Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Sundress-Shopping Taught Me about Book Reviews


Soon I'll attend a wedding on a beach in a warm and festive locale. Because I've been focused on the "wedding" rather than the "beach" part, I hadn't given much thought to clothes.

Luckily, I talked to friend (and friend of this blog) Lark Howard last Saturday, and mentioned I was planning to wear a dress I'd already worn to a couple of weddings to the exchange of vows on the beach. Her initial reaction: utter stillness. That muted response warned me my tried-and-true dress, so appropriate in a traditional setting, would be a wash-out on the beach. 

Lark suggested a pretty sundress or white slacks and a knockout blouse, and I'm on the hunt. 

Tomorrow, I'll hit bricks-and-mortar stores, but in preparation, I've "shopped" online for ideas and inspiration and have read roughly 200 posted reviews of dresses. (Yes, that many. Apparently, women don't hold back when they like or hate a dress.)

Reading all those dress reviews changed my attitude toward book reviews. I used to think one-star reviews of books by my favorite authors were written by unhappy, impossible-to-please trolls or mean-spirited competitors. Now I view the giver of one-star as a pear-shaped woman with buyer's remorse over a pleated skirt.

It's easy to accept outlier opinions about dresses because a quick look around the office, gym, or street shows that two women, both size twelve, may be built so differently, it's hard to believe they wear the same size. What's more, we all have assets we want to play up and flaws we want to minimize. If I read ten reviews in a row that say a dress fits bigger than expected and one that says it's tight, I know the unhappy reviewer means the garment highlights an area she wanted to hide--or she gained weight and doesn't realize it. 

One-star book reviews may be written by plot-centric readers who find character-driven stories dull or by character-happy readers who prefer to take their pivot points with lots of introspection. If a main character reminds the reader of a hated ex, the book may be doomed from the start. If, on the other hand, a hero or heroine shares a name and traits with a loved one, the story may benefit from a unjustified halo effect.

Sundresses that require dry-cleaning are doomed from the start with me, and those that can be laundered and pulled from the dryer wrinkle-free get points. Why, then, are writers baffled by readers who won't pick up a 400-page book or say their workdays are so stressful they need light reads at night? "If you try this book, you'll like it," we say, forgetting that we'd shut the fitting-room door on a saleslady pushing linen. 

Some women won't consider a hot pink-colored item of clothing, and some readers won't pick up a book with a whiff of suspense. 

When a dress or book shopper steps outside her comfort zone and likes something she expected to hate, the result is especially sweet. The following is a compilation of phrases I read in those sundress reviews: "The sale price was irresistible, and I needed a dress at the last minute, so I tried on such-and-such and, to my surprise, it looked great on me."

As readers, haven't we stumbled across a writer and then read her entire backlist, including books we wouldn't have picked up before because the premise or plot didn't grab us? 

While some reviewers are impossible to please, others are too rah-rah. Read enough reviews, though, and it's possible to get a good feel for a sundress--or a book.

Wish me luck shopping!

Your turn: Do you read reviews? How much or how little do they influence you? Do you refuse to consider a certain color of garment or a certain genre of book? What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?

13 comments:

Jennette Marie Powell said...

I won't wear peach because it looks awful on me. I hesitate to read literary fiction, because much of what I have read has a depressing ending, but I still chance one once in a while.

When a bad review tells WHY the reviewer didn't like the book, I'm fine with them. They're a great way to filter out that book for others that won't like it. I've bought or tried books because of 1-star reviews when an element the reviewer didn't like is something I love. The reviews that infuriate me is when there are no details - or worse, it doesn't even seem to be written about the same book. Those I think are people with an agenda.

Coleen Patrick said...

I do read one star reviews, because I'm curious. But that doesn't necessarily stop me from reading it. Unless it's a western, can't say I've ever read a Louis L'Amour book.
Oh and I don't like dresses. I'll wear them when I have to, like the sundress I bought for my brother in law's beach wedding 2 years ago. But I never wore it again. Here's hoping you find one you love! :)

Lark Howard said...

Was I that transparent, Pat? Perhaps living on a beach for 7 years had something to do with my reaction. Heels, pantyhose and sand don't play well together.

Since I'd shop online for clothes because I have to try them on, it never occurred to me there were reviews posted. But I see your point. Last summer when Sarah A and I went looking for a formal for her for National, she must have tried thirty dresses that looked good on the hanger. She found a lovely gown which looked dreadful on me and I found one that didn't flatter her at all. It was all a matter of different body shapes and different coloring.

Books seem to work the same. Many people I respect highly have recommended books I hated, and I rarely share my favorite series because it's pretty much out there. I do read some reviews, primarily those that seem to align with my tastes and preferences.

Good luck with your dress shopping. Post pics!!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Jennette,
Some reviewers have agendas, no doubt about it. As for literary fiction, I don't mind a dark read if it has an optimistic ending (which isn't the same as a happy ending). No optimism, and I'm out.

This past Saturday, editor Lorin Oberweger spoke about deep POV at the West Houston chapter of RWA. Her first example was a scene in the POV of a person who killed a sleeping baby. The group, me included, was so rattled by the baby's death, we had trouble focusing on Lorin's questions about POV.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I have a soft spot for Louis L'Amour, Coleen. When my kids were little, Hubs and I piled them into the car, and we drove to Big Bend National State Park in west Texas. The trip, with stops along the way for sightseeing, took two days. We listened to Louis L'Amour books on tape to set the mood.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Lark, you're the wardrobe whisperer. You were kind and not at judgmental, but that moment of stillness told me what I needed to know. Thanks for the advice. I'll let you know how my shopping excursion goes.

PatriciaKay.com said...

Pat, I'm glad it's you and not me attending a beach wedding. I love the idea (romantic) but not the reality (humidity, sand, wind blowing hair in a million places). So good luck with the sundress shopping.

I rarely wear gold. Looks horrible on me. And I dislike any book recommended by Oprah. Waaaaay too depressing. I'm also not a fan of anything paranormal. I do read reviews and they often influence whether I'll try something or not, be it shoes from Zappos or a book from Amazon or a movie at the multiplex.

I hope you have a wonderful time at the wedding!
Pat

Liz Flaherty said...

I think the wedding sounds so fun (my hair's always beyond help anyway--bring it on, wind), and I love what you learned (and subsequently taught) about reviews. But the baby-killer POV? No. Just no. :-)

Linda Barrett said...

Just enjoy the wedding! Sand, breeze, sun...it's all good. My son got married on the shores of Tampa Bay, and it was wonderful.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Pat Kay! I like what humidity and wind do for my hair because I love me some volume. The two days of the year Houston's humidity is low. I like my hair's shine but hate how it hangs bone straight. My head looks too small for my body!

I'm going to enjoy the heck out of the wedding.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I hear you about the baby-killer POV, Liz. The thing is, Lorin's intro was wonderful. She's smart and personable, and then the first example was all wrong for the crowd and fell flat. The woman next to me kept mumbling "No, no, no."

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Linda. I intend to enjoy the wedding and all the excitement leading up to it. A wedding beside Tampa Bay sounds divine.

Karen McFarland said...

Shame on me Pat! I cannot believe I've missed your posts. I've had some crazy legal stuff jumping off lately. Hopefully, things will calm down now. How did the shopping for the new outfit go? I agree with Lark. A nice white pant and dressy blouse should do the trick, unless you found a dress? Yes, definitely post pics. Now, as far as reviews for books. I don't read them. That must sound funny, but it's true. :)