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Monday, November 8, 2010

The Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer

A few months ago, I came across this piece in the Examiner identifying the 20 most annoying book review cliches. Because I am often guilty of several, it made me laugh. But it also got me thinking about my own pet peeves when reading reviews — and as an obssessive-compulsive "book comparison shopper" I read a TON of reviews.

So what follows is a list of "sins" I've noticed, mostly from the 100+ amateur reviewers on my Google Reader feed, and explanations of why I consider them to be no-nos. I hope you won't take this personally if you've committed these sins, as I don't have any particular reviewer, blogger, friend or family member in mind in pointing these out. But since today is Monday, and I'm already draggin' ass, what better time for a good, 'ole fashioned book-related vent?

1. "I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't." — This one always cracks me up. Really? You wanted to like it? Thanks, Captain Obvious. If you read a book hoping to hate it, well, you're not reading for the right reasons. Sure, it's fine if you didn't like a novel, but I already know you wanted to like it. Why else would you have picked it up? My guess is that reviewers mean this as a sort of backwards way of trying to rationalize that the time they spent with a book wasn't wasted. Instead, they've wasted their readers'.

2. "I don't really know what to say about this novel/how to review this novel." — It's amazing how many book reviews lead off with this supposed witticism. If you've ever had any training on public speaking, one thing you'll quickly learn is to never apologize (i.e, "I'm sorry, I don't know this subject as well as maybe I should.") because you immediately lose a ton of credibility. Well, this is the book review equivalent of apologizing right off the bat. While this sentence (or its derivatives) is often used to convey a sense of awe about the book, to me the translation is: "This review is going to be a cluttered, unorganized mess. So you should probably just skip it." And I usually do.

3. "I don't want to say too much about the plot..." — Sometimes, this can work. I did this in my review of The Art of Racing in the Rain. But I still didn't feel good about it. Really, this tactic conveys to me a sense that the reviewer is just being lazy; that he or she isn't willing to craft a review that teases out what a potential reader needs to know about the plot, its themes and characters, without giving away too much. There are ways to do that. It just requires a little work. 

4. Confusing empathy and sympathy — I realize this is quite nit-picky, but when I see this in a review — "I could really empathize with the characters," when it's pretty clear the reviewer means sympathize — it's as much as a turn-off as if s/he'd written "your" when s/he meant "you're." Back in March, I wrote a post about the difference between empathy and sympathy. They are certainly not synonymous as, sadly, many people these days assume. As one commenter said, "There is after all a reason why the two words exist, why they mean something different and to use an excuse of semantics is to mask one's ignorance and lack of knowledge in regards to language."

5. "I didn't connect with or like the characters/plot, so I'm giving it a poor review." — This one requires a little more explanation. There are two ways to review a book, in my opinion: 1) Based solely on how you reacted to book, and 2) Evaluating a novel as objectively as possible on its literary merits, and then providing an opinion. I much prefer the latter, as I suspect most people do. If you can explain why the novel (or particular parts of the novel) did or didn't work based on some objective criteria and logical argument, I'm much more willing to believe you than if I read that you didn't like the book because "I didn't like Character A, because he's a schmuck" or "the plot about 17th century Japan just didn't interest me." I was fairly bored by David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I had to begrudgingly admit that others probably would find it brilliant. Same thing with Richard Power's Generosity: An Enhancement. I realize this is slightly counter-intuitive, because your opinion of a book is the cornerstone of the review. But I'd still maintain that a reviewer telling me that s/he may not have enjoyed it, but other readers might because  X, Y and Z is far superior to simply dismissing a book because it wasn't to your taste or because you didn't "connect" with it. That sort of implies that you think a writer sat down to write a book only to please you. And that's just simple-minded, isn't it?

So, there you have it. What are your reviewer pet peeves? Take issue with any of these? 

53 comments:

  1. "I don't want to say too much about the plot..."

    I have used this one so many times but only when the official summary says already enough things.Sometimes it's really better not to say more and that sentence comes out so easily..hehe...
    Going to read that aricle you posted for the 20 XD

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  2. I loved this post! I hope I haven't said "I don't want to say much about the plot", but I have commented: "I will leave the rest of the book for you to read without spoiling the end".
    You are much more eloquent that I, but don't you hate reviewers that say something to the effect of "this book gives me more reasons why I don't like (insert genre here). I also dislike reviewers that are down right mean. I've read some reviews that make me wonder what side of the bed they got up on....etc. As one wise person told me recently....obviously the book appeals to someone - the publisher has spent tons of money getting it published. That person may not be me, but there must be some redeeming qualities that I have to determine. Enough of my 2 cents. Thanks for the post!

