Sunday, February 19, 2017

Ah, the All-Powerful and Omniscient Book Reviews…

Different publications review different types of books and they allow different types of conversations. For example, Booklist will not publish negative reviews, while, as you have all seen, Kirkus has no problems with it. Ebook only books, which are increasingly popular (especially in the romance genre) see little to no reviews in professional publications unless they have a big name author, and then still it's usually only RT Reviews (formally Romantic Times) or other genre heavy publications. How does this affect collection development?

In my library we subscribe only to Kirkus.  When I first began my current position I had no library education, so I only knew what I was shown.  Because of this, I only bought books that were reviewed by Kirkus, mistakenly believing this to be the “best” of what’s out there.  After all, if there were other good reviews and sources, wouldn’t my library be subscribing to them and encouraging me to use them?  Wrong. 
As I visited other libraries at roundtables, read YALSA, ALA, and other library journals and blogs, I discovered a whole wealth of reviews and collection development tools.  Without those we were a “Kirkus outlet”, not a library!  Now we’re much more diverse and are continually looking for quality sources to help find the great books/ebooks/movies/audios that our patrons (our neighbors) want.  (I really like VOYA and EpicReads as well as some off the wall teen blogs.)
BTW, I noticed a year or so ago, that Kirkus knocked points off reviews for lack of “diversity”.  What?!  Could they please just review the merits of the story and not add political correctness?  I (and my patrons) want to know if it’s a great story – I, as a librarian extraordinaire, can find additional materials to ensure that we have a diverse and inclusive collection.  If they’re knocking a book for lack of whatever group is currently “in”, I have a much harder time determining if the story itself is a good fit for my patrons.  As an example, High School Runner by Bill Kenley is a book about a freshman boy on a track team in small town Indiana.  Since my library is in a similar small Indiana town where high school sports are vitally important to the community, this book is likely to resonate with my teen users even though it has no “diverse” characters.  Instead, it reflects its setting, which is very realistic – most small farm towns are fairly homogenous in demographic.  Of course, I balance the collection out with authors like David Levithan, Matt de la Pena, Rainbow Rowell, Libba Bray, and Jandy Nelson and many others.  C’mon, Kirkus, give me a straight up review!

I have posted two more documents in the week five files. One is two reviews of an ebook only romantic suspense novel, one from a blog and one from amazon. Look over the reviews - do you feel they are both reliable? How likely would you be to buy this book for your library? Is this ebook even romantic suspense?

Ebooks and Me: A love/hate story

I must confess.  I’m completely in love with my Kindle.  If I could only rescue 1 thing from my burning house, it would be my Kindle.  (Ok, after all my sentimental stuff, but you get what I mean.)  I’ve gotten so spoiled, I had to read a regular book not long ago and holding the pages open was annoying, lol.  And when it was time to go to sleep, I had to, ergh, find a bookmark!  I dog-eared, sshh… 
But – so many ebooks are self-published, full of errors, and poorly written.  They’re awful.  It seems that anyone with a computer can throw a book out there, get a few friends/family to write nice comments on Amazon, and poof, they’re authors.  I have frequently purchased books for myself that turned out to be boring, typo-riddled, mistakes.  Ebook only reviews to the rescue! 
Ebook reviews are super helpful in winnowing out the best books that our patrons can actually read and enjoy. A helpful feature is the note regarding formats so we don’t end up with a collection that is heavily weighted toward only Adobe readers and leaves out mp3 and Kindle readers and vice versa.  In addition, some books are very graphics heavy and won’t read well on a regular ereader, but will look great on a tablet or laptop.  Those technical issues are not addressed in a normal review, but are generally noted in ebook reviews.  As an example, most manga, graphic novels, children’s picture books, or books with a lot of charts and graphs, are very difficult (if not impossible) to view correctly on a plain Kindle.  A reader needs a tablet to view these.  Knowing which books are worth purchasing, and what technological constraints to be aware of, make ebook reviews absolutely essential for me, whether the book is available in print format or is ebook only. 

