Five star reads – can you trust them?

 A friend was bemoaning the fact that some books are disappointing despite having glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (owned by the same company, in case you weren’t aware).

It’s hard to judge a book solely on the comments of other readers, especially if you don’t know their reading tastes, and they don’t know yours. Nevertheless, we are often influenced by five-star reviews.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t help wanting to get your hands on books that are getting lots of press and are thrilled when you see a much-hyped new release sitting on the ‘new books’ shelf at the library. You take it home full of expectation, only to find it’s not as good as the hype suggested. It’s so disappointing. What were they thinking giving it five stars? You’d only give it three, and that’s being generous.

There are many reasons books get lots of hype. A book can be genuinely brilliant and deserve all the press (Lessons in Chemistry), or win a prestigious prize (Shuggie Bain), or have a huge publicity budget (Jane Harper). The lead time for a new book is very long, at least a couple of years. During that time, many industry pundits have read advanced review copies (ARCs). Copies of new (unpublished) books are also available from NetGalley, so anyone who wants to make a living as a reviewer or book influencer can log in to read digital copies well before they hit the shelves. And a free copy of a book often equals a positive review, unless you are writing for Kirkus.

A book may not be right for you for many reasons. I snaffled a copy of Carrie Soto is Back (by Taylor Jenkins Reid) at the library last week and only read the first few pages before putting it in my return pile. I’m sure it’s probably an excellent book, but I’m not that interested in tennis or any sports really, so it didn’t gel with me.

It rarely takes long to figure out if a book is for you. With most books, you only need to read the first couple of pages to know that you are going to enjoy it. Others take a while to get going, so you need to read a few chapters before you can really commit. I’ve heard people say you should read seventy pages, but I can usually tell much more quickly.

People are often tell me they always finish books, even if they aren’t enjoying them. This is madness! You should never keep reading a book you aren’t enjoying (once you’ve given it a decent chance, of course). There are so many books out there, just read what makes you happy. If you feel bad about not finishing books you’ve purchased, give them to a little street library so they can find a new home. If they are library books, take them back to the library as quickly as you can so another reader can enjoy them. Don’t keep them by your bedside for weeks and weeks, feeling guilty about not reading them.

I’m getting better at choosing books, but my secret is that I nearly always pre-read the first chapter on my iPad. I have literally hundreds of sample chapters which I browse through regularly. I’m constantly adding new titles when I see interesting books advertised or reviewed, and I subscribe to many newsletters from writerly people and publishing houses. I’m lucky enough to have a circle of bookish friends, so I get to talk about books a lot, and I belong to a family of readers which is very handy. I trust their judgement, but most of all I’m confident they know my reading tastes (and quirks) and will recommend books I’ll probably enjoy.

It might not be the same for you. You might not have the time or inclination to spend hours and hours hunting down new titles, or you might be in that weird situation where there are lots of options, but nothing seems quite right. To be honest, that’s why I started Book Chat (a newsletter for readers). I like to think that by reading widely, I can help people narrow down their options and make choosing easier. I know not everyone has the same reading tastes (thank goodness or the world would be a boring place) but I hope that by providing reliable recommendations you can find a book that’s just right for you.

If you would like some reading recommendations, why not subscribe? If you’re already onboard, thank you.

8 thoughts on “Five star reads – can you trust them?

  1. I certainly agree that there is too little time to waste on reading a book that you’re not enjoying. It can be difficult, though, to decide to stop reading and move on. There have been some instances when I’ve started reading and feeling it’s perhaps one to reject and then after persevering get drawn in and enjoy it. On the other hand there are other examples where I start off liking it then after a few more chapters decide it isn’t for me after all. So making the decision to stop isn’t always clear cut.

    1. That’s absolutely true. Sometimes a book is well-written but you just don’t have the brain space to give it the attention it deserves. On the other hand, I just read a thriller that really didn’t deserve my time and attention. I read right to the end and then felt bad.

  2. It’s not too often I don’t finish a book, just because I feel pretty choosy about books I put on my to-read list. But it’s happened, and I don’t feel guilty about quitting! The last one I didn’t finish was Lena Dunham’s book. Just because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean you have a story to tell! Now I put Shuggie Bain on my wish list. I remembered reading about it a while ago so thanks for reminding me. Thanks also for the tip about the first chapter. I forget about that option!

    1. I’m not much of a fan of celebrity memoirs either. I know that it’s a lot of hard work to write a book and I’m in awe of people who actually see it through to publication, but I suspect a lot of celebrity memoirs are ghost-written, so I don’t feel bad about giving them two stars.

  3. I felt that way about Honeybee (Craig Silvey). It got so much hype and I chose it for our bookclub but I found it so disappointing (and thankfully, I wasn’t the only!). I was one of the only people in the world who didn’t like Jasper Jones so I should have been forewarned.

  4. Have you tried books written by Ben Macintyre. Non fiction BUT SO exciting!
    Operation Mincemeat
    Agent Zigzag
    A Spy Among Friends
    and I’ve just started his newest Colditz
    Hi to you and Tony from both of us

    1. Haven’t heard of him, so thanks for the recommendation. Hi to you as well, we must catch up and talk about books!

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