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  3. Greg, this is a fantastic post. I have been guilty of a couple of these things once or twice, but, to be honest, they are some of the same things that irk me in others' reviews too. You could not be more right that failure to tease out a decent plot summary is simply laziness on the part of the reviewer. It also bothers me when a book blogger steals the blurb from the back of the book or from the publisher's website instead of putting together their own thoughts. I think some bloggers occasionally forget that they are writing for an audience, not just themselves!

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  4. Ah, the plot thing is always difficult. There are some people who are very picky about how much synopsis is too much synopsis. I honestly tend to skip the book summaries and just go straight for the actual review bits (of which there are hopefully some). I think there's more a problem today with people _only_ writing summaries/synopses, and that is high on my pet peeve list. I can read a summary anywhere, I want to know what YOU think of it, and no, "it was good" does not count as thinking.

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  5. Great post Greg.

    I can only relate to ""I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't." - this happens to me if I read a book about an important or inspiring even and hated it. Doesn't happen often, but it does.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  6. Great post even though I too (blush) occasionally do some of these things! I especially hate doing #3, which I do without the confession part all the time. Ugh. Off to flagellate myself...

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  7. These are pretty spot on :) Though, I've been known to do them myself a few times... heh

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  8. @Yiota - Oh, I totally understand that you frequently don't want to say much about the plot, but you don't have to say that you don't want to say much about the plot. ;)

    @Barb - Yeah, reviews in which it's fairly clear the reviewer has an axe to grind, or as you say, is just in a bad mood are really silly. It's just like responding to an email that annoyed you: Take a deep breath, take a walk, and then proceed.

    @Pinksheepcafe - Yeah, if the reviewer includes a canned plot summary, I almost always can that whole review. You know, some bloggers are writing just for themselves, and that's fine, as long as they make that clear. Otherwise, don't commit the five sins! ;)

    @Amy - You're right - over-summarizing is just as sinful as under-summarizing. Either way, it shows a lack of effort.

    @Man - You mean, the book turned your opinion of the person, or it was just a poor book about an inspiring person?

    @rhapsodyinbooks - Ha - no self-flagellation! It can work from time to time, but there has to be a pretty good reason why.

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  9. HA HA. Love this. I always find it irritating when people constantly discredit themselves, I'm glad someone finally pointed that out. I also don't like when reviews are solely based on an emotional response. I see so many reviews that say something like "I really connected with the characters" "It just seemed so real" "I really felt with the characters." Blah.

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  10. Gah! I'm totally guilty of all of these sins, Greg. And probably a bunch more. Can I get a little empathy...er... sympathy here?

    Very helpful post. Let's see if I learn anything from it, though I'm doubtful.

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  11. Greg, i'm running scared because i have committed at least two or three or more of these sins lol. Thanks for highlighting and breaking them down. When you look at it, its like we're padding the reviews and that is never good.

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  12. Hahaha! I'm almost guilty of number one, but when you put it like that it does sound ridiculous. I think in my own reviews, I've said something along the lines of being very excited, and yet unfortunately being let down. Similar, but different.

    I HATE when people put number five. Quite frankly, if I see anyone writing this then I ignore them completely. Anyone who is guilty of give isn't doing their job; that's not a review.

    Unfortunately, I've noticed than more and more amateur blogs are becoming nothing more than some kind of popularity contest.

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  13. Great list--although I know I'm guilty of some of these, usually when I'm feeling lazy.

    As for the first, when I say that, I usually mean I was really excited about it, rather than reading it out of curiosity or as an experiment in something different. In those cases, it may not bother me if I end up not liking the book.

    And the last one is really interesting, because I do think there are times when there's something in the writing that keeps readers from getting involved in the characters or plot. The key is for the reviewer to try to tease out what it is that is keeping the book from working for them. And, as you say, there's always a chance that someone else will connect with it, and that's a good thing to acknowledge.

    The one that I hate is "Everyone should read this book!" I don't think there's a book in the world that "everyone" is guaranteed to love, and if I see too many people saying that about a book, I get almost determined to prove them wrong by disliking it!

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  14. I don't care for a synopsis or plot summary at the beginning of a review. I think that is part of the reviewer's job, to convey enough about the plot and characters to give a fair review without revealing too much. I also think sometimes reviews focus only on the reviewer's feelings about the book (I liked/didn't like it). That is personal taste. I would rather hear about the overall quality of the book, its strengths and weaknesses....

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  15. This is a great post. I hope reading my blog didn't inspire this post.

