciated the elements from the classic tale that Meyer didn’t use: no fairy godmother who makes Cinder’s wishes come true, no happy ending with the prince. Meyer’s descriptions are rich and fitting for the way she writes her story, her characters are real and relatable, her protagonist is strong and independent. 

Any gaps that I felt existed in the scientific reasoning behind the story, such as how letumosis became a pandemic, et cetera, were easily  attributed to Cinder’s lack of understanding; Cinder is the primary POV character, so if she doesn't understand something that is happening in her world, how can it be explained through her to the reader? In addition, Cinder is more plot-focused with the Why? taking precedent over the How?, which is perfectly acceptable under the Soft Science sub-genre of science fiction in which this novel most aptly fits.

Because I enjoy reading other readers’ evaluations of books to see if there is some question I didn’t consider or some element I didn’t analyze, I went to my computer to search for reviews of Cinder

And here is why book reviews tick me off . . .

Book reviewers can range from overly-praising to grotesquely inaccurate in their criticism of a text and its author. Both types of reviews setup unrealistic expectations for potential readers of the novel. Really, the majority of book reviews that make me angry are those written by people who are a.) assessing the value of the work in the wrong context or b.) just being plain ridiculous. For example, an honest critic wouldn't criticize Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi for its lack of classical literary elements.

And I am not sure what I dislike more, reviewers who trash a book they haven't even taken the time to finish or reviewers who say things like "Gimme a break with all these fairies. I know this is a book about Fae, but come on! Enough with the green-eyed, unnatural beauties already! This book would have been a lot better if the protag was an ugly vampire who only thought she was a fairy.

Well, it is a book about Fae, so . . .

But, hey, random reader! You know best. Please tell the author how to write her book. I am sure she will come out with a "better" version right after she has a chance to revise . . .

Negative reviews for Cinder were no different. 

Here are a few that really didn't sit well with me:

On Amazon Customer Reviews, reviewer William A. Grey writes “I am a science fiction fan, and there are a lot of good things I could say about this book. However, they are all negated by the lack of an ending. This is not a book. It is part of a book.

This review is followed by a review from letterEletterD, who writes “Finally, when I got to the end, it occurred to me that the characters hadn't grown at all. Neither of them acquired new skills, their relationship was no more than it was when they first met (partially because it was far too strong then), no epiphanies about life or anything other than factual information. (Which, by the way, was so heavily foreshadowed, I cannot believe that Ms. Meyer thought it was a surprise...although it was the concluding sentence of a chapter, so maybe she did?)

For starters, the official title of the book is Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles. Cinder is simply one installment of a larger story and serves to provide the framework for the overall tale. The story comes to a natural lull at the end, which in many serials serves as the ending. Being upset that the first book in a multi-volumnal work doesn’t have a tidy ending is like being upset that Daenerys didn’t storm King’s Landing, reclaim her rightful place as Queen of Westeros, reunify the Seven Kingdoms, and defeat the Others by the end of A Game of Thrones -- nonsensical.

"Queen Daenerys" by slothmaker, Deviantart

Well, that was fast . . . 

The accusation that the characters don’t grow enough in this installment is inaccurate as Cinder goes through a series of revelations and changes about herself and her worldview. In addition, this book is marketed to young adult readers between the ages of 12 and 17, so one can assume that this age range is the writer’s intended audience. Readers at the younger ages of that range appreciate the use of foreshadowing because it draws them into the story and makes them want to find out what happens next.

Amazon reviewer Nicole writes “Not only that, but in a world presented as straight up sci-fi, you have people with 'magical' abilities that border on fantasy. If you're going to present them like that, explain how they ended up that way; don't just say it's because they live on the moon. I want details. I want to know why they are the way they are and how they're able to hide among normal people and how their abilities don't go unnoticed and why people aren't able to resist when they know people have the ability.

All of this reviewer’s questions are answered in full or at least hinted at in part by various characters, primarily Dr. Erland, throughout the novel.

And one of my favorite types of reviews …

Reviewer Amazon Customer “Krmana” writes “Cinder seemed interesting in the beginning, but her actions grow impulsive and stupid. She goes against the good advice, and makes such a scene multiple times and gets herself in more trouble...it's utterly frustrating. I can't read a book where you can't respect the characters.”

To some extent, Cinder can be seen as a Bildungsroman, or “coming-of-age” story. Cinder’s only memories are of being a cyborg outcast, orphaned by parents she can’t remember in a situation of which she has no recollection. And, she isn’t a regular teenager; she is a cyborg teenager, the legal property of her unloving, cruel stepmother. It only stands to reason that she wants to rebel against a system where she is a second-class citizen, forced to work for a woman who despises her. She is only just starting to understand who and what she really is. She wants to make her own decisions and either succeed or fail on her own, which I think is very respectable.

Yeah, I don't like negative reviews like these, but why do they make me so angry?

Many people “window shop” books by reading customer reviews with questions like: Will I enjoy this? Is it appropriate for my child? How is the writing? Is the female character strong? Reviews like those sampled above give such “window shoppers” an inaccurate view of a text, an entire series, or even the author herself.

Most of the problems negative reviewers find with books are not in fact problems but misunderstandings of the text. Instead of thinking “Maybe I didn’t catch a plot element” or “Perhaps the author did explain why such and such happened and I need to reread this section,” readers get on forums like Amazon’s Customer Reviews and rant and rave over “missing” elements or “stupid” writing in the book. Not only does this method of criticism disregard the copious amount of time the author, her editor, and the various pre-readers who screened the book spent to polish the text, it has the potential to completely skew a reader’s take on the text or even turn a reader off of an entire series or author.

One such potential reader commented on a 1-star review of Cinder:

Thank you so much, I have been wondering what this book was truly about.– Amazon Reviewer McKenna Topps

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1 comment:

Kody Kasper said...

And that is why I stick to good cover art and a summary that grabs me. Good stuff. I look forward to more, :)