Whatever curious and interesting subject strikes my fancy, be it silly or serious, gets posted for your reading pleasure.

Monday, 18 April 2016

How to Write a HELPFUL ‘Bad’ Book Review

In a previous blog post, Do You Know You Have a Superpower? I nagged everyone about the importance of taking the time to write a good book review if you liked a book as reviews help an author immensely, however, I  left you all hanging with the promise of how to write something quite different ~ the ‘Good’ Bad Book Review.

So, now I’m keeping my promise and won’t leave you hanging any longer. 

To recap, good reviews are important, and we authors really appreciate them, but then, what if you the reader didn’t like a book?

First off, I’ll remind everyone that pumping out a lot of bad reviews is not a good thing to do. 

If you write a lot of bad reviews, your public profile on whatever site you like to post your reviews will end up looking awful and cast YOU in a bad light...you will come across as a sourpuss troll who doesn’t like anything and will find fault with everything.  It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like to post anything below a three star review, and very few three-star reviews at that. 

As I said before, you can kill a book faster by your silence than by writing a bad review.

So if you want to spare someone else from wasting their hard earned cash on what you think is a bad book, just don’t say anything about it.  Bad reviews can backfire and actually make people curious about why the book is sooooo bad, and they end up buying the thing anyway, which is what you trying to save them from in the first place.

Okay, from that angle a few bad reviews might help an author too, but frankly, if you can’t say something nice, write something helpful along with your grumblings ~ go for a three star thing.

This is how you can save yourself from looking like a meanie sourpuss online, help people discover if it is still a book they want, and help an author discover their weaknesses, while yet helping to promote their book without destroying their work entirely. Notice the keyword? HELP.

  Yes, it still helps!

Just give it three stars, (don’t go under that amount) and write a ‘middling review’, or to look at it in a more positive light ~ a ‘helpful’ bad book review.  In that way, it ends up being a good review despite whatever flaws you saw in it, and doesn’t burn the book entirely.

How do you do that?

1)      Describe the book, plus what you didn’t like, (no plot spoilers please), then...

2)      DO include things that still may reading it worthwhile, even if it wasn’t quite what you were looking for. Find some of the silver lining and include it in your review.

I’ll give an example of a ‘Middling’ 3 star review I wrote.

Way back in college, I had to read a few of books on Medieval and Early Modern history during an introduction course on Medieval music, just to get a feel for the period.  One book on the list which we the students were encouraged to read was what was described on the back cover as “lively” and accessible, and is ‘used as an introduction’ to the period: “Europe in theFourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries” by Denys Hay.

Hmm, I didn’t find it that ‘lively’, and ‘accessible’ to a beginner studying the period, so how could it be such a ‘great introduction’ as the back cover promised?  In fact, it felt like it was geared towards those who were already very familiar with the era.

Well, here is my ‘middling’ review on it, so you get the idea:


“As the title suggests, it is a general overview of the late medieval period of Europe, and according to the back cover, has become the standard introduction to that era in universities and colleges. My sympathies to all future history 101 students who are assigned this book in their reading lists. Yes, it is packed with information, but it is dished out in such a general form that after wading through the text from cover to cover, you feel no wiser than before, even for a general introduction, it simply fails to engage the reader ala Froissart. Perhaps the author tried to fit too much data into a little space, and the chapters are rather short. However, it is useful for searching out informative quotations and factoids for term papers and other research projects. It is more helpful if used simply as an encyclopaedic reference book, for instance, looking up different sections on conditions of trade, religious practises and the church councils, conditions of travel, the arts and culture, the ravages and outcomes of battles, the various successions to the royal thrones of Europe, etc, rather than expect it to be an attention-grabbing read. Several interesting general genealogical tables are included in the appendix, i.e. for the English Royal family, the rulers of Portugal, Castile, Aragon and Navarre, Poland Hungary and Bohemia, the rulers of Naples and Milan, the Medicis, the Scandinavian kingdoms, the German and Holy Roman Emperors, and also the Palaeologi and Ottoman rulers from this period. There are also several maps displaying the political layout of Europe in those times, and an index. I would recommend it as a reference book to thumb through when needed, but that is all.”


Now, you see what I didn’t like about the book, BUT, you should also see that I pointed out what else the book contained and might prove helpful to someone for whatever research they need to do.   In fact, there is a lot of information in the book.  In that sense, my middle-of-the-road grumblings become a ‘helpful’ review.

In fact, as I write this, that review on Amazon still has five thumbs up and no thumbs down yet from customers who found my review ‘helpful’, which is the whole point.  Perhaps they might agree with my opinion, and not buy the book, OR, they may see the description I wrote and think, “Hey, this book still has what I need.” 