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  16. I prefer a plot summary or blurb first to decide if its something I'm going to be interested in, then I'll read the review for the opinion if I am undecided for more details or just want to know more. Since that's the format I like, that's how I blog.
    It irritates me hugely when the 'review' is 200 words of plot summary then 50 words of opinion though.

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  17. Guilty on #1 and #3.

    One of my personal pet peeves on book reviews is spelling mistakes. I recently found a new blog with interesting (fascinating) subject matter but was completely put off by the number of spelling errors in the posts I read.

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  18. Oh, I empathize with your irritations! Ha! You nailed one of my biggest irritations..."I don't want to spoil the plot". I guess I say it, but I don't put it in those words. That is the most overused phrase out there. I also really don't like it when someone uses the publisher's summary, then summarizes it again in their own words. Or freaking recounts every single thing that happened. Brevity!!! I love a good rant!

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  19. I have to say that I empathize and sympathize with those who commit the sin of starting off with an apologetic statement - of course that's entirely because I quite lazily refuse to write and then revise my reviews, so most of the time I'm writing off the top of my head. I agree that it's something of a faux pas, but alas what can we do? Hmm..perhaps focus a bit more on writing... :)

    Thanks for the reminders! As always, funny stuff.

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  20. Guilty here of most of these sins! As I write a blog I often think my posts would be improved by some criticsm. Thanks for providing some if only generically and thanks for another thoughtful post.

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  21. Dude! Did you haaaaave to quote my most recent post in your very first no-no? *cringe* I'm trying to take a double dose of "don't take it personally," but see that glow towards the south? That's me blushing. --Captain Obvious

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  22. Great post even though I'm sorry I read it, thought I would enjoy it, lol.

    I do think it takes awhile before you go from 'I am a blogger that enjoys reviewing' and not apologising for it not being a 'professional review'

    I personally do not enjoy when reviews do not include summaries but do their own within the review, most of these have spoilers in it and are to long to appreciate in my opinion.

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  23. Nice, this cracks me up. I am mostly relieved to see that the only one I'm guilty of is the "I'm not going to say too much about the plot..." and it is indeed the result of laziness.

    Thanks for the empathy/sympathy bit. Not one of my biggest annoyances on book blogs (that might be not about content but layout - if it takes more than a minute to load or freezes my laptop with its thousands of graphics and widgets I'm not revisiting). But especially, ESPECIALLY, for noting that you don't have to LIKE a character in order to LIKE a book. god knows I don't like Van Veen or Humbert Humbert, but Ada & Lolita are still two of my favorite novels. great post!

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  24. I enjoyed this post. #5 is one thing that gets to me, though I am still looking forward to Mr. Mitchell's new book. It strikes me as a statement that disqualifies the reviewer. It's almost as bad as "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Sure, keep it to yourself then, please.

    I don't like plot summary myself. I try to do as little of it as I can get away with, and I tend to skim quickly when reading reviews.

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  25. Totally with you on 1 through 4 though I have a little bit of a difference of opinion on number 5. I don't really need another objective opinion or analysis of, say, A Woman in White, or pretty much any other classic - but I am interested in how some of the cleverest, funniest, most original bloggers responded to it. Though I agree with your conclusion - that 'I didn't like this because....and other people might like it because.....' is the way to handle it.

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  26. Brilliant! Especially #2 and #5. I usually stop reading a review if they go on for a paragraph about how difficult it was to review the book, blah, blah blah. And as I showed in my review of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, it IS possible to enjoy a book,even if every single character is a schmuck with whom you (gladly) don't connect.

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  27. Love the urging for empathy/sympathy distinction!
    I think the difference between print and blog reviews is that the blog ones can be much more personal. I seek out more personal reviews online, although I don't think "personal" should mean that the reviewer doesn't give evidence for how he or she sees the work.

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  28. Plot synopsis is a tricky thing-you do want people to be interested in the book(especially if you really liked it)but you don't want to give it all away,like so many movie trailers do these days. I swear,some of them are so detailed that you don't even have to bother to watch the film!

    Sorry for the off-topic moment there;back to my point,which is that synopsis is truly a balancing act. Also,I agree with number five-you can appreciate the artistic attempt without having to really like the book and/or it's characters.

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  29. Incredibly helpful posting, Greg! I am periodically guilty of some of these 'sins' myself, and shall strive to better in the future. I am going to print this out, and keep a copy tucked inside my copy of Strunk & White's "Elements of Style." Cheers! Chris

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  30. This is really funny. I've got to agree that all of these are cliche - I've read them a million times. But, I am guilty of #2 so I shouldn't talk. Thanks for pointing these things out. I will certainly be more conscious of these details when writing my reviews. I'm off to check out that article you linked to...

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  31. I think I'm going to print out this list to remind me of what not to do and hang it on my bulletin board! I have to disagree with some and agree with others about the publisher's blurb. I often put it at the beginning of my blog post (highlighted to make it obviously not part of the commentary) and I think that gives people a chance to view what the publisher thinks this book is about. It allows the reviewer the opportunity to possibly contrast what exists in the book. I've read lots of books that look really good from the blurb, but the actual book bears no resemblance to the blurb!! It's all marketing hype!
    P.S. I appreciate reading everyone else's comments!

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  32. I just came across your site for the first time. Great post! I think your list is very accurate, though I have committed most of these at one time or another.

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  33. I'm not even sure if I'm guilty of any these, but for the most part I'm pretty easygoing about other reviews. I've got so many issues of my own, like major punctuation confusion and some sloppy sentence structure. I personally find the synopsis the most difficult part of a review, but I would feel lazy if I didn't do it.
    If I find a book difficult to review, I just don't review it! It's quite liberating.

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  34. This is a great post - thanks for writing it. I definitely do these things sometimes - and when you point out that several of them can be attributed to lazy writing, you're completely right. It's kind of like resorting to technical jargon when you're talking about whatever industry you work in. It's something everyone says, and you say it as well just to be saying something. Good post and great way of bringing lazy writing habits to our attention.

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  35. Great reminders! I'm guilty a few myself (from both your list and the 20), though I'd like to say that I don't mix up empathize and sympathize. Or your and you're. Or their, they're and there. Or even effect and affect, though I often have to look up which one I want to use. Either that, or I rephrase to avoid the word - that's always my solution when I'm unsure. Better taking a different tact correctly than spouting nonsense by using words incorrectly.

    Ok, so clearly that's my biggest pet peeve. I find it hard to credit reviewers if they can't write properly - how can you judge another's writing if that's the case? But I'm a snob.

    I also tend to veer away from plot summary, if only because my definition of "spoiler" seems to be different from other opinions, and I really don't want to spoil the book for any potential reader. And, I admit, I often find writing a concise and helpful summary a bit of a challenge.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking as I write.

    Oh, I almost forgot. I hate reviews that are written all in exclamation! They are so excited about loving the book! Or hating it! Ugh!

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  36. @Everyone - Wow! Thank you all so much for your comments. Even though I get a big fat "FAIL" in responding personally to each one, please know that I did read each one - and am very appreciative of the time you took to comment. You guys rule!

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  37. Hey Greg - fantastic post. I'm guilty of some of these - and I agree with you on all of them. I linked this as part of my Friday Five at Kate's Library.

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  38. Thanks for linking up to The Book Frog. I read this one the day you posted it, and cringed as I recognized myself (and I think I'm a pretty decent reviewer...but still). Nice to share it with fellow bloggers...perhaps we can all become better reviewers.

    Becky

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  39. I think that people saying "I wanted to like it but didn't" implies more than the ordinary wanting to like every book you pick up. Nobody wants to not enjoy a book, but in some circumstances you have stronger reason for wanting to like it. Maybe someone gave it to you as a gift hoping you would enjoy it, or you spent an unusual (for you) amount of money on it, or maybe you know the author and liking it is very, very important. Not enjoying the book in these situations can be more than ordinarily disappointing. On the other hand I may be making that all up to justify using this line too many times! In any event, great post!

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  40. GREAT post!! And it gives me something to consider as I write my next post - must avoid these sins! Thanks for always taking the time to write such well written reviews!

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  41. Ay yi yi! I am GUILTY as charged of the "I really wanted to like this book, but..." so now I know never to do THAT again! Off to read the full article!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

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  42. I totally pulled #5 when I reviewed "Catcher in the Rye" but I think that it would have been more accurate to say that I couldn't relate to the narrative voice and therefore couldn't relate to the narrator. In that way, it was more an issue of writing style than it was about the character himself. I understand that its a well-written book, but maybe I couldn't disconnect the narrator from the review because they've been so unflinchingly linked for so long.

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  43. Geez, are you really reading this comment after all the applause and laurels that pre-date it? You've made a major coup with this blog entry! Who knew!?
    I just want to say that I'd add a pet peeve of the reviewer who's just "too big for his britches"...knows soooo many big words and tooo many literary citicism quotes to keep his/her buttons buttoned. These reviews are off-putting, imho.
    I like a clean and clear, honest review. You know, like your English lit. professor taught you to write.... :]

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  44. While I agree with much of what you said, I think some of these things just come down to personal taste. For example, I personally don't like when the reviewer summarizes the plot, I want to hear their opinion, not the plot. This is why I don't summarize the plot in my reviews, but rather, I critique the writing, the characters, the pacing, etc. Also, depending on the style and intention of the blog (is it more of a literary critique or a down to earth discussion?) I do like to read about number 5. If I know someone has the same taste in books as I do, I want to know if they connected to the plot or not. Again, much of this is up to personal tastes, but I very much enjoyed this post :)

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  45. I am a new follower, and really enjoyed reading this post. I can of course sympathise with all of your concerns here.

