Honest Book Reviews in Christian Book Circles

A SOUND AMONG THE TREES by Susan Meissner–my new favorite book!

Have you ever written a book off your to-be-read list due to bad reviews?

I did. I read a particularly harsh review of Susan Meissner’s A Sound Among the Trees, which seemed to indicate that a house was haunted, there was a seance used to solve a ghost problem, etc. I’m pretty stinking particular about ghosts and whatnot, and I didn’t want to read Christian fiction that totally veered from my views. I understand it when NON-Christian fiction veers, but when Christians misinterpret the Bible, then I have a problem. Even if I disagree, I might continue reading it, then hash out the issues with my hubby (The Shack springs to mind–love it or hate it, it does raise interesting questions).

Well, my dear friend, Becky Doughty, read A Sound Among the Trees, and told me it was nothing like what the review said. In fact, it was similar to a book or two that I HAVE WRITTEN. I agreed to give it a whirl (this is where word of mouth from a FRIEND trumps the star ratings on Amazon or Goodreads).

AND. I loved it. It’s my new favorite.

But when I went to give it a well-deserved five-star review on Amazon and Goodreads, I was appalled. Turns out, many Christian readers panned it, based on their impressions of the first chapter OR possibly skewed reviews of others.

It was obvious they had not read the entire book. And yet they proceeded to review the book as if they had.  (Click to Tweet!)

It’s understandable if people put the book down, decide it’s not for them, and don’t leave a review. But to leave a bad review, dragging the book through the mud, preventing others from picking it up, when you can’t be bothered to read past the first couple chapters…that’s just not right.

And this is in Christian book circles, my friends. 

Book reviews are a tricky business, especially in the CBA (Christian Book Association). We all know each other, for the most part, and we want to support each other. But sometimes, our friends’ writing style/topic/genre isn’t our favorite. What then? What if we’ve agreed to be an influencer, but we realize we don’t really love their books? Do we give glowing reviews, pulling out the high points, while realizing we were bored to death as we trudged through the novel? (Click to Tweet!)

There are no pat answers here. I personally focus on the high points of books I’ve agreed to be an influencer for. There’s usually some element of the author’s writing that I totally support, such as genre, setting, etc. However, I only give five stars to books I’d read again. I don’t usually give detailed reviews (I am a walking spoiler alert! I can’t talk plot without giving away the entire book!), I just hit the things I like.

And yet, I respect and refer to people who consistently give honest reviews. If someone constantly reviews books with no negatives, I know it’s a gloss-over deal where they’re just promoting everyone and trying to get on everybody’s good side. And shoot, authors need that, too, don’t we? Someone who can give glowing praise about almost any book?

But when I’m thinking of buying a book, I go to reviewers and friends who will tell me straight. People who like the same kind of stuff I do, or at least know me enough to tell me I’ll probably love or hate something.

I rarely plop down money for a book, but if I’m going to, I need to have a good idea I’ll love it. For instance, many friends recommended Bonnie Grove’s Talking to the Dead. I was hesitant at first–ghosts again–but I did buy it on Amazon and it was worth the money. I love her writing style. I loved the subject and the way she approached it. Basically–another new fave.

I guess the only way to counteract half-honest reviews is to read the entire book in question, and leave honest reviews. I actually went back to those dishonest reviews by people who hadn’t bothered to read A Sound Among the Trees and commented.

Of course, we all have different tastes and genres we prefer. But I think we’d all agree that people who misrepresent books they haven’t read by leaving dishonest reviews must be extremely disheartening for authors. Let’s make every effort to leave honest reviews and build up those authors we love. And in that spirit, here’s the link to my two new favorite novels, if you want to check them out and order them!

A Sound Among the Trees on Amazon 

Talking to the Dead on Amazon

****Now it’s your turn. Have you ever read and loved a book, only to be dismayed by half-honest bad reviews on Amazon? Or have you been astonished by overly good reviews on a poorly written/poorly plotted book? How do you approach reviewing your friends’ books? And, as an author, what kind of reviewers do you want?****


29 thoughts on “Honest Book Reviews in Christian Book Circles

  1. Loved this book – and I, too, was appalled by the reviews, some of which I could TELL hadn't read the book through to the end.I'm glad you read it – it totally reminded me of your books. TOTALLY!

