When is a review not a review?


I wrote this in response to a friend who had recently downloaded from Amazon an e-book that had six stellar reviews – it was apparently “brilliant”, “fantastic”, “should be made into a film” and was written by “a wonderful author”.

Now he’s what I’d regard as a fairly sophisticated and switched-on person, but he was ignorant of how Amazon ratings and reviews work.

The plot was non-existent, the characters unbelievable, the prose embarrassing, the formatting all over the place, and it was full of spelling and grammatical errors.

“How on earth did this tripe get so highly rated?” he asked. “From the reviews it sounded like a great read.”

So how did it gather such glowing praise?


For a start, anybody can leave a so-called review on Amazon. They don’t need to have any qualifications, not even proof of having actually bought or read the book they are reviewing. They don’t even have to reveal their identity.

We had a look on the Amazon page for the book in question, and noticed that none of the six people who had left reviews had actually bought the book. You can see whether they have, because it will say “Amazon Verified Purchase”. If it doesn’t, the chances are that it was probably given to them in exchange for a review. That’s common practice. Most authors do it, just as the large publishing houses send out free copies to selected people well before publication date, so that when the book is published it already has reviews and ratings to encourage sales.

We  looked at the history of each reviewer by clicking “See all my reviews”. This shows how many products the person has reviewed and gives an idea of their personal tastes. In this case, all six had only ever reviewed this one book. All six reviews had been posted within 24 hours of each other.

From this you could conclude that the reviews are likely to be from friends of the author, giving him/her a helping hand to promote their work. All writers have to start somewhere. It doesn’t mean that every book with 5-star reviews from people who have never reviewed any other book is a bad book. After all, just as everyone has to write their first book some time, everybody has to write their first review.

There are also people who write paid reviews. As it’s unlikely that an author would pay for poor reviews of their own work, it’s safe to assume that a paid reviewer will rate the book highly.

Reviews that contain similar phrases and are of similar length can also indicate that the writer has written the reviews and fed them to other people to post. Common phrases that often pop up are: “I can’t wait for the next book”, “(Author’s name) is such a wonderful writer”.

Here are a couple of examples of reviews for 5-star rated books.

Example 1:

This is such a wonderful book. I found it extremely interesting and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.”

Example 2:

Widowed unexpectedly when she is still a young woman, Daisy finds herself gradually excluded from her previous social circle, as friends fear that she may steal their husbands. Her children are off the rails, and her financial position is precarious.

Daisy feels that when she lost her husband, her whole identity went with him. Without him she no longer knows who or what she is. She must take her courage in her hands, and learn to stand on her own two feet.

As an attractive widow she is not short of suitors. When her best friend’s husband continues making advances, Daisy is torn between her loyalty to her friend and the temptation of finding happiness again.

Her journey to a new life is in parts laugh-out-loud funny, in parts cringe-worthy, and in parts touching. Daisy’s character is well-drawn, and I could identify with her fight to build her self-confidence and start living again.

From the sleepy Somerset countryside to the bustling exuberance of Spain’s Costa Brava, the story swept me along on a feel-good wave.

Entertaining, well-written, and rather thought-provoking.”

If you compare the two, the first tells you nothing upon which to form an opinion, while the second discusses the book and its merits.

On the other side there are the negative 1-star reviews that downgrade the overall rating of a title.

It isn’t unknown for rivals to try to damage each other’s reputation by leaving savage reviews. There are of course readers who genuinely don’t enjoy a book, and people who miss its point. There may be a particular section of society who are offended by some element, in which case they will persuade others who share their beliefs to attack the book. Books containing even mild sexual content, profanity or criticisms of religious beliefs can invoke a shower of poison arrows.

Here are some 1-star so-called reviews:

“I didn’t find this book at all funny and will not be buying any more books written by this author.”

“What a total waste of money. I was too bored to finish it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”  

It never arrived so I cannot tell you what I think of it. Therefore I can only award it one star.”

“This book is quite awful and I wish I hadn’t bought it. Why would anybody want to write such an awful book?”

“This book was ordered by mistake and is not the type of book that I read.  So I didn’t read it and cannot write a review of it.”

While everybody is entitled to express their opinion, statements like those are meaningless in helping potential customers form an idea of the book. Yet by giving it just 1 star these people degrade its overall star rating, which is what many people, including my friend, look at before deciding whether to buy.

