On my review blog we sometimes have what we call a doubleshot, our normal review that is published in the morning (US time) and a review of the same book by another of the site’s reviewers later the same day. It started because there are some “pals” (when the site is called “BigAl’s Books and Pals” it is the obvious term for the other reviewers, right?) who are fans of the same authors and more than one person wanted to review some of the same books. It seemed like a no-brainer since both were going to read the book regardless and I thought it would be silly to turn down content. They were non-controversial, with little disagreement (possibly a 4 star versus a 5 star). Kind of predictable given how they came about. But they were also interesting in comparing the focus of the different reviewers. The readers, reviewers, and authors all liked the feature. Enough so that I started looking for opportunities where I thought a book would be a good fit for this format and propose it as a doubleshot to a pair of reviewers.
That was bound to bring an end to the predictability, and it did. A book was submitted for a potential review that appealed to me. I’ve gotten fairly good at guessing which books are going to appeal to Keith Nixon, one of the pals. When he’s perusing what is available for reviewing, Keith likes thrillers and “crime fiction” if it is spiced with a bit of humor, even better. This looked like the perfect fit, so I asked Keith if he was interested and he agreed to give it a try.
I read the book and wrote my review. Then waited for Keith’s. (I make a point if I’m one of the reviewers doing a doubleshot to have my review in the can before looking at what the other reviewer has to say, for the obvious reasons.) When Keith’s review came in, I found a significant difference in our rating (I gave it 5 stars, Keith gave it 3). So why the difference? Who was right?
As I looked at what Keith had to say and the differences in our two reviews the answer to the second question was obvious. We were both right.
Keith had two major issues with the story, the first was with the two main characters, who (to put words in his mouth) he felt were exaggerated, a bit too over the top for him. The second was that an event that was critical to the overall story (an oil spill on a river) and its aftermath wasn’t believable to him. I had no problem understanding Keith’s concerns and although my reaction to the story was different, I thought his take was also legitimate.
Another pal, Pete Barber, and I discussed some of our respective theories for the different reactions in the comments. One of Pete’s ideas was a difference in the genres we typically read. My initial inclination was this was dead wrong. Keith and I both read a lot of books in a wide range of genres, with this book falling in the genre neighborhood that is a favorite for each of us although lately I’ve read more thrillers than crime fiction, which I think sometimes requires a reader to go further in suspending disbelief. So possibly a larger dose of thrillers has made me more willing to suspend disbelief in borderline situations. I also took the over-the-top aspects of the characters as being a satire on the hard-boiled detective. I’ve found that I’m much more willing, if I perceive something as satire or farce, to put on my blinders and take a lot more on faith than I typically would. I think that, along with my attention focusing on the more literary aspects of the story (another theory Pete proposed) probably accounted for most of the differences in how we felt about the story.
Next up was a doubleshot with Pete and I as the reviewers. The book in question won a publishing contract in a literary contest twenty seven years ago and then more or less died at publication for reasons having little to do with the book. The author had arranged for the rights to revert and republished it himself. This book was billed as like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (although pre-dating it by several years) except more literary. I guess you could call it a historical literary thriller. Once again, there was a significant difference in our ratings. I gave it 4 stars, Pete gave it 2. And, as with Keith’s, I thought Pete’s review was also a valid take on the book.
Despite the difference in rating, we both mentioned the slow, meandering start. To me, this was more an issue of genre convention (the literary fiction part). I pointed it out to warn off readers who wouldn’t be a good fit due to this. Anyone expecting a pure thriller would be put off the book well before anything thrilling kicked in, as Pete was. I also said the plot stretched my ability to suspend disbelief to its limit while it went well beyond what Pete was able to go along with.
As an author, you’d probably rather receive reviews like those I gave these books and skip those like Keith’s or Pete’s. I understand why, but I think it is in your best interest to have a mix. The value of reviews for those readers who use them are to find the books which are the best fit for their tastes. After reading either set of reviews, those readers who find they often can’t suspend disbelief would be dissuaded from reading either of these books. Those readers who gravitate to or at least appreciate a literary writing style (something I was surprised to discover about myself in this exercise) and who know they’re more willing to go along with the author’s vision even when it conflicts with their real world experiences would do well to read either of these books. The multiple viewpoints, both positive and negative, make it easier for the right reader to find the book that is right for them. It makes it easier for the readers in your target audience to realize this book is one they want to read while convincing others to move on. Without reviews telling potential readers not only what they might like about your book, but also what they might not, many readers aren’t willing to take a chance.