3-Star Reviews and Why They’re Not a Bad Thing

First, let’s get one thing straight:  A 3-star (or -heart) review isn’t a bad thing.  Amazon may call it the beginning of the “negative” reviews, but it’s really not.  A 3-star review is exactly whatever it says in the review.  For me, a 3-star review may mean many things.  It may mean that the book didn’t grab me, but I saw its merits; it may means that I saw too many minor faults and didn’t love it enough to overcome those faults; it may mean I was conflicted about the book (see Gone Girl); or it may mean it was just a “meh” book.  For me.  And when I review, rather than just rate, I explain why it didn’t work for me.  Of course, when I review 4- or 5-star books, I may go off on the things that didn’t work for me too, even though I overall enjoyed the book.  And in 2-star reviews (I rarely give 1 stars), I may explain a good thing or two (usually what got me to pick up the book in the first place).

Here’s my rating system, by the way (YMMV):

  • 5 stars: OMG, I love it!  I’ll probably read it again next year.  I may have some nitpicks.
  • 4 stars: I enjoyed this a lot, though I probably have some nitpicks. If the sequel’s out now, I’ll probably get it, but I might not be as enthusiastic about it in a year
  • 3 stars: It was okay.  I can see why others might love it.  I almost certainly have some thoughts about what does and doesn’t work for me
  • 2 stars: I had way too many problems to overcome with the few good things about the book.
  • 1 star: Wow, I really disliked this book.  How did I manage to finish it?  (It must have been short or a book I read for review)

I also use half stars in my review, and I’m inconsistent about whether the half will round up or down, but I have a feeling about “low” half stars and “high” half stars, and explain which in my reviews.  My average rating on Goodreads is 3.98, and I reread a lot of my 5-star books during the course of the year, and rarely get into books I would have rated 1 star enough to rate it.

Of course, every reviewer is different, and for some, 3 stars may be a negative review.  I think authors see 3 stars as negative all the time.  But it’s not.

3 stars is the middle.  It’s average.  Not everyone is going to love every book, so average is a pretty good expectation as an author, and we can celebrate anything above that and cry over anything lower than that.

And that’s why you, as an author, want 3-star reviews.  Readers expect to see some people rate a book average.  They may expect to see some people rate a book below average too.  If I go to Amazon and only see 5-star ratings on a book, I steer clear of that book because I assume that every review was written by the author’s friends (an exception is if there is a very small number of reviews, like 1 to 3, because the book just came out).  Worse still, if I see that all the 5-star ratings are “rated up,” and the 3-or-lower-star ratings are “rated down.”  At that point, I assume that the author or the author’s friends are having a hissy fit about “negative” reviews and making sure that they are buried below their 5-star reviews.

This is what I saw for a book I reviewed on Amazon recently.  (I’m not naming names, but I’ll admit right here that I wouldn’t be surprised if you could figure out which book.)

Call me neurotic, but I occasionally check in to books that I’ve had some critical thoughts about to see what other reviewers are saying.  It fascinates me, for example, that one book that I read and reviewed about a year ago with a detailed 2-star review continuously gets high ratings, but that many readers have voted my review as the most helpful by a wide margin even though it disagrees with the others.  So I checked in with this new book to see what the most recent reviewers said and was surprised to see that I had an unhelpful vote.  Okay, while I take “helpful” literally and would never rate a well-though-out review as “unhelpful” myself, to each his own.  Maybe the reader thought I had said something that was so wildly incorrect that my review would then be unhelpful.  I’m not going to complain about a deviation from my interpretation of what is “helpful.”

And then I looked at the other 3-star reviews.  Each of them had been voted unhelpful by at least one person (and eventually as helpful by me), and both were written intelligently.  There were 24 reviews, and three were 3-star, and nobody had rated it below 3.  But every 4- or 5-star review had at least one helpful vote, and all three 3-stars had at least one unhelpful vote.  This made me look further into those 5-star reviews (which I wouldn’t have done if not for the situation).  Big surprise, many of them had only reviewed this single book, which lends each of those reviews to suspicion.  And then I found that the author herself had given a 5-star review, speaking about herself in the third person with glowing language about her own writing.   Now that is an unhelpful review. (I reported it to Amazon, and it was since removed, but the identical review on Goodreads, under another name, still remains)

But this post isn’t about an author behaving badly, and I have no intention of crucifying her (nor am I looking for people to rate her book poorly or up-vote my review; please don’t, unless the review is truly helpful to you or you truly believe the book, not the author, deserves it.).  This is about why those 3-star (or even 2- and 1-star) reviews are important to books without many reviews, particularly the ones that are either self-published or published by a small house.  The fact is that they lend legitimacy to your reviews.  If all you have are 5-star reviews, discerning readers are going to look deeper into those 5-star reviews with great suspicion.  It’s pretty easy to tell when all your reviews are by people you know.  Plenty of readers I know won’t even look at 5-star or 1-star reviews.  They want the 2-, 3-, and 4-star reviews because those will tell them what they really want to know, and are almost certainly a real opinion.