So, it’s a winner all around: I get what I didn’t like off my chest while not ripping that book to shreds, (a lot of research and work went into after all), and the review proves helpful to someone else by still showing it’s a book that THEY might like even if I personally didn’t find it all it was cracked up to be.

Now, I must warn you, there is a downside  to writing these ‘Middle Star’ reviews, which is a reason why I don’t write many of them just like I don’t write all-out bad reviews: people sometimes don’t see the good points you’ve written, and just seem to focus on the ‘bad’ stuff and think you are still dissing the book outright, when in fact, you aren’t.  They think you’re a meanie!  

The only reason why I’ve ever done two of these middling reviews at all is to show I’m not giving a ‘happy clappy’ four or five star rating on everything I review without due deliberation.  I review books I like, but will give a so-so review every now and again too, which should show people if they look at my public profile I actually think about what I'm writing before I post a review ~ they ARE getting my honest opinion.

However, like I said, people still take the three star thing the wrong way.  I discovered one comment on Amazon from a user named “Mike DePUe, OFS” that said:

“It is worth noting that Eamon Duffy (Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes; Third Edition (Yale Nota Bene), p. 436), finds this book "invaluable."”

Well, I just left a comment with that:

“Hi! Well, it is invaluable depending on the reader I guess! For facts and figures, statistics, yes, it is very useful, which I did point out. I just found the way the history was present a bit 'dry': as I wrote in the review, I was hoping for a book along the lines of Froissart's chronicles, something which made you feel as if you were transported back then, something that would help me to get a 'flavour' of the cultures, the customs, how people really thought...it depends what you're looking for in a book. :-)”

Yet this didn’t satisfy someone else who saw my review, for another comment popped up from a user called “Santosh”:

“This isn't a very good review at all; it merely states the book does not conform to what the reviewer wanted in a book. Then why did you buy it? Didn't you have any idea what it contained?” 

You gotta be kidding me.

Okay, this testy observation from Santosh was a bit much considering they had only written two reviews on Amazon to date, and not positive ones at that, a one star and a two star review.  Maybe I should have left it alone, but of course, I had to comment:


(Me:) “That's odd ~ five of five people so far found the review 'helpful', so if the review explains exactly what is in the book to help other readers make an informed purchase, (whether or not the book was what I was looking for), it is a 'good' review in that sense.

Yes, I had an idea it would be about Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries as the title suggested, (I can read after all), but was disappointed the material was so 'dry' and not 'lively' as it is described on the back cover.

At least, I didn't think so. It is not engaging like Froissart's contemporary chronicles of the Middle Ages, or as another modern-day example concerning Elizabethan England, "The World of Christopher Marlowe" by David Riggs.

Is "Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries" informative? Yes. Useful? Yes.
Dry and hard to wade through from cover to cover? Yes. You get buried under facts and information. Great for essays and fact-checking. I found it helpful in one or two areas. Does it help keep you *interested* in the period because of said 'dryness'? No, not for me.

One big problem I found: too much important history was generalised into many short chapters, when whole books would be needed to delve into those topics, volumes in fact! Not just a chapter. Perhaps the book is *too* general and the author fit too much in. Two centuries of European history squashed into 450 or so pages? Ambitious.

That's why I give it a middle star rating. If I outright hated the thing, I would have given it one star, but I rarely hate a book! So, in this case, I just stated my opinion, while people can judge from it whether this book is something they can use or not.

(I can't help but think that if anyone actually *reads* my review, they would see all this already.)

Useful review = good review, despite the star rating.”


There ended my comment.  Well, rising to the bait of a troll wasn’t a complete waste of time in this instance, it did allow me to explain again why I disliked the book plus gave me an opportunity to say good things about the book again.

In all, I think you get the point.  It’s possible to write a three star review so you can mention the few things that bugged you about it, but not trash a book entirely so you can still help an author.   

However, do so at your own risk: you may get reactions from people who can’t seem to *read* what you are actually saying, but if you like to get into bookish debates, go for it! 

You heard the President!

Write a GOOD book review!  And if you simply can't, try to keep your review to a 3 Star and find some good points to say about it.


"Boccalini in his 'Adertisements from Parnassus' tells us that Zoilus once presented Apollo a very caustic criticism upon a very admirable book, whereupon the god asked him for the beauties of the work.  He replied that he had only busied himself about the errors. On hearing this, Apollo, handing him a sack of unwinnowed wheat, bade him to pick out all the chaff for his reward." ~ Edgar Allan Poe

Don't be like Zoilus! Find the wheat!


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