I truly enjoy writing book reviews, but I enjoy reading them, too. My favorite part of the Sunday newspaper is the spread dedicated to book reviews, and often I end up heading over to the website of my local library with paper in hand, to place a request for at least one title that was reviewed that week. Of course I follow what is offered on LitStack very closely, and I’m constantly amazed at the fun and informative features that Editor-In-Chief Tee Tate rolls out on a daily basis, and I get quite a few recommendations from the others reviewers here – good folks, all. I follow a few other literary websites, too, and receive newsletters from a couple of the publishing houses that I admire. I’m always looking for information on new books, whether from other websites, friends, authors promoting colleagues, even “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” (amazingly, they often have authors as guests, and I really enjoy seeing how the authors promote their own work).
Sometimes I will check other reviews of a book I have been selected to review, although I don’t do this often because I don’t want to potentially influence what I have to say with someone else’s thoughts. Occasionally I get a book to review that has won many awards or major accolades, and those I feel warrant a bit more research. Research generally leads me to some really interesting author interviews, and sometimes I will run across analyses of those works that point out elements that had never occurred to me.
But I tend to stay away from other publications’ reviews. In fact, I’ve found that often when I read reviews in newspapers or periodicals of “high reputation,” sometimes I have to wonder just when the review is going to start! Critics will spend paragraphs taking us down a road, via anecdote, historical account or scholarly analogy, that meanders far away from the book that is supposedly being reviewed, coming to some salient point only after: 1) demonstrating great (perceived) wit, 2) deigning to share knowledge bordering on megalomania, 3) seeing how many high falutin’ words can be fit into one sentence, or 4) regaling the reader with stories rife with insider innuendo and name dropping. Sometimes I have to wonder if I’m really reading a book review, or if someone instead slipped a self-aggrandizing essay in its place, undetected by an overworked copy editor and non-existent typesetter.
I figure if I can’t detect an actual review within four paragraphs, then it’s not really worth my time reading it. (I’ve honestly read reviews that never seem to really give any information on the targeted book at all, which feels like a cheat.) That made me stop and think – what thought processes go into my own reviews? Do I have a certain pattern that I follow, or precepts that I hold to, when I post a review here at LitStack? Is there some kind of signature that I fall into, that would tell someone “Oh, Sharon wrote that one!”, even if there was no by-line on the article?
Without spending a lot of time on metrics, or becoming too analytical, and not pausing at all to vet my process (if I truly have one), I think I’ve identified a few values that I at least attempt to maintain when I write a review. While not following a set formula (I try to let the book dictate the direction of my review) there are points that I work hard at making. I come at those points from the position of one who has looked for those same points in other reviews and either found them lacking in poor reviews, or found them in spades in extremely helpful ones. Those points include:
1) Express fairly early on a genre, or genre relation, or lack thereof, of the book being reviewed. Many folks, even the most avid of readers, prefer certain genres or know that they are not really drawn to others. I, myself, am not enamored of romance novels. This does not mean that romance novels are bad, and I readily admit that I’ve read some really kick ass romance novels. They simply are not normally my cup of tea. If I am reading a review, and find out that a book is at its heart a harlequin romance, I’d like to know that up front, so I can continue reading only if the review highlights contents, characters or settings that are extremely conducive to holding my interest despite the romance element. Yes, that’s a highly subjective vantage point, but isn’t that part of what a review is all about?
2) Lead into the book, but don’t give away the entire plot. I often will spend more time outlining what happens at the onset of a novel and then highly generalize the rest of the book; I do this consciously. I want to draw the reader in enough to get them hooked, and then let them explore on their own. While I do want to go beyond a publicity blurb summary of the book, I don’t want to take away any of the sense of discovery that lies within almost every good book I’ve read. I try never, ever to reveal a major plot development (hint, perhaps, but not reveal) because I don’t think a review should merely outline the book – it should give impressions of its merit, wherever those may be found.
3) Always focus on the book itself. If I have an anecdote to apply to my review, I do my best to keep it short, and make sure it applies specifically to the book being reviewed. People are very busy nowadays – they want to know if the book is going to be interesting to them first and foremost; if it is, they will keep reading. If it’s not, they’ll move on. If someone does move on without reading one of my reviews, I sure hope it’s because they’ve determined they aren’t interested in that book, not because they’ve lost interest with my own meandering. Authors deserve at least that.
4) Include at least one quote from the book. Often, I wish I had more space to quote more extensively, because I think the author’s voice is one of the most unique and compelling elements of any literary work. World-building, characterizations, well defined plots and such are all vitally important, yes, but if you can give the gist of a writer in a short quote, then that is a lovely glimpse to give the reader beyond my own subjective opinion. Sometimes including a short and applicable quote is not possible – some authors defy having snippets of their work evoking the whole – but when it can be done, it shall be done.
5) Accentuate the positive without side-stepping the negative. I don’t ever think it’s necessary to tear down a work or an author in any given review (although you take me out for coffee or a few beers and you might hear an earful!), but I also don’t think that a review should sugarcoat the perception of glaring errors in the execution of any work. I do try to temper any negatives I have, due to the realization that often what does not work for me may be just fine for someone else. My negatives tend to be of the “I did notice…” or “I did have problems with… ” or “I did struggle with….” ilk, but those are usually followed by a “but” to balance out direct criticisms. Not always, but usually. I mean, gee whiz, folks – I genuinely feel that someone who has had the time, energy, perseverance, courage, and dedication to write a book deserves some credit, often heaps of it. So if on the very rare occasion when I truly, honestly don’t like a book at all, due to what I perceive as shortcomings in the writing, I simply won’t write a review of it. My reviews are meant to inform, not tear down, and should something be abhorrent enough to me to not want to share it – then I won’t. End of story.
Bottom line, I am truly, deeply, and humbly honored to be able to share my thoughts about books with anyone who may read my reviews. I take every review I write very seriously, hoping that it will help an author reach another reader – that truly is the icing on the cake and the dark chocolate raspberry ganache in the cupcake for me. So “thank you” to each and every one of you who reads a review I’ve written, and a whopping huge “kudos” to all those amazing authors who write the books I am lucky enough to review. I hope you find my reviews helpful, ’cause that’s what it’s all about!