Review Philosophy

He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one foot.

Chinese proverb

There are many different types of book reviews, not to mention many different tastes in books, and after reading a lot of reviews on-line, I've found it useful to have some sort of introduction to what the review author is trying to accomplish. It's hard to sum up an overall style, particularly when the reviews are, like mine, largely driven by personal experience, but this is an attempt to tell you what you can, and can't, expect from my reviews. Hopefully it will be helpful.

Review Request Policy

I'm flattered by the occasional mail from authors or publishers who would like me to review their book. However, I have to decline. I have a firm policy of not doing reviews on request.

As discussed below, writing reviews is something I started doing to enrich my personal reading experience, and is strictly a hobby. If I accept requests for reviews, they'll become an obligation and a source of stress, and I'm already prone to volunteering for more than I can actually do. Also, more practically, I already own well over a thousand books that I haven't yet read and want to read enough that I bought them, and I want to find as much time as I can to read that backlog.

I'm happy to hear of books that others think I'd enjoy, and if I agree they may make their way onto my want list, but I can't promise that I'll read them in any timely fashion (or ever make it to them).

Goals

I write reviews primarily for myself. As mentioned in my notes, I started writing reviews as part of a plan to increase the amount of reading I do, and they've proven very useful in keeping track of what I've read, helping me read more carefully and attentively, and guiding choices of future reading. Secondarily, I write reviews for friends and to build up a set of recommendations, and to spark discussion (they're also posted to a private Usenet newsgroup). I hope they're also useful to a more general audience looking for good books.

As I review more books, I hope that I will get better at clearly explaining what I thought was successful and unsuccessful in a book. However, my primary goal is to give my personal opinion, not to write a critical analysis or deconstruction. I don't have either the toolset or the training to do the latter well, nor do I have the time or energy to put that much effort into each review. I've read a lot of books, and (like everyone else) I like to think that I have reasonably good taste, but none of my reviews should be taken as objective truth about books. If you are looking for more critical analysis, I highly recommend reading the many excellent sources of reviews available in print and on the web, such as SF Site or the review columns in SFF magazines like Locus or The New York Review of Science Fiction. These reviewers are much better at writing reviews than I am and do often have the qualifications to make more objective statements about the quality of the work.

I write at least a short review of nearly everything that I read. Given that I don't have a great deal of time to write reviews, and given that I therefore write reviews whether I feel like writing or not, this means that many of them are quick reactions and only touch on a few things that were noticable to me. It also means that my reviews are not by any stretch limited to books that I think are particularly notable or well-written. I read significant and influential books that win awards, and I also read simple comfort books, popcorn series, and even some admitted trash that I happen to like for some reason. I can be as enthusiastic about lightweight romantic SF or disposable fantasy as I am about great works of literature, since I enjoy reading both in various moods, and their placement in near proximity here shouldn't be taken as a judgement on relative merit as great works of culture.

Most of what I read is SFF (science fiction and fantasy — see my comments below on genre), so the majority of reviews will be in that genre. I do occasionally read other fiction and non-fiction, but unless you like SFF, you'll probably be skipping over quite a bit.

Spoilers

I try to avoid spoilers, but spoilers mean very different things to different people. I try to avoid major spoilers while still talking about what I liked or disliked about a book. This means that while I may avoid plot spoilers, my reviews frequently contain conceptual spoilers: speculations on the author's intent, neat twists to the presentation that I enjoyed, or resonances that I noticed. If you enjoy figuring out what the author is trying to do, you may be frustrated and spoiled by my reviews even though I avoid telling you the ending.

In most cases, I try to give a brief plot synopsis, since that's often the best way to encapsulate the subject material of the book. This means that I will tell you things about the plot you didn't know when you started the book. In general, I consider the first third of the book to be fair game for plot synopsis, but try to avoid giving away major reveals even in the first third or much of the plot beyond the setup. I don't always succeed.

Since I try to discuss what I liked and disliked about books and endings are extremely important to me, I will usually talk in general terms about my impression of the ending. I'll try to avoid any specific details, but in some cases you could put two and two together from my reviews and figure out more about the ending in advance than you'd know from a raw read.

