The Dreaded Three (Point Five) Star Review: Blind Spot by Laurence Miall

blindspot

My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Goodreads
Synopsis:

When his parents’ car is hit by a train, Luke, a failed actor, returns to his Edmonton hometown to attend their funeral, wrap up their affairs, and prepare their house to be sold off. But while all others around him grieve, Luke remains detached, striking up a relationship with a woman in a neighbouring house… and stumbling across evidence that his mother may have engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair herself.

I overthink book ratings. I work in marketing, so I think about the implications of a three versus a four start review, particularly for the indie or small press author. I design consumer surveys, so I know how finicky rating scales are, and I know about the biases that creep into a rating, no matter how objective you think you are.

I have plenty of my own quirks: I’m stingy with my five-star ratings. I’m a fan of the half-star (damn you, Goodreads) and often change my mind after an initial rating. And a three star rating, like I’ve given Blind Spot? Ugh, I hate a three star rating. It’s so wishy-washy. It’s a safe, “I liked it, it didn’t blow me away, but I don’t hate it” kind of rating. And while those statements do apply to this novel, I’m also still thinking about it weeks later, which isn’t wishy washy at all.

I’ve been thinking about ratings lately. How I arrive at them, what they mean, and are they fair. Check out this blog post (and my comment) on Follies Past for more on that. In the meantime, here are some things I think about when rating a novel, and how Blind Spot stacked up.

 

1. The basics

This one’s pretty simple: does the book have enough going for it in terms of plot, character, and style to avoid a one-star rating? I can usually tell after the first chapter. I read a preview of Blind Spot‘s first chapter and was intrigued enough to add it to be TBR list (and to request a review copy.) It presents an Artful Dodger-and-Oliver type scenario, where the streetwise older kid gets the younger kid to do his dirty work, with predictably disastrous results. It’s set in 1990s Edmonton, a very familiar place and time for me to read about bad kids smoking and getting in trouble.

I felt an immediate and uncomfortable identification with Luke. I was doing the same kind of things, in 1990s Edmonton, just a few neighbourhoods over. Miall’s straightforward writing style makes it easy to get into the story, and it fits with Luke’s character; he also seems to be a very straightforward kid trying to fit in and be cool. When we jump to Luke in his early 30s, things aren’t as straightforward – he’s got his parent’s suspicious death to deal with, on top of a failing career and empty relationship.

 2. Emotional response

Five stars doesn’t mean a book is perfect; it’s usually tied to an emotional reaction on my part. I rated The Cat’s Table five stars, despite not liking an entire section of the book, and despite suspecting it wasn’t Ondaatje’s best work. I quite simply fell in love with a sentence and that was that.

Here’s where my rating for Blind Spot gets tricky. I didn’t laugh, cry, or hurl. I didn’t underline any sentences because they were beautiful. I did grow to hate Luke, after identifying with him in the beginning, though. I’m trying to figure out why I hate Luke so much. He is a major dick to his sister, indifferent to his nieces and nephews, and does that thing where you dump someone by cheating on them and waiting for them to find out and dump you. All bad, but maybe not deserving of fiery hate. I actually found myself speaking aloud at times: “Are you for real,” and “You are awful,” and several times just “ugh.”

Luke is not a sympathetic character that you’ll fall in love with. You won’t root for him. You won’t put him on your “Top Ten Fictional Characters I’d Like to Have Lunch With” list. He embodies white, upper middle class male privilege and is just so lacking in self-awareness. Oh, and he’s really really ridiculously good looking, too! I don’t know why that makes it worse, but it does!

So – I didn’t have the “this book changed my life” emotional response that earns 5 stars, but I definitely had a response.

3. Would I recommend it?

Having eliminated one and five star ratings, I think about whether I would recommend it (and to who) to figure out where it lays between two and four stars. In market research, we put a lot of stock in likelihood to recommend. It makes sense; it not only predicts what people like, but what they will share and advocate and create buzz for.