    My peeves generally spin on particular words and phrases that professional reviewers overuse to such an extent that any real meaning is lost. Adjectives such as "dark" "mulitfaceted" and "lyrical" come to mind. Also saying the novel, or author's style is something, "while at the same time" something else. Also words like juxtaposed and "incredibly moving" (i use moving and have definitely got to give it up.

    I prefer blog reviews because they generally feel fresh and enthusiastic and perhaps because of this, don't seem to get caught up in using the same words and phrases over and over.

    To everything else it does come down to persoanl preference. I don't enjoy reading detailed plot summaries, and where one is provided, I will often skip to the critique or opinion bit.

    Very interesting post. And while I am not so much guilty of these sins, I know laziness makes me take other shortcuts that I need to be mindful of.

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  46. Great thought-provoking post. Funny how many of these I've done. In fact, I did the first one you listed in my last review. I suppose "I wanted to like this book" equals "this book didn't live up to my expectations". Maybe I should have said that instead.

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  47. Interesting reading. I did find the blatant usage error(s) in the quote by the commenter/grammar police amusing:

    "...one's ignorance and lack of knowledge in regards to language." (section 4)

    Who's spouting off about lack of knowledge in *regard* to language? And isn't using "ignorance" *and* "lack of knowledge" redundant?

    Maybe it's best to remember we all have both grammar pet peeves and blind spots...

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  48. "I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't."

    I use that one on occasion so I'm going to have to watch that in the future :)

    Great post - gave me a lot to think about!

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  49. I recently discovered your site and really love it! This is an example of a great book blog because it's funny, witty, and provides great insight on the books read. I really dig this post. I have a few peeves with some book bloggers as well, and they are:

    1) Misspelling - One blogger wrote all about how she loved and was an expert on the contemporary romance "genera". I noticed every single instance of the word genre on her website was spelled this way. Alas, her blog is no longer live, haha!

    2) Bloggers that feature more giveaways than reviews. And then they want you to follow them on twitter, "like" them on facebook, subscribe to their blog, follow them on google connect, etc etc for extra entries in the giveaway. I made the mistake of participating in a few giveaways several months ago and then got numerous updates on more giveaways and miscellaneous garbage instead of good content on book reviews. Lame! Giveaways do not draw me to book blogs.

    3) It's totally cool when bloggers want to add funny or cute anecdotes regarding their experience with books, but sometimes bloggers will go on and on about themselves - "I, I, I" and "Me, me, me"...it just gets old. Give me good content!!

    4) Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the bloggers that say "if I am provided a free book, I will always provide a positive review". Are people not aware that some of us actually get paid to provide honest reviews - negative and positive? Do they think the writers for Publishers Weekly and other publications review for free and always provide positive reviews? Haha!

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  50. Oh what a great post & good things to keep in mind... I think I have done the connect with the characters one once... but I did feel I backed it up with good reason! Very interesting comments here, as well. Thanks.

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  51. Thank you for this post. It is an eye-opener to me and I am grateful for any advice which I can take under advisement to better write my blog.

    I recently came upon your blog, thanks in part to a book blog hop, and am impressed with the content and your style. I am following you on GFC now.

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  52. haha, I'm definitely guilty of the first! and sometimes #3. I can actually see what you mean about #1 although I think it's a little more complicated than that, in that it goes beyond the normal, hey I think I'll like this so I'll read it. Sometimes it's because the plot seemed so far up my alley there was no way I could dislike it... sometimes it's because someone (a friend) recommended it to me and now I feel bad that I didn't like it as much as he/she thought I would (this is actually why I rarely take recommendations tbh; no one knows my reading tastes better than I do)... and sometimes it's because you've met the author who was super nice but then you didn't like their book...

    so yeah, in defense of #1, I will say that sometimes you really are more invested in the 'liking' part than other times.

    /rationalization :P

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  53. I'm sorry but I just have to point this one out. I'm guilty of the "I really wanted to like this book" line but your guilty of the opposite "If you read a book hoping to hate it, well, you're not reading for the right reasons".

    I've just read your blog post on The Lost Symbol which states "I was predisposed not to like this book, because I think Dan Brown is an egotistical tool and an untalented hack who got lucky once". Brilliant! I don't like Dan Brown either.

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