And seriously, folks, 3 stars is a decent rating.  Don’t get worked up over them.

Lots of love,
Sage

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Review: CHASING RAVENS by Jessica E. Paige

I really wanted to call this Chasing Raisins, which almost makes as much sense as the actual title.  Anyway here’s another review, thanks to the good people at NetGalley who got me a copy of this book.  One day I will post other things, like my thoughts on Glee or the difference in watching the Hobbit 3 in 24 fps vs. 48 fps.  Nah, nobody wants me to write about those things.  Okay, fine, you can have a review instead.

CHASING RAVENS does not lack for imagination, but unfortunately it takes half the book before the story truly shows off that imagination. The first 40% or so is merely set-up leading to the curse that Anouk sets off to vanquish. The first two chapters could have easily been combined into one source of Anouk’s history. In fact, I have no idea why we spend so long with her uncle’s family at all, when the betrothal that causes her to run away could have easily come from her original village, thus letting us skip at least a fourth of that set-up. Sometimes a long set-up is necessary, but I didn’t feel it was here. In this case it was fairly repetitive. Here’s Anouk’s life in village 1 with her dad and grandma. Here’s Anouk’s life in village 2 with her uncle’s family. And here’s Anouk’s life in village 3, which she cares enough to fight about. It also could give us time to really feel for the main character or feel the deep sense of need behind her quest. And that’s what this should have been.

Unfortunately, I found Anouk too hard to connect to. Some of this was the writing. A lot of telling and filtering kept me from feeling what Anouk was feeling. It kept me from feeling like I was right there with Anouk, gathering herbs, riding her mare, making connections with people. When we are told that she has fallen in love, we accept it because the guy is logically the one she should fall for. The only other two potential candidates were 1) a guy the book abandoned about 20% in with no real connection between the two and 2) the guy who creates the need for the quest. In the latter’s case, any feelings Anouk has for him, again, are told to us rather than felt by us, and the scene where he attempts to kiss Anouk seems to be there simply to make the reader not trust him, since Anouk seems barely affected by it (even how it might affect her friendship with her best friend, the girl who he’s been courting). It is only in the last moments of being together and in the epilogue that Anouk seems to have anything resembling romantic feelings with the guy she has supposedly fallen in love with.

The disconnect with Anouk also makes it hard to care for much of the cast she comes into contact with in the last village. For example, Anouk mentions how much she likes a certain character and I realize that I have no idea who this character is beyond what she just said about him, nor whether we met him before. Being told about much of the village with only a few real interactions makes it hard to recall any of the names beyond those few. When someone from the village dies, I had no clue what his connection to Anouk actually was.

Once the action begins, about halfway in, the book is a lot more riveting. Anouk meets many fantastical beings and plants in the Dark Woods, and we ride along with her at a fairly quick pace. I did feel that she had a bit too much “help” once she got in. It wasn’t so much “Find the next plot coupon” as “Find the next character coupon.” But there were plenty of things she did herself, and that made the quest satisfying enough.

The title “Chasing Ravens,” is a little misleading, as the ravens, while a source of conflict, weren’t focused on as much as other things, and she wasn’t doing anything resembling chasing them.

I enjoyed the real-life environmental issues, like the problem of overhunting (What I really liked about that was that several times it was mentioned that more hunters should go out as a positive thing, before we were presented with the real-world concern of overhunting) and that the curse caused by the ravens was basically mold.

One final note, the distance created in the storytelling makes the story feel much younger than the main character’s age would suggest it is. By her age, this should be YA, but the storytelling is not YA at all.

Recommended for fans of: fantasy; Russian setting; distant storytelling; herb magic; archery; horses; slooooow beginnings; fantasy problems based in real science; mechanical romance; trolls; woodsmen

Lots of love,
Sage

Review: SEEKER by Arwen Elys Dayton

Herein lies my longest book review ever.  I had so much to say about this book that you may be surprised by its rating, but perhaps not if you’ve read my THE SELECTION review (a lot of people actually have).  I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.   This review dives into more of the story than the first third that’s covered in the book’s description on Goodreads or Amazon. So if you don’t want to know more than 35% of this book, stop reading the review at “STRUCTURE” and skip to the “OVERALL” It would be impossible for me to fairly review this book without going into parts 2 and 3, because each part is so different. However, I don’t feel like anything I mention is particularly “plot twisty,” if you know what I mean.