  2. Interesting topic. My book, "Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart", deals with ghosts and War in Heaven. It was carefully researched to maintain a theologically accurate representation, but a relative blasted me for it.The problem is that, beyond a certain shared set of theological values, we all interpret the Bible in our own way. As a glaring example, there are those who take Ephesians to dictate that a woman can't speak out in church – ever. And there are those who would allow and encourage the most heinous bigotry, based on what they think they are reading.I think our knowledge of the Bible is analogous to our knowledge of physics – we don't really know how the physical world 'works'; we have equations and a model that describe what we see.That model is good enough for all practical purposes, but it's still a model, and at the extremes of physics it does break down.Same with the Bible. We read it with a sincere heart, but there comes a point where our understanding is insufficient to grasp the Divine reality, and it's there we should err on the side of caution – and compassion. Lest we be judged.On reviewing friend's books – I no longer do that. Writing is altogether too personal.

  3. Thanks, Becky, I'd love my writing to have the same flair and flow as Meissner's or Grove's!And Andrew–deep thoughts! Yes, there are those nebulous things we don't understand fully in the Bible. BUT we are given intellects and we need to study things out as best we can, and pray for wisdom. ESPECIALLY as Christian writers. Sounds like that's definitely what you tried to do w/your book, as is what I try to do with mine. Anytime you write about the paranormal, I believe you have to be bathed in prayer. OR anytime you write about, say, the importance of marriage…basically, we need to be praying for each other as writers, and ask for prayers as we write.

  4. Good article and a relevant topic. If we're people of truth, then we need to exercise it in every area of our lives. I think we can be honest about a book without being nasty about it. I've been in this situation, and though I've felt pressured to say only nice things, I try to be balanced. If something really bothered me about a book, I don't just not mention it because I know others value my opinion and want my honesty. The bottom line for me is always being loving in my comments.

  5. Right, Adam. We can't skirt the issues that might waste people's money when they're contemplating buying a book. It's hard, though–I know others might LOVE a book I don't. So keeping it loving is a good way to keep things balanced. I also think you can GENERALLY tell when people don't know what they're talking about in Amazon reviews, but not always.

  6. Hey, Heather. Thanks for your comments here and for "getting" me. And now for a SPOILER. Don't read the rest of comment here if you've not read this book yet and think you might want to.There is no ghost. The only specter weighing down on the character Adelaide,who thinks there IS a ghost, is her own debilitating death-grip on the past. She's a prisoner to it. But you'd have to read the whole book – and especially Caroline's encounter with God – to get that.

  7. Thank you so much for stopping in, Susan. I have the highest respect for your writing! And I loved your take on the *ghost*. I know it's possible for houses to seem oppressive for one reason or another. But most often it's connected w/the spiritual state of the home owner. Totally loved Caroline's transformation. I'd like to read a book about HER…

  8. Susan – I thought that was the most revealing aspect about this book; that you revealed how powerful our own minds can be. When the Bible tells us that we are to be a vessel, it's because what pours out of us DOES affect those around us. This was a spectacular example of that happening in the wrong way. I loved Caroline's eye-opening encounter, and her human-tinged grace she brought home with her. Thank you for writing a REAL book.

  9. Anyone who mentions my name in the same blog post at Susan Meissner's is my new best friend.Sooz is a pro, she knows how to tell a story, and I'd follow her into a dark cellar wearing a blindfold. No idea what we'd do down there, but we'd figure something out.

  10. Heather, this subject has been on my mind too. On more than one occaision I've forced myself to finish a HistRom rich in glowing five and four star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., and valuing honesty, I have to question WHY those people gave five and four-star reviews. But then, I look at my own personality–I tend to be a tough critic, and while I do enjoy some HistRom, a lot of time, the genre isn't a perfect fit for me.I do review a lot of the books I read, but I've never wrote a review for a book I haven't finished. If I've skimmed a lot, I put that in my review. And I also try to balance any criticism with praise for what I liked.It's its a difficult tightrope to walk as a writer–you sympathize with authors, knowing the pain of criticism, but at the same time, honesty in reviews is important, otherwise, why would anyone want to read your reviews?