The other document contains some reviews of Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt, an incredibly popular memoir. These reviews are all from professional publications, feel free to find more on your own I just nabbed a few from the Book Review Digest database for you. How do these reviews make you feel about the possibility of adding Angela's Ashes to your collection?

We actually have Angela’s Ashes at my library already, but honestly I had never looked at it because of the depressing title.  I thought it would be another horribly depressing story of hardship-survival-hope which is deeply moving, but emotionally draining. After reading these reviews, I have a different perspective and find myself intrigued.  The Booklist and SLJ reviews, in particular, drew me in with their focus on the humor and love in the story, rather than focusing on the misery.  They made me feel a bit of the Irish humor and the spirit of the author.  It sounds a little like a man in my community who tells of his upbringing by a grandfather during the Depression; his parents were either AWOL or jailed, and he often had nothing to eat but lard sandwiches and hickory nuts that he and his friends scavenged for in the local woods.  He tells these stories with great humor and doesn’t feel sorry for himself in the least, but instead says that’s just the way it was in those days.  He, like McCourt, is a man of great love, humor, and storytelling.  Dang it, I think I just added another book to my “must-read-soon” list…
Reading these various reviews back-to-back was really telling.  Kirkus focused on the misery, only mentioning love and humor in the very last sentence.  It seems the reviewer really wanted to focus on the profound, deep, meaning underlying the story.  Library Journal read almost like an encyclopedia entry; like Kirkus it focused on “the burdens of grief and starvation”.  Booklist, in contrast, gives us a glimpse of the spirit of the family with Italy upstairs and Ireland downstairs – what a fun way to make a bad situation manageable.  It doesn’t overlook the poverty and neglect, but focuses instead on the humor and love, and gives us a glimpse of the writing.  School Library Journal really brings out the humor aspect, describing the book as “funny and uplifting” with a story about trying on the parents’ false teeth.  If I read only the Kirkus review, I would be expecting something like A Child Called It, but the SLJ review makes me think more of A Girl Named Zippy only deeper. 

Do you think it's fair that one type of book is reviewed to death and other types of books get little to no coverage? How does this affect a library's collection?  And how do you feel about review sources that won't print negative content? Do you think that's appropriate? If you buy for your library, how often do you use reviews to make your decisions? If not, how do you feel about reviews for personal reading, and what are some of your favorite review sources?

I think that as ebooks become more and more popular, they’ll get more coverage and enter the mainstream.  They’ll also get more coverage as they become more professional, with copy editing, layouts, and so on (technology development is helping with new home publishing software and templates).  Along with audio books, many are superbly created productions with full sound and video effects.  These are beginning to get more attention.  We, as librarians, can help push the demand for good reviewing as we seek to find the gems for our collections and our patrons by sharing our blogs and tips with each other. 
I appreciate reviews that include negative content, since that helps me focus in on the strengths and weaknesses of a book.  We all know that a particular reviewer may find something offensive that is a non-issue for someone else, but I find it very helpful to know when a book has stereotyped characters, confusing or contrived plots, and so on.  That may not mean that I won’t buy it, but will help me in steering it toward readers that like similar books.  For example, I have a whole group of teen girls that totally love shallow, paranormal love stories.  They want that certain type of heroine and that certain formula of plot.  Think of Harlequin readers – these books are pretty much all the same, and that’s what they want (loved ‘em when I was a teen) – not great literature, but you need these in your collection.  A good review, in my opinion, gives the pros AND cons of a book so that you, the expert on your collection and your patrons, can make a really informed choice.  We don’t have time to read every book out there (a dream), so we HAVE to rely on reviews.  We don’t need book cheerleaders – we need book reviewers.

For my personal reading, I like Goodreads and I particularly love to read the negative reviews.  Some of them are truly creative and funny, and they often intrigue me enough to read the book that they hated.  Sometimes it seems that the thing a person disliked about a book is that same thing that draws me to it – weird.    

1 comment:

  1. Great, well thought out response. I really liked the "we don't need book cheerleaders - we need book reviewers. Posted late so there is a slight deduction.