When reviewing a series, I try to write reviews that do not spoil the earlier books in the same series. This is a pet peeve of mine that I've seen far too often on other review sites. I'll still give away some general plot trends (and possibly elements such as the continued presence of a particular character in the plot when earlier they may have died), but I do the best that I can without avoiding reviewing later books entirely.

Politics, Culture, and Identity

I'm a white, middle-class liberal from the United States, although fairly left-wing by US standards. That means that I'm writing from a position of privilege in a bunch of ways simultaneously. I try to remember this, and try to watch out for and mention sexism, racism, and other similar problems in books when I see them. But because I'm pretty well soaked in that privilege and have only started paying serious attention to this in the past few years, I miss this sort of thing a lot. I apologize in advance, and will apologize again when I screw up.

I've been reviewing books since 2003 but have only started paying attention to this in the past few years. I've chosen, mostly due to lack of time, to not go back and revise earlier reviews. That means that reviews with earlier dates are much more likely to have a tin ear for social justice issues.

Since I'm from a privileged group in the US, there are bits of politics that I don't even notice that the rest of the world likely finds infuriating. I used to be extremely right-wing before growing out of it, so I have a well-trained ability to read right past typical right-wing propaganda, with a bit of eye-rolling but without getting nearly as offended as the politics probably deserve. This means that I can read authors like Terry Goodkind and mostly ignore the politics where others may throw the books across the room. It's also quite likely that I'll miss political subtleties that don't show up in US politics (I find Ken McLeod occasionally a bit baffling, for instance).

The interaction between politics, culture, identity, books, readers, and reading enjoyment is very complicated and hard to make clear statements about. I think it's possible to like things that have egregious errors despite their flaws, but some things are more forgivable than others. I think the most useful reaction I can have is to recognize and talk about problems even if I enjoyed the work for other reasons, so I try to do that. Like nearly everyone raised in the culture I was raised with the privilege I have, I'm somewhat racist and somewhat sexist. I try to own that, watch out for it, and improve over time.

Ratings

I do rate books. I realize that nearly all serious review sites don't do so, for very good reasons. It's practically impossible to meaningfully reduce the quality of a book to a single number. However, I've also found that when browsing a new review site, I like to see ratings. It gives me an immediate feeling for whether the taste of the reviewer matches my own, it lets me see at a glance the most recommended books, and it lets me pick between reviews of books they liked and reviews of books they didn't. So, I have ratings.

It is vitally important to note that the rating of a book is based solely on how much I personally enjoyed it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the book's literary quality, or even the quality of the writing and story, except insofar as that affected my personal enjoyment. I try to touch on those things in the written review, but they don't make it into the rating. That means that to find out if the book is good in a more objective sense, you have to read the review, see what I liked and didn't, and even better read other reviews of it as well. The rating is only a measure of how much I enjoyed the book, since that's something that I can measure and put a single number to and be confident in the result.

For example, I gave an 8 to both Catherine Asaro's Spherical Harmonic and to Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. The Sparrow is an excellent, well-written book, winning multiple well-deserved awards and dealing with difficult, challenging issues. Spherical Harmonic is the seventh book in Asaro's romantic SF series. It has occasionally choppy writing, isn't always the most original, and doesn't deal with grand themes on the same level. By giving them both the same rating, I by no means intend to suggest that they are equally well-written books, or that they would be near each other if running head-to-head for an award. The Sparrow is, I believe, a far better book objectively. However, I enjoyed reading Spherical Harmonic as the latest installment of a series that I've found fun and entertaining. I'd pick it up happily as light reading. All the rating says is that the amount of pleasure I derived from both books was about equal when I read them.

I rate books from 1 to 10. A 5 indicates that I felt neutral or conflicted about the book after I finished reading it, and anything below a 5 means I thought the book was a waste of my time to a greater or lesser degree. Since I mostly read books I expect to like, most ratings will be between 5 and 10.

Roughly, books I rate 6 I liked but felt were flawed, a 7 is an "average" good book, and books rated 8 or above I'll actively recommend to friends. The distinction between a 9 and a 10 is particularly subjective and may not be very meaningful to anyone other than myself.

I don't assign a rating to books I didn't finish. They will be rated "unfinishable" instead (and marked with a 0 on the index page), unless I stopped reading the book for some reason unrelated to the merits of the book (in which case I just won't review it until I do finish it). To date, there aren't any books in this category.