  11. Gwen, you know what? You were one of the authors I was thinking of who gives HONEST reviews, which means I trust what you say and when you post reviews, I'll sit up and pay attention. I love that you are honest but not brutal by any means.Keep it up. What you're doing works! And I know, we want to be kind. What I love is when an author says, "Here's my book–I hope you like it, but if you don't, don't tell me!" Then I don't feel bad if I don't review it. Still, I do love being an influencer for people, and I know that I will be thankful for every influencer who really believes in my writing someday!

  12. Great topic! I generally don't review books unless I can honestly give them a pretty strong rating. The ole, if-you-can't-say-anything-nice adage. Which is why I've hesitated to be an influencer unless I was pretty sure I'd like the book. Agreeing to promote a book and then not liking it–sticky situation, indeed!

  13. Right, I was definitely reared the same way, Sarah–"If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all." I think the cool thing about author blogs and all kinds of social media is that you get to know other writers' personalities, and their topics/passions. Also their writing style (to the amount you can "get" writing style from blogposts, which are quite different from novels…). Anyway. I KNOW I want to be an influencer for you! I just KNOW IT! Grin.

  14. Aww, thanks for recognizing my effort at honesty in book reviews 🙂 I'm happy to know you look for and value them. Great article, if i didn't say so earlier, its a subject that needs to be addressed as there are so many unfair reviews out there. Bless you!

  15. Fascinating discussion, Heather. Timely for me as I read reviews of my novel. I'm also a reviewer and generally try to write positive comments. However, I have been known to add points where I believe the book could have been better.It has been interesting reading some of the reviews of Angelguard. Some have absolutely panned it and been quite critical. I take it as a learning experience. Hey, I'm a newbie author that has lots to learn. So I hope I'm open to receiving feedback so I can improve the next one.Not allowing myself get discouraged has been a battle. I wrote a post on my blog this week about it. We need to realise this is going to happen and hand over any negative feelings that ensue to the Lord.Well done Heather on a really useful post.Ian

  16. Ian, what a great attitude toward your own book reviews. I will try to emulate that if I ever get a book out there. I know some authors don't read their own reviews…some do…some read them and respond (A BIG NO-NO! Hee). Praying your book does very well as you gear up to write book 2! Or have you written it yet? Uh-oh, I might have forgotten to ask you that interview question!

  17. I can't remember the name of the book now (it was a devotional), but it got GREAT reviews so I decided to read it. I got a few chapters in and realized those who gave the reviews had NO clue about the Word of God so they didn't realize this author was distorting scripture! I had already agreed to do a book review and so I MADE myself read the entire book though I was dis guested with it the entire way. It made me feel sad that so many were so easily deceived.

  18. I do believe in leaving honest reviews, in fact I say so in the 'about' page of my blog devoted to Christian historical fiction. Generally, if I don't like a book, I will say so, and why, or if I don't like something about a book. I do tend to finish the books I read however, even if I don't like them. Personally, if I really don't like a book I'm not sure I could write a glowing review. Personally, I find that some critical reviews can be rather helpful.

  19. TC, did you wind up hitting any high points of the book or did you keep it very real? I know, it's sad when some readers mislead others.And Bookish Medievalist (great name there), great to have a blog dedicated to Christian histfic! And I'm glad you make yourself finish those books you don't like so you can review them honestly. You're so right–those critical reviews often hold weight, IF they are fair, like you said, and not just someone who's ticked off that they spent money on a book or had to review it.

  20. One of the things I really dislike is factual errors, especially in historical fiction, and my reviews reflect this. I can live with differences of opinion. For example, the English consider that World War II started in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. America didn't join until after Pearl Harbor in 1941, so if your American character has WWII starting in 1941, I'm going to let that pass. But if a character who is supposed to be English says that? No. Mistakes like this bring me right out of the story, which makes it impossible to enjoy… which is going to lead to a less-than-glowing review.Sometimes these show up in the first few pages (like the author who wrote a Regency novel featuring King George IV ruling England. The reason it's called the Regency is because the Prince Regent was the acting monarch). In cases like these, I will review, even if I haven't read it all – the first 10% is the set-up. If there are mistakes, then the whole story becomes unbelievable, so I will, on rare occasions, give a negative review without finishing the book. My time is too precious to spent 3-5 hours finishing a book I already don't like after the first 10%. My proviso here is I won't review if someone else has already written a similar review. Readers only need to be told once. There was non-fiction book I read where I truly believe the author was distorting the Bible. My review reflected that. It would be lying to give it a positve review, and I believe it is lying by ommission not to review it simply because I disagreed with it.I try to pick books to review that I will enjoy – it's much harder to write a critical review than a glowing review, because I do see the need to be fair. But I think it's dishonest to not review something I've been given with the expectation of a review, even if the review is critical. I try very hard to ensure my reviews are not mean-spiritedJust think: there's a reviewer you trust, and they haven't reviewed the new book by X. So you buy it, it's awful, and you find out later that the reviewer also read it, hated it for the same reasons you did, but didn't want to post a critical review.

  21. Iola, definitely some food for thought. Yes, it would be disturbing if you bought a book based on a reviewer you trusted, then realized they also hated the book. I think that reinforces the fact that you be careful which reviewers you trust. AND we have to agree that what jerks some out of the historical narrative might not bother others (anachronisms bother me, too, but I saw recently on an agent FB page that many people are NOT bothered by them, as long as the story is good). When I read serious historical fiction, I do expect the details to be as accurate as possible. I'm actually reading WOLF HALL right now and enjoying it so far.AND you are so right–it's much harder to write a critical review than a glowing review. It's easy to be euphemistic and cheery…but being serious about flaws is hard–and harder STILL when you know the author personally. I think that's why we need to strive for balance, as much as possible.Thanks for your thoughts today!

  22. Iola, I have to admit to rather sharing your view, glaring anachronisms can get to me as well. Medieval Europeans WOULD NOT have eaten potatoes. Period. Potatoes are from America and were not introduced to Europe until the 1500s. Ergo, potatoes have no place being in a novel set in Europe before 1500. One thing that really gets to me is language which is too modern in historical novels. Medieval people who say 'yeah' and 'Okay' cannot be taken seriously IMO. Discernment is also something of an issue for me, especially if I notice something that seems very wrong in a book, but none of the glowing reviews mention it.

  23. Just one thing, we Brits do not just 'consider' WWII to have began in 1939, it DID begin for us then when war was declared. By 1940 we were already being bombed, so it was arguably more reality than belief.

  24. Thank you, Bookish Medievalist–yes, I will totally confess to including potatoes in my Viking novel UNTIL my agent/editor looked at it and said, "there were no potatoes available at this time." It's easy to incorporate things we've SEEN in Viking pictures, but they weren't THERE at the time we're writing about. Foods are definitely something that warrants investigation before you throw them in willy-nilly in histfic. And it's hard to imagine what they would've eaten then–the diet doesn't seem as "exciting" and varied as our modern diet. Yet that's the way it was. I agree, those anachronisms throw me when I read them, so why wouldn't I try my hardest to avoid them when I write histfic?And language. Argh. New can of worms. I'm of the camp that's okay with contractions–for Vikings. I believe they had ways of shortening their verbs, like we do. BUT as far as adjectives/adverbs/nouns and even verbs, I researched Old Norse to keep it flowing with authentic-sounding words. Yes, it does make the writing more rudimentary to some degree. But it seems authentic when I read it, and that's what I want readers to FEEL. If there's one thing I've learned about histfic, it's that there are any number of writing styles/viewpoints that can make for an enjoyable read. I loved GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, and for the most part, it read "modern" to me (I believe it was first person, but I could be wrong). I loved that book–you got the flavor of the time period without wallowing in all the laborious details. I'm now reading WOLF HALL and it's 3rd person PRESENT tense, which is interesting. Half the time I'm not sure who is speaking/thinking. But the storyline is interesting and it's certainly earned its fair share of raving reviews (and plenty of bad ones, actually), but it seems to be worth sticking with.

  25. Haven't read that one at all. Not sure how I feel about first person, I am reading a series written in I think its first person past tense right now which I rather like, but most novels seem to be past tense. As to food, the main protagonist in this Medieval Mystery series likes his! The Medieval diet may not have been so varied but that does not mean their food was entirely uninteresting or nasty. I helped cook pottage once in Tudor kitchen and flat bread and it was good! BTW, a 12th century cookbook has recently been discovered.

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