I’m giving this book 3.5 stars, but rounding up to four.  The main reason for the high rating was that I found it much of it very engaging, despite the problems I had with it, and in the end, that’s what’s most important to me when rating a book.  I liked the MCs (caveat to come). Quin’s unwavering faith in becoming a Seeker in the first third of the book was a beautiful contrast to John’s desire to become a Seeker with knowledge (hinted at, as it was) that her faith is misplaced. Shinobu wasn’t as developed in that first third, which I think was a shame because he gets more and more focus as the book continues, and I wish we could see his character arc—the best of the three—more thoroughly from the beginning. Maud’s POV was late coming into that first third, and at first it surprised me to see her there, but from beginning to end, I was drawn into her POV. And yet, I will probably not talk about her much in this review because most of the action is around the other three.

SEEKER is quite an interesting book, in many ways unlike others of “its” genre. If I had to pick a genre, it would be fantasy, although the “dear reader” note at the beginning of the galley claims that the story transcends genre. There’s some futuristic science in there that could be seen as sci-fi (mainly in the form of an airship and weaponry), but I would call this primarily fantasy. The time period was a little confusing—I got mixed signals, thinking it was in the future at some point early on, then maybe an alternate now later. We could just call it sci-fantasy or speculative fiction. To me, it doesn’t matter, but some people like a well-defined genre, so here’s a paragraph for you about that.

So far, I have only addressed the first 35% of the book, which consists of the first Part. One more thing to mention about this section is that there’s a lot of withholding of information in here. Skipping scenes and “I don’t want to talk about it or even think about it” types of withholding of information, as well as a character vaguely thinking about hints from his past. If this is the sort of thing that you can’t stand, don’t bother picking up this book.

Some details about this book:

STRUCTURE: This book is the most oddly structured book I’ve ever read. There were three parts plus an “interlude,” which I am keeping separate in my part count because the book does too. The first Part is what’s in the book’s description. Quin, Shinobu, and John try to become Seekers, told that they will basically be superheroes. John doesn’t pass his tests—which seems a little weird at the time, but is understandable in retrospect—so he’s kicked out and Quin & Shinobu—the two who had always believed the superhero line—go through the ritual and find out that they were wrong about what a Seeker does. But they’re stuck in the role now. John’s obsessed with becoming a Seeker, and getting the athame (which is a special knife, like on the cover), so after he’s kicked out, he comes back, this time with hired guns to help him get the athame. Quin and Shinobu use his actions as an excuse to escape that life.

We go to the interlude. It’s a short section of memories, mostly John’s, but also Maud and Quin and Shinobu’s are in there too. It mostly shows us what John’s been hinting at from his past and gives us a good bead on on his motivation. Maud’s is very good, and I’m not sure the chapter about Quin and Shinobu is needed. What’s strangest about this section is that it is not the only place where we spend full chapters in the past. It’s not even the first place in the book with flashbacks, because both John and Quin tell us about their feelings when they first met (John’s memory in more flashback-y form than Quin’s). So when we later get a Maud chapter set in the past with no indication that it’s set before the events of the book, it’s very disorienting and calls into question as to why have this “interlude” at all.

And perhaps it’s so that we can feel like we’ve spent some time before Part 2, which jumps to 18 months after Part 1. Okay, that’s a reasonable excuse. However, what really struck me as I went into Part 2 was that I felt like I was going into the second book in a trilogy. What often happens in book 2 in a trilogy is that there’s some sort of time jump and a huge change in the role of MC(s) and the reader is completely disoriented, and likely disappointed after book 1. That’s exactly what Part 2 feels like. Quin has no memories and Shinobu hides himself in drugs, and only John actually drives the story that we started reading. Another weird thing about Part 2 is that for *absolutely no reason* the first chapter is from the point of view of a harbor. Well, that’s how the chapter is labeled, but it’s actually a random omniscient POV (the harbor cannot actually know all the information given in the chapter). But nothing nothing nothing in the chapter is necessary. Everything in this chapter is shown or told to us in past or future chapters. In the end, Part 2 kinda feels like the filler between the beginning and the climax (ha, just like most book 2s in trilogies). It ends about the time Quin gets her memories back and Shinobu gets over his “worthlessness.”

Part 3 is exactly what you expect it to be. The book is back on track and we go into the nice big showdown that we’ve been waiting for.

