In August, I read Alexa Donne’s book The Ivies recently, and… didn’t much care for it. It had okay writing, and I actually really loved the murderer, but I won’t go into details in case you want to read this murder-mystery, since a large part of the enjoyment of a murder-mystery is trying to figure whodunnit. So after posting a mediocre review on Goodreads, I checked out some of the other reviews, as I am wont to do, and… this one really stuck out to me:
I think my blog post title makes my opinion of this review quite clear. As someone who reviews books quite frequently myself, I thought it was worth exploring why I think the particular book review I included screenshots of above is a terrible one, and what I think does make a good book review. I would love to hear your insight, as well – maybe there is something that I should be keeping in mind as a self-appointed book reviewer that is not currently on my radar.
I’ll start off by saying that I do not disagree with everything in Alex Nguyen’s review. I think that, as a prominent AuthorTuber, it is fair to put this review in context. I also think it is completely fair to hold someone who publishes videos on the internet proclaiming to be an expert on writing to a higher standard. Alexa Donne’s internet/author brand is that she is so good at writing, she can give you tips on how to be a better writer, as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. As someone who is branding herself this way, I expect excellent writing in the genre that she writes (this particular novel is YA thriller). I also liked that Alex Nguyen provided both pros and cons – almost no book is without merit, so pointing out what was done well and what, specifically, Alex disagrees gives the review an appearance of fairness.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. My largest problem with this particular book review is that it gets personal. Disliking the book, making fun of the writing style, the plot devices, the characters, the publishing industry are all fair game in my book. Making assumptions about the author and personally attacking the author are completely inappropriate.
The first inkling that this review is going a bit sideways is the off-hand remark that Alexa is casually racist against white people, a remark that immediately sets off my alarm bells, because nearly everyone I have ever met who makes a remark like that is, in fact, racist. Someone makes a remark like that, and as a person-of-color, I identify that person as someone to be extremely cautious around. This remark is ended with the contemptuous, supercilious remark that Alexa is “not the brightest bulb or the most self-respecting” person. This last remark is a personal attack against Alexa Donne. It is cruel, unconstructive, and identifies the reviewer as someone who is extremely biased in a way that casts doubt on that reviewer’s ability to accurately assess the book, because it indicates that this reviewer has negative feelings about the author whose book is being reviewed that may make them inclined to view the book in a negative light regardless of its’ merit.
So at this point everyone looking at the review for meaningful analysis or an idea of whether or not they will like the book should just stop reading. Nothing that comes afterward can be taken seriously, because it is clear that the person writing the review may not be able to separate the art from the artist.
But sure, let’s keep reading, right? Why not.
The list of pros is generally pithy, until the last bullet point, which comes across as judgmental and also seems to miss the mark. I think it is generally known that teenagers trying to get into an Ivy League school can have a myopic vision that makes it difficult for them to consider alternatives and put things into perspective. In fact, even teenagers not trying to get into an Ivy League school can have difficulty with things like appropriate perspective. This novel features teenagers and is intended for a teenage audience. Anyone reading this review for purposes of analysis or determining whether or not they want to read this book should definitely stop here. Alex Nguyen has made it clear that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the target audience and characters in this novel. If Alex N. liked this novel, it would be shocking. Yet we can see the one-star review, so it’s clear that Alex N. did not like the novel.
But let’s continue reading, shall we?
The cons again include trigger words like “token poor girl,” “appropriation,” etc., that make it seem that a large part of this reviewer’s problem with the book is that it did not solely feature privileged white students, which is just… odd. The reviewer complains that these characters are included, because it “feels like” the author just included some diverse characters to pretend to be woke or something, then says that the book feels like a trashy novel. First of all, it is odd to assume you understand the author’s intentions for an issue like this one. Second, trashy novels are notorious for having flat characters who are not well fleshed out and for whom not a lot of thought was put into character development. So if it is, in fact, a trashy novel (not saying I agree with that characterization), then wouldn’t including diverse characters whom the author doesn’t include a lot of detail on be par for the course? Is this reviewer saying that trashy novels should only feature cis white people with money? Because it kind of feels like that is the subtext in these two points. Keep in mind that these two bullet points that complain about a smidge of diversity occurring in the novels and the privilege of some of the other characters being acknowledged are the two most lengthy con written points.
The “final thoughts” paragraph makes assumptions of the author’s fears and insecurities, prefaced with a half-hearted “perhaps.” Knowing when to stop editing, when to share with the world, is a leap, because similar to new parents, most writers never really feel completely prepared. It feels like a weird jump to assume that Alexa Donne didn’t write and publish the book of your personal dreams because she has a fairly successful Youtube channel.
The review ends with another judgmental snippet that basically says the only people who will enjoy the novel are her Youtube followers.
In summary, what I think makes the particular book review analyzed in this post a terrible book review is the use of personal assumptions about the author and a fundamental misunderstanding of the audience and characters of the book. The reviewer’s own remarks indicating that diversity in books could only be an attempt to placate the publishing industry’s push for acknowledging that non-white people of varying means, sexual orientation and gender identification exist doesn’t help, either.
I like honesty in book reviews. I’m okay with hyperbole to make a point. The issue is in making the review personal about the author rather than focused on the author’s work.
Welp, I think I’ve talked enough for the day. What do you think?