This is also a 1-star rating:

As a long-standing fan of this author, having read all his previous books, I waited eagerly for his latest title to be published.

Unfortunately it has not lived up to my expectations.

None of the characters come to life, and the plot weaved and waved about all over the place. This book seems to have been written very hurriedly, and felt as if the author had lost his way. I found it rather confusing how the timeline jumped around, and certain parts seemed slightly unlikely and contrived.

That said, I read it at two sittings, always hoping that it would improve, but sadly it didn’t.

I would highly recommend all the author’s previous books as excellent reads written by a master wordsmith, and I shall await his next book with impatience. I can’t help feeling he didn’t really have his heart in this one.”

That’s a review by somebody who has taken the trouble to explain what they disliked about the book and why they gave it a low rating.

To have any value, a review needs to be a critical appraisal, written by somebody who has read it and taken the time to share their opinion for the benefit of other potential readers.

Amazon customers are able to “Look inside” both paperbacks and e-books, or download a sample from the e-book. It costs nothing, and is the equivalent of browsing a book in a bookshop so that you can see whether it’s to your taste or not.

Rather than seeing how many stars a book carries, make your decision by reading a sample, and by recognising the difference between a helpful review and a couple of dozen words that tell you nothing about the book.

To go back to my friend and the highly-rated book of which he had high hopes. The cover was gorgeous. But as the saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” 😀

And equally, don’t judge a book purely by its star ratings.

Bonjour, beau cheval!

Autumn’s brilliant colours were shortlived this year, in the area where we live. Yesterday was wintry and bleak, the countryside bare and dismal. On a trip to town we’d taken our cameras and failed to find inspiration.

However,  on the way home we passed a field of horses, and one in particular, a large, stocky fellow, came over to socialise. I took a number of shots of him. He brightened up an otherwise dull day.



The desk conundrum

Since the beginning of July, I hadn’t done any filing or tidying in the office. The desk, dresser and window sill have been heaped with a messy tangle of paperwork, photos, cheque books, pens, scraps of paper, notebooks, CDs and DVDs, instruction manuals, dust, dead flies, coins, jewellery, camera lenses, folders, files, receipts, bank statements, medical reports, bills, batteries and chargers.

I’ve been totally ashamed and disgusted every morning, and every evening I have resolved to deal with it first thing next day, and the months have rolled by with the only change being increasing mess.

There’s no  excuse. True we did have visitors staying for almost three months, and I was unwell for several months, but neither the visitors nor the ailment left me unable to sort out a pile of papers. I can’t find an explanation for it.

Among the piles was correspondence with the tax office, who thought we hadn’t paid something which we had. Failure to make the requested payment in time would result in a visit from the bailiff. The correspondence had been there for several days, picked up and put down every day, but today was the deadline to respond. The choice was to ignore it, let the bailiff turn up and triumphantly wave the receipt for the payment under his nose, or write to the tax office and send them all the necessary evidence and receipts. That seemed the more sensible path, so fortified with a strong coffee and a bowl of porridge I sat down and wrote to them, copied all the correspondence, and filed it away.

That seemed to unlock the dam, and in less than an hour the surfaces were clear and cleaned, everything dealt with and filed. As quick and easy as that.

I’m feeling better and far less tired today than I have done for months. Whether that’s the effect of sorting out the mess, or the cause of it, who knows? But it’s certainly a relief on both counts.

Is a cluttered desk a sign of a cluttered mind, or a creative one? Speaking for myself, I find that it does nothing to feed creativity, in fact just the opposite. I don’t want to sit at it. The clutter overwhelms me. On the other hand, a totally empty desk is daunting. How do other feel about this? Does anybody else let mess get on top of them?

As Albert Einstein (renowned for the untidiness of his desk) said: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”


Maybe a potted plant, a pen, notebook and cup of coffee will strike the right balance.



Never give up.

Legend tells that the King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, was sitting in a cave after being defeated in battle by the English during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Feeling sorry for himself and licking his wounds, he watched a spider struggling to spin a web, As many times as the silk failed to stick, the spider continued trying, until eventually it succeeded. Inspired by its determination and persistence, Robert remarshalled his forces and went on to give the English a fearsome trouncing at the battle of Bannockburn.