I would recommended Blind Spot, so I know I’m on the 3 or 4 stars side of things. I’m about to recommend it to the author of a novel called Spat the Dummy, which you will read about here soon, because it also features an “anti-hero” but the treatment is so different. In Spat, the hero does horrible things and is bent on self-destruction, but you feel for him. You want him to get better, to be better. In Blind Spot, Luke also seems determined to ruin himself. But I didn’t want Luke to win or get better. I wanted some comeuppance! So this is a “if you liked this, try this” type of recommendation too;  I just happened to read these books side by side but I was glad I did. It made me realize how unconventional this story really is. It’s easy to sympathise with an anti-hero you think you can fix. Luke seems beyond help, somehow.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend Blind Spot to everyone. The writing is minimalist, so if you’re in the mood for poetic or lyrical, I wouldn’t start here.  If you can’t handle an unlikeable main character – definitely not. And I’m not sure if I would recommend this for a “light” read – it’s blurbed that way on the cover, but I didn’t find it that light. Easy to follow, yes, but I think of “light” reads as having some kind of happy ending, or redemption, or hope – the ending of Blind Spot is very, very bleak and left me unsatisfied.

4. Am I still thinking about it?

I was leaning towards three stars. In fact, I began this review by writing “3/5 stars.” But I’m adding the .5 because for a simple story and a simple character, there’s a lot to think about. Why is Luke the way he is? Is it something about his parents? His unsatisfied mother or his absent father? Is he an alcoholic? Mentally ill? A product of a shallow society? Why can’t this young, handsome, financially secure guy can’t get his shit together, and if he can’t, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I mentioned the unsatisfying ending. After finishing, I had all sorts of questions. I immediately flipped to the front of the book, looking for a clue, and in this passage, I found something. We’re back with bad-boy Joel and 11 year old Luke:

I still longed to have his unflinching confidence. No one had ever raised him; no one looked out for him. Joel looked out for himself.

I wanted that self-reliance.

Now, so many years later, I’ve arrived.

I no longer think of this particular three-star rating as wishy-washy. Maybe it’s ambivalent. As anyone who’s watched Girl, Interrupted as many times as I have knows, ambivalent doesn’t mean you don’t care, it means you’re torn between two things. I’m torn between hating of Luke and admiring the consistency and commitment Miall brought to his character, not for a second trying redeem him. I’m torn between wishing the ending had been more hopeful, more damning, more something, and realizing that it was not supposed to be satisfying. That isn’t the point.

ambivalent

What, you thought I’d get through a review without making a 90s pop culture reference?

So yeah, three stars: I liked it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t blow me away. But I’m definitely going to watch for Miall’s next novel, because it just might.

Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy! The book launch is tonight, Friday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. at The Black Dog on Whyte. 

This is becoming a common addendum: Please go read Another Book Blog’s review, in which he took the best blog post title, and read his interview with Laurence Miall, in which he took all the good questions. *shakes fist*

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20 comments

  1. Another Book Blog

    I agree with you in pretty well every respect. I, too, feel unsatisfied with the 3-star rating. (I actually love .5 ratings, and loathe Goodreads and iTunes for not using them haha)

    I actually love that you mentioned your score for The Cat’s Table, and how it almost single-handedly hinged on that line you love so much. That’s something a professional reviewer could never do (or certainly admit). But bloggers CAN, and that’s what blogs add to the conversation. Pros can speak about sentence construction and metaphor and structure and literary allusion, but at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is how a book made you feel. So thanks for bringing that up.

    Also, thanks for the links!

    • lauratfrey

      Yeah, that’s what I was trying to get at. I think we can do either, or both, which is kind of nice – serious reviewing vs. a personal response. Someone at that event said something along those lines – talking about books is a way of talking about ourselves. So true!

  2. eileendandashi

    I enjoyed reading about your process in rating a book. I don’t do it on my blog, but I’m obliged to on Goodreads and Amazon, probably B&N, too, however I don’t go to their site often. Rating IS difficult. I struggle with it. After all, how can you say it’s a amazing and then another one comes your way and is just a wee bit better? I’d rather they do a 10 or 20-star system.