CHARACTER ARCS: I started out liking Quin and John, and feeling like we didn’t really know Shinobu or Maud (whose POV came in late). Quin’s wide-eyed faith in what she was doing, followed by her reaction to finding out what it truly meant to be a Seeker was easy to identify with (although the latter would be easier to identify with if we actually knew what happened as a Seeker at that point). She was tough and focused and easy to root for. But in Part 2, she has no memories and turns into a frustratingly different person. Perhaps what makes it even more frustrating is that she sometimes acts like she remembers what she doesn’t remember and like she’s trying to atone for this thing that her memories were erased over. If the atonement was so important to her character during this time, I would have rather seen her in her healer role trying to make up for her past, rather than germ-phobic, repressing-anything-weird-that-happens Quin (because really that was all the personality she got during this time period). When she gets her memories back (which was kinda an iffy point of time because she sort of goes back and forth on this), she basically returns to her original character, so I’m not sure she gets any growth at all.

John’s motivations and character are clear throughout the book, but sadly he doesn’t learn from anything he does in it. At the beginning, he is easy to root for. His family’s been wronged, and he believes in what he is doing to right that wrong. In Part 2, he drives the story, since Quin and Shinobu want nothing to do with the whole Seeker business. In Part 3, he continues with the exact same tactics that he’s failed at using over and over again. One thing that I noticed is that every time he picks up a weapon or hires someone to “only threaten” with a weapon, it ends up being used. So when he takes up a weapon that terrifies him in the third part, you want to yell at him for his stupidity at trying this “threatening only” thing yet again. He also fails to realize that the only way to get sympathy for his cause is to talk to the others involved (particularly to the girl he loves, who he keeps trying to convince through force), and continuously holds back the information that might have convinced her to help him. In many ways, he is an antagonist (although there are 2 villainous figures in the book) and even a villain to Quin and Shinobu, and yet we understand where he’s coming from, even when we’re angry at him for not learning from his own failures. But there’s also something comforting about that consistency, and knowing that the emotions that keep him from being trained into an effective Seeker (particularly anger and fear) are the same ones that he shows near the end and that make his reasonable motivations turn into villainous actions.

And then there’s Shinobu. Shinobu has the best character arc of the trio, actually growing and changing throughout the book. Sadly, we don’t get a good feel for him before he becomes a Seeker, so let’s just assume he’s as full of faith as Quin is at the beginning (and in fact we’re told this is true). Really, what we see most at the beginning is that he’s jealous of John’s relationship with Quin. After he feels betrayed by his and Quin’s fathers for their lying about what Seekers do, he makes some bad decisions that haunt him even more than what they did as Seekers. He dives into a world of dare-deviling and of drugs and hides from the people he loves to avoid thinking about all that. And he says that he’s become “worthless,” and I have to admit that I sort of think of him and Quin that way during this time period. But unlike Quin, at least he’s actively doing things during this time. And even though I’m not big on the whole drug-using character thing, I find his POV during this time a lot more engaging than Quin’s was. And so when he gets past it and moves into the climax with his new perspective and shiny superhero aura (yeah), it does feel like a triumph and a successful character arc, and I really really like Shinobu in the third part…only I feel like he didn’t exactly earn that right, due to the way his “redemption” came about.

LOVE TRIANGLE: The triangle is another structural problem with the book. For the first part, the romance is strong between John and Quin, while Shinobu pouts off in the distance. In part 2, the John-Quin romance is so strong that it is the first thing that Quin remembers through her memory loss, while she doesn’t remember Shinobu at all. So it is quite surprising when Shinobu becomes a viable love interest in the third part. People may complain about the whole third cousin thing, but it’s really not that big a deal (especially since they’re not really third cousins) and the book is clear early on that within Seekers’ families there is a lot of intermarrying. If you can deal with it in the worlds of Harry Potter and Jane Austen, you can deal with it here. I like a decent love triangle, and I don’t even think that this one was unnecessary, but Quin goes from 0 to 60 with Shinobu, and it all happens while they’re preparing for battle, so it’s not only jarring but feels a little out of place. And I was initially hoping for Quin and Shinobu, even though the entire Part 1 makes that seem as likely as Xander breaking up Buffy and Angel (there is it, the obligatory Buffy reference 😉 ), despite the fact that Shinobu is described as looking like a Scottish-Asian model. From Shinobu’s POV, this is a huge triumph, again, but from Quin’s POV, her mind constantly being occupied by how maybe she wants Shinobu while they’re preparing for and in battle is out of place. Even Shinobu doesn’t think this way (and he’s the one who should be celebrating) during the climax except in the waiting moments. Quin can’t stop thinking about him or John while she’s battling. Her faith in John while he continuously gets her hurt is a little annoying too. Even though she is right that he doesn’t *want* to hurt her, he continues doing so, and her insistence that he doesn’t want to makes her look stupid, naive, and like an abuse victim about to happen. It also cheapens our ability to see that we understand where he’s coming from even while he makes poor decisions. We can see that a gun fired in the heat of battle but that he didn’t mean to shoot it, and look into his POV and see that he doesn’t want to hurt Quin but feels that the ends justify the means, and we can understand it because we know where he’s coming from. We don’t need Quin to cling to her belief that he wouldn’t hurt her while he’s doing it and giving her no explanation for it.

