Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Review a Book

I don't profess to be an expert on reviewing- or for that matter, anything to do with the publishing or blogging world, but yesterday's post got me to thinking about reviews and I thought I'd offer up some advice.

DEFINE YOUR MISSION
Figure out why you're offering reviews. The Bookanistas, a group of writer-bloggers proclaim that they're only reviewing books they love, so you can expect that every review will be a gush. Are you reviewing to spread the love for lesser-known books? Or to offer your readers options in book purchases? Or promote books you believe in?

Depending on what you decide, it may influence how you review.

Also, think about ways to make your reviews unique. There are certain books I see reviewed almost every month. If you're going to review a book, bring something to the table- either something new, or something only you can offer.

NEGATIVE REVIEWS

If you read a lot, you'll eventually come across a book that either does absolutely nothing for you or that you flat-out hate. As a writer/blogger, you'll have two choices when that happens:

SAY AND DO NOTHING
Pretend like you didn't read the book. Mention it to noone. Better yet, pretend the book doesn't exist.

BE FAIR AND OBJECTIVE
If you choose to say something about the book, be objective about it. First, state that it wasn't your thing. If there are specific things that drove you not to like it, talk about them. And talk about the things you liked, even if you didn't mesh with the book overall. (I love Larissa's comment on yesterday's blog w.r.t negative reviews.)

For example, these snippets are taken from my review of CATCHER IN THE RYE (CITR).

2nd paragraph: "Personally, I didn't like it...Yet I appreciated it. "

4th paragraph: "What I don't like about the book is the lack of movement."

5th paragraph: "What I do like about the novel is its criticism of humanity."

Even though CITR is my literary arch-nemesis, you can still take something from this review. If you value sociological analysis more than you value a forward-moving plot, you might try the book, despite the fact that I don't like it.

(My review of CITR is on my review blog which is not currently public, since I'm still figuring out the art of reviewing. Hopefully one day, I'll have enough confidence to put my opinions out in the world.)

A caveat however: I'm not sure I'd review a book if I thought the writing sucked. I recognise that saying, "Your writing sucks" makes it personal. While something like, "I didn't like the use of the present tense," seems like an objective stylistic assessment. As a future (see what I did there? lol) published writer, I don't want to say anything which leans more towards a personal attack than a literary critique. And I don't want people hating my book because I said something bad about their book (or their client's book, or their friend's book, etc).

At the end of the day, when a review says "I wasn't a fan," you should still be able to respect the book, and the author. And if my review isn't doing that, then I'm failing somewhere.

FINAL SENTIMENT
When you review a book that didn't tickle your fancy, I think it's great to end with a suggestion of who might enjoy it.

Example:
"While it wasn't my cup of tea, I think readers who enjoy literature strongly tied to science, would thoroughly enjoy this book."

IT WAS JUST SO-SO
I don't mean this in a 'bad' way. The grand majority of life is average. The grand majority of the books you read are somewhere between decent and awesome.

This is probably where the biggest problem lies in the reviewer blogosphere. In an effort not to be negative to our colleagues, we've gone to the other extreme. Remember how I totally fangirled ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS? That's because I LOVED it. When I posted that review on December 6th, 4 days after the book had been released, I had already read the book 3 times. Not every book can fall into this category.

Like I said, that's not a bad thing. But there is a way to handle the good book that didn't make me contemplate quitting my job so I could spend the rest of my life reading it.

DON'T START WITH A JUDGEMENT.

If you didn't have extreme feelings (love or hate) for the book, then say nothing. The word "average" means that something is as good as most of what surrounds it, better than a few, and worse than few. But "average,"and it's many synonyms have come to have a negative connotation.

So don't say, "This book was average" or "The book was okay" or decent, or so-so, etc.

OVERALL COMMENT

At the beginning of your review, you can give a main concept.

Examples:

[Book] offers a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between a child and his step-father.
[Book] shows how a woman can overcome all obstacles in the name of protecting her secret.
[Book]explores what it's like to be the only person of minority origin within a society.

OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS

The next step you can take is to present an analysis. This is what was bad. This is what was good. And there was anything that rocked your world, say so.

FINAL SENTIMENT
You can put what you came away from the book thinking or feeling.

Example, from review of BEFORE I DIE:

"But even with all that joy, curiosity, new experiences, expect that you will spend the last 20 pages, sobbing your eyes out. "

ROCKIN' STOCKIN'S!

You'd think it would be easy to write a review of something you loved. You'd be wrong. If you ