Learn with me: Book reviews ‘How to’ post #1

So, I feel I’m crap at writing the sort of book reviews I want to write. I know good ones when I see them, I enjoy lengthy and meaty reviews, ones where the focus can shift from the specific book at hand and include other works by the same author, and indeed relevant pieces by other people too.Where the themes are dissected and the language choices considered and analysed. What I want to learn to do is more ‘book autopsy’ or ‘book archaeological dig’ rather than a ‘book review’.

I am going to methodically and conscientiously try to gain some knowledge and skills about how to write good book responses and I thought it would be helpful if, as I gather material and try to learn how to write fab reviews, I shared my findings here. Sometimes I think of this as a depository of good stuff I find, like a big box that can hold a lot of tips and links and articles and jottings and being a teacher I like to share learning, but bear in mind this may be more Prep Show and Tell rather than an erudite exposition on the Art of Reviewing (in keeping with my review efforts so far.)

My search thus far has brought me to this website, which is a WikiHow page containing 11 steps to writing book reviews. The first step is: read the book. I do wonder sometimes whether all the reviews I see, and usually skim over or skip, are based on books that have been properly read, ie completed and even if completed, understood. (When you think about it, it’s fairly easy to fake a review. You can get the cover from anywhere. You can get the author information as well as publishing info from anywhere too. You can ALSO look up other people’s reviews – heaps of them – and therefore you could cobble together a content-lite piece and no one would be the wiser, APART FROM knowing that it’s a piece of fluff.) This leads to point 2 which is ‘understand what you read’. Sometimes, understanding comes after a period of pondering and processing. Often I will finish a book, having made notes, and then later be reading something else or thinking about the book or an idea, and I’ll make connections. I think it’s these connections, lines of thought that can lead off in quite different directions but link to other works, either by the same writer or other authors, or link to ideas I’ve had, beliefs or attitudes about something, that can be revelatory and enhance understanding of the book and/or hopefully enlarge some sort of understanding about the human condition and about life.

Number 5 is interesting to me: Find more about the author and the works he or she had done. In this way, the review of one particular work can be contextualised. I think this is what is most often missing from reviews that I find lacklustre. And points 8 and 10, where plot and reader responses are summarised also to me are what seem to constitute many reviews that people do. It’s like this is all they focus on.

I know I’m being critical here about reviews but it’s one type of review that I’m thinking of: those reader reviews that are churned out and consist of a couple of paragraphs and which don’t offer any real information or response. Maybe some readers have worked out that if they do lots of reviews and have a good blog audience then publishers and authors will send them books to review. Some writers would think this too, it helps with platform. And that’s all good but when the focus is on something other than writing and publishing a quality review that is helpful to readers wanting to find good stuff to read, and to writers wanting to also find good stuff to read, as well as learning more about writing, then to me it can be a superficial and cynical business.

*

Another website I found is this one which outlines reviewing, entitled How to write a book review like a human (cheat sheet included) in which the writer gives tips on writing ‘reputable, honest and real reviews.’ Great, this is what I want, I think.

Their first instruction is: If you bought the book, show it. Yes, I think, this can be one of my rules. Then they say Attach your compliments to details. ‘Compliments are flighty things. If you don’t tie them down to examples and evidence, they’ll just fly away.’ There is a little diagram of text boxes tied to balloons. Cute. And true, I think. When you say (as I often want to) ‘I really loved this, it was beautifully written’ and if I don’t say why or how the author created the beauty, giving examples, it does just float away. Next is Don’t be afraid to be critical. I think this is where lots of blog reviewers falter; none of us want to be publicly negative about someone’s work; any of us who has written even a short story and laboured over it knows how precious a thing it is. But if the book review is going to do its job, then it has to be fair and balanced, and this doesn’t mean just saying nice things. Some people choose only to write reviews on books they enjoy. This is fine and is quite a neat way of managing this conundrum. Others are able to write fair and balanced reviews, where any criticism is delivered helpfully. Still others just are no-holds barred attacks – there are a few high-profile reviewers who do this, Michiko Kakutani of the NYT I believe is one. I recently read that there is a golden rule that reviewers don’t bag a debut book, but when I raised this with my writing group, the others pooh-poohed it saying that it wasn’t true. There is no protective force-field enjoyed by first-time authors. I also heard that a reviewer who did a bit of a hatchet-job on a debut novel has been ‘black-listed’ by certain publications; again, not sure how accurate this is. As the website above says: Helpful criticism can be great for everyone: readers get a balanced review, authors get useful advice, and you may have a hand in shaping your favourite indie author’s next work. (That last bit about the indie author is quite blech, but anyway.) I’m not sure about the next tip which is Act like you’re talking to a friend. I need to think about that, but finally, the last one: Make it a habit makes sense. Like any blog or web content, readers always want fresh meat (I know I do; there’s nothing quite like going to a favourite online reading spot and seeing the same content day after day.)

And finally, for our convenience, at the end of this post there’s a checklist/cheat sheet to get started:

  • plot
  • dialogue
  • characters
  • pacing
  • description
  • sentence structure
  • believability
  • continuity
  • emotional response
  • humour
  • re-reading potential
  • writing flow
  • ease of immersion
  • themes

Next: John Updike and reviewing

PS Seriously tempted to include the words ‘8 Mile’ here or ‘Eminem’ because the one time I did, my stats went beserk. Oh, look at that, see what I’ve done?

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