Meriel Patrick, deputizing for Lynne.
In last week's post, I talked about a disappointing experience with a historical crime novel that a friend had recommended to me.
With the next book I started after that, I had an almost diametrically opposite experience. I'd vaguely heard of S. J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep as something that had done well in various prizes, but I didn't know a great deal about it. So when another friend said he'd had to read it for his book group and had found it unbelievably tedious, I just shrugged my shoulders and added it to my mental don't-bother list.
When I saw him again a week later, he'd been to the book group meeting, and found that everyone else there had loved it. So out of curiosity, I picked up a copy in an idle moment and read the first couple of pages, rapidly followed by the first couple of chapters. The book went home with me, and it became clear quite quickly that Before I Go To Sleep was not only the title of the work, but an accurate description of when I was going to finish it.
This in itself isn't much more than an acknowledgement that not everyone likes the same kind of book. Before I Go To Sleep is a psychological thriller about a woman with a form of amnesia which means she wakes up every morning with no memory of her present life. Her gradual piecing together of her past was something that I found absolutely gripping, but I can see why someone who prefers books with lots of fast-paced action might find it slow going.
What struck me as interesting, however, was the discovery that Before I Go To Sleep and last week's disappointing historical have surprisingly similar Amazon star-rating profiles. The absolute numbers are very different (Before I Go To Sleep has over 1200 reviews, while the historical novel has only ten), but in each case, about half the reviewers gave it a maximum five stars, and the rest are divided fairly evenly between ratings from four down to one. The overall average for Before I Go To Sleep is 3.9, and 3.6 for the historical. Yet it seemed to me that Before I Go To Sleep was not just more my kind of book, but was objectively a lot better than the historical, in almost every respect: the characters were more fully realized, the plot was tighter, and the quality of the writing was simply in a different league.
This set me wondering about the extent to which reviews and recommendations are helpful guides about what's worth reading and what's not. I'll certainly carry on taking recommendations from friends, despite two recent instances where our opinions varied quite significantly. Experience suggests they get it right more often than they don't, and people who know me well are frequently quite adept at selecting books not simply because they're good, but because they're the specific sort of good that will appeal to me.
But online reviews from strangers... I'm not so sure. If there's an overwhelming consensus that the book is terrific or terrible, that may mean something, but in cases like this, where opinions are mixed? If there isn't a trustworthy friend or a friendly bookseller to hand, how do you go about deciding whether you're more likely to side with the one-stars or the five-stars?