Genre

I categorize my reviews by genre even though this distinction isn't always useful or interesting. I do this primarily because, as with ratings, I like seeing this when I visit someone else's site. It makes it easier to find a particular work, and sometimes I'm in the mood for a book in a particular genre. Secondarily, I do this because bookstores do this and it can help with finding a book. The classification is inherently arbitrary at some level; sometimes books will be in the "wrong" category. Currently, I only distinguish between SFF and everything else, but if I read more of other genres, I may distinguish further. I don't distinguish between science fiction, fantasy, and horror; while such distinctions are clear for some books, there's too much murkiness in the middle and too many arbitrary decisions required for works such as The Scar.

More usefully, I distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, between graphic novels and other types of fiction, and will distinguish between anthologies and single-author novels or collections. These are very different types of works, and I find it useful to know immediately whether a work is a graphic novel or a prose novel (for example). I currently do not distinguish between novels and single-author story collections in the main index due to the large grey area of mosaic novels, fix-ups, and heavily episodic novels.

Taste

The best summary of my taste is to look at my reviews sorted by rating. The books at the top, I loved; the books at the bottom, I hated. There are enough books listed that this should give you a good feel for my preferences.

I prefer character-driven stories to technology-driven stories, after having read quite a lot of idea stories when I was first getting into SFF, but the ideal is a blend of both. After having read quite a few long fantasy bricks, I've soured on extruded fantasy product, but I still thoroughly enjoy a well-written epic fantasy that does something new.

I find books about unconventional relationships interesting. I also find some degree of BDSM interesting if done well (such as in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series). Don't expect me to dislike books on those accounts, or possibly even notice that it's something other people might not like. Likewise, I have no problems with books containing a fair amount of sex, although I think detailed description gets very boring very quickly. (Most erotica is full of hideously bad writing.)

As mentioned above, most of what I read is science fiction or fantasy. I'm willing to try most other genres, but don't particularly like horror. I must also admit having a fondness for a fairly traditional plot structure, albeit with plenty of twists. Literary puzzles, experimental novels, and highly complex plot structure are mostly lost on me, although I like reading someone else explain them. (For example, I liked Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun well enough, but only understood half of what was going on. My enjoyment of the series greatly increased after reading Solar Labyrinth.)

Commercial Issues

I write book reviews strictly as a hobby and for my own purposes. I'm glad if other people find them useful, but I'm not looking to sell them or make money from them. I have a full-time job that pays me well enough to support my hobbies already. The process of writing for publication is far more stressful and time-consuming than I have available energy; I'm content to put my reviews up on my own site, let Google index them, and let people stumble across them.

For similar reasons, I do not accept review copies. I do have some ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) because someone else who received one from the publisher thought that I'd like to read the book, but I don't promise anything even in such (rare) cases. If I accepted review copies, I'd feel an obligation to read and review the book quickly, and I prefer to pick up whatever book I feel like reading without externally imposed schedules. I also prefer to economically support writing that I like by purchasing books. I buy many of the books I read new, often in hardcover.

I do have links to Powell's Books for each book I review because they're an independent bookseller and I like supporting them and because they're my primary source of cover images. Those links go through an affiliate code which sets a cookie in your browser saying that you came from my site. I only became an affiliate because that was the easiest way to ask them if I could use their cover images. I've only cashed in the affiliate reimbursement to buy more books. If this bothers you at all, please go directly to Powell's Books or another on-line bookseller of your choice rather than following the links in reviews.

Otherwise, my review pages do not attempt to track who you are or what you look at. There are no cookies, web bugs, or other hidden gadgets. I have web server logs that I suppose I could look at, but extracting information from them, to quote David Langford, conflicts with major lifestyle choices like sloth and apathy. Even if you join the mailing list that gets copies of the reviews or otherwise give me contact information, I'm not going to use it for anything other than continuing a conversation you started, nor am I going to keep it for anything other than automated mailing list management.

As with all of my pages, there is not and never will be any advertising other than the link to purchase the book from Powell's, which I hope is both helpful and innocuous. I despise advertising in general and Google AdWords in particular and will never use either if I can help it.

Last modified and spun 2014-09-14