Whether or not there is any truth in the legend, we’ll never know, but it has long been used to illustrate how anybody can achieve anything if they try hard enough.

In this example of never giving up, the evidence is captured on film.

While it would have been easier for this little hero/heroine to eat the cracker in situ, I’m guessing it had a family to feed, hence its determination to take home the bacon, so to speak. 🙂



The enigma of the vanishing vegetables

How they do it has always been a mystery. We have every tool, fertiliser and deterrent known to man and yet are unable to produce more than three sunburnt tomatoes and a few sticks of rhubarb. Mr Nextdoor only used three things – an ancient hoe, a handful of fertilizer pellets, and a watering  can. As well as his vines, fruit trees and strawberries, onions, garlic, varieties of lettuce, berms of asparagus, peas, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines, cabbages, leeks, spinach, potatoes and carrots all grew obediently, in perfect rows and uniform height. Never was there a weed to be seen or a vegetable out of line, except for the coloquintes rambling over the fence, laden with their colourful decorative gourds.

Coloquintes au marché d'Orange

By jean-louis zimmermann [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, there was the vibrant row of chrysanthemums in shades of yellow, purple, rust and white, ready to be potted up and taken to the cemetery to decorate the resting places of departed family on Toussaint – All Hallows, the Day of the Dead in France. Which happens to be today. Chrysanthemums are almost exclusively used in France to celebrate this day – never offer them as a gift!

Mr Nextdoor had been the man of the family since his father died when he was 8 years old. His mother scraped a living dressmaking, and he went off to the fields at daybreak and worked until dusk on the family farm to grow the food to feed her, his two younger sisters, and himself. So he had all the experience he needed to defeat the forces of nature – disease, insects, drought and flood and apparently did so effortlessly. In a strange twist, Mr Nextdoor didn’t actually like or eat vegetables. He was an unusual Frenchman in that he had no interest in food, nor in wine, although he produced sufficient of both to supply a small town. His wife lamented the fact that he was impossible to feed as there was nothing he enjoyed eating. Given that he was as thin as a straw, active 7 days a week during every daylight hour, and had never smoked, it was unjust that his heart let him down. He had to have a 5-way bypass, and although it kept him going for a few years his health was never satisfactory after that.

To return to the enigma of the vanishing vegetables. While Mr Nextdoor was in some ways untypically French, he was far from unique in his vegetable growing. Every garden around (apart from ours) boasts similarly regimented and abundant vegetables, year after year. If all the locally-grown produce was put into a heap, it would probably smother the Eiffel Tower.


By Jina Lee [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do they grow all these vegetables? Presumably to eat. So presumably they like eating them. Which leads to the enigma.

Why don’t the restaurants serve vegetables? With rare exceptions, main courses are accompanied by a small castle of white rice and a sad floppy dollop of once-green beans reduced by a process, it appears, of flagellation to within a millimetre of their lives followed by lengthy boiling to death until they assume a cadaverous greyness. A rare fragment of potato, a sliver of courgette, julienne of half a carrot, or a cherry tomato are a sight to make the heart leap with excitement.

It may not be a region famed for its food, but the Poitou-Charentes region has plenty of superb restaurants. Particular favourites of ours are the Lion d’Or in Chauvigny, the Charlemagne in Charroux, both of which have retained their high standard over the 20 years we have eaten there, and Bistrot du Boucher in Poitiers is where we always take guests, certain that the quality and service will be faultless. We have never had a meal at any of those establishments that was less than excellent. There are mediocre restaurants, and bad restaurants, just as there are anywhere in the world, but this is a region where you can eat really well, in a bistro, an unassuming restaurant or an elegant château.

One thing they tend to have in common, though, is the dearth of vegetables served.  Maybe it’s our English upbringing, where a proper meal was considered to be meat and three vegetables, potatoes being compulsory, whether mashed, roasted, fried or baked, no meal is complete without the faithful spud. Yet servings of vegetables are almost as rare as hen’s teeth when we dine out, either in restaurants or French friends’ homes. And if any are served, they’re usually in minute quantities. Why? If the French grow vegetables because they enjoy them, don’t they want them when they go out to eat? Or do they just grow them to show they can? Or because it is traditional? What do they do with them?

Lou Messugo