OVERALL: And yet, despite certain problems mentioned above, the book kept me reading. I got frustrated with part 2 and had to take a break in there, but I did keep picking up the book to see what would happen. Although I didn’t talk about Maud here much, I was fascinated by her story and wanted to see how her character arc would grow. But while she was a part of the story, she also was very separate from the others, which is why I didn’t include her much in this review. And even with their character arc problems, Quin, John, and Shinobu kept me reading. I was engaged by them and by the main plot (even with its little detour). And to me, that’s what counts.

Recommended for fans of: a mix of sci-fi and fantasy; multiple POV stories; interesting settings; uneven character arcs; strong romantic feelings in any situation; love triangles out of nowhere-ish; a trilogy arc in a single book; random unusual POVs; withheld information to be revealed later (mostly); redemption stories; watching a character fall into villainy; ancient magical characters; amnesia; drug-use; cool magical knives; Asian boys with red hair.

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Review: Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick

I didn’t always want Tsarina.  I wasn’t in love with the cover–too much red.  But I read the premise and first pages and was enchanted by it.  When I got it for Christmas, I immediately dove into it.  Here is the review.  It will contain historical spoilers, but I’ll warn you when they’re coming.

This book started off well (“Oh, no, not another ‘this book started off well’ review,” you say). It was gorgeous and I loved the relationship of Natalya and Alexei right off the bat. Right away we’re introduced to the magic and what it means and what the dangers are, with no dancing around the lead up to it. It’s a unique world and setting, and even magic, for YA, and I really appreciated that. And to top it all off, the magic centers around a Faberge Egg, which I have always adored.

Even after we’re taken into politics and riots and kidnapping shortly after that, I’m still interested. It’s when the love triangle shows up that the book lost me as an enthralled reader. Don’t get me wrong. In YA, I practically assume love triangle as soon as a second boy shows up. I predicted about a scene early that Leo was about to become a viable candidate for a love interest, even though he really hadn’t been up until then.

But I didn’t want it. And not in a “Team Alexei” sort of way. I didn’t feel Natalya’s attraction to Leo. I anticipated it happening and could see it in a very mechanically set-up way, but that’s all it ever was until the very end. Not to mention the Stockholm Syndrome-ness of falling for your captor, but there are times that I am cool with that.

Now I will talk about something spoilery, but it’s historical spoilery. Like if you know anything about the Romanovs at all or ever watched Anastasia, you know what I’m about to talk about. So if you don’t know the history and want to remain unspoiled, skip this paragraph. I knew, of course, that Alexei would die, but it was a matter of when. I expected that Natalya would see him again, that he would die in something related to the egg in the climax, and we would get to see it. Instead he dies off screen, and just like Natalya’s relationship with Leo, it feels very mechanically handled, that he dies because he has to, and while Natalya’s initial blaming of Leo was totally understandable, I just didn’t feel her grief.

Anyway, we don’t see Alexei again after that first chapter. Yes, if you fell in love with him and with their relationship in chapter one, do not expect to see them together for the rest of the book.

The ending feels too rushed, and takes some magical suspension of disbelief considering that I never bought Natalya’s feelings for Leo. That’s all I’m going to say about that, because spoilers.

I liked both Natalya and Emilia. They were the perfect combination of spoiled and resourceful. The thing that shone most for me was Natalya’s constant desire to protect not just Alexei, but Russia, by finding the Faberge Egg, when there were much easier routes to take. Another interesting character (who we never see) is Rasputin. In this version, he is merely a catalyst, but he is also not portrayed as villainous. The number one trait we hear about him is how much he loved the tsarina and would do anything for her.

This is the theme I think that one comes away from Tsarina with. Intense love leads to magic and protection and it gets passed on throughout the book. It’s the sort of thing that a younger me might have eaten up, and perhaps I still would have, had I felt all of the relationships in this book more strongly.

Recommended for fans of: Russian history (loose); the Romanovs; Rasputin; Faberge Eggs; one-sided love triangles; politics; riots and war; Stockholm Syndrome-y relationships; strong friendships; mystics; train rides, sunflowers, & symbolic elks

Rated: 3 blue hearts

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