    I also know that book rating is very subjective. I gravitate to certain kinds of books and every once in a while I’m attracted to another sort. Those that ‘aren’t my usual’ stay with me longer than the zillions of historical romances I read of the Regency era.

    I usually start my review right after I read the book, then let it simmer in my mind before I start another book. I’m able to look at the review a little more objectively by doing that.

    Thank you for sharing Blind Spot. Based on your review, I’d probably read the book. So something is to be said for 3 or 3.5 rating.

    • lauratfrey

      Oh man, 20 stars! I know what you mean though, and that’s why I don’t “get” people who rate a lot of things 5 stars. How can they all be the best?

      My problem is I let things simmer too long! Though I generally give my star rating on Goodreads right away.

      You should try the book! And recommend a regency romance for me 🙂

      • eileendandashi

        There are so many flavors of Regency Romance. Do you like slightly naughty, humorous, a bit of paranormal, suspenseful? Do you like your hero belligerent, extremely alpha or your heroine sharp-tongued, demure, demanding her way, champion causes? Tell me a little of what you’d like and I’ll find the right book!

  3. Sarah

    I also really enjoyed reading about your method of reviewing books! This book intrigued me because I heard about it through the NeWest site. I watched a movie with a similar protagonist recently–The Wolf of Wallstreet–so I am interested in reading this book as well. I find I tend to rate too highly, but I do give five stars to books that I have an emotional response to. Twenty percent of my books in my Goodreads list have five stars, so I’m not sure what that says about me.

    • lauratfrey

      I haven’t seen or read The Wolf of Wall Street but that’s an interesting parallel. From what I know, that guy is a real “bad guy” – like, abusive and what not. This guy is not quite that, but mayby that lack of self-awareness, or lack or remorse, or lack of empathy is the same.

      Okay, I had to go calculate my percentage 5 star reviews: 13%. I’m not that far off of you 🙂 I’m totally going to start using this stat in my Year in Review posts, great idea!

  4. Naomi

    I think the biggest factor for me in rating a book is my emotional response to it. Because of that, I tend to give books high ratings (on Goodreads). And, because my ratings are just to help me remember the books I’ve read and how much I liked them, it works for me. I also like most books I read, because I’m careful about choosing them. And, I like many different kinds of books. I don’t rate books on my blog, because I feel like most people will have a different response to a book then me. Either their tastes are different, or they are just not in the right mood or mindset for the same book at the same time. So, I just talk about the parts of the book I want to focus on, and add in my favourite quotes from the book, and usually people who read my reviews pick up on my enthusiasm levels, or the subject/writing style will appeal to them. I think if I had to rate them, I would need a scale of at least 1- 10.

    I loved reading your thought process! And, it will help me from here on to get a better sense of how much you liked a book, and for what reasons.

    Also, I think it’s a great point you made at the end of your review, that sometimes the point of a story is that there is no big ‘thing’ at the end, because life isn’t always like that. Sometimes it is just flat and disappointing/unsatisfying. There is something to be said for these endings.

    • lauratfrey

      I’m reconsidering the whole rating thing. I like the approach you and others take – not rating, or some bloggers do a “recommended reading” thing… I dunno. Or Book Riot’s “Buy, Borrow, Bypass.” See, the over thinking is coming into play again!

      • Naomi

        I do like the “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” and find it helpful, but I still don’t think that I would feel comfortable dictating that to others. What if they would love the book I told them to bypass, and hate the book I tell them to buy? Agh. I think the ratings are fine (for others), as long as the reviews are also well explained, which yours always are!
        I do feel pretty comfortable recommending books that I feel pretty sure most people will like. A recommendation doesn’t feel so structured.

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  6. ebookclassics

    Great post! Very good food for thought. I really dislike rating books because it feels like an inadequate method for expressing all of the thoughts and feelings I have and that are probably going to change a few weeks/months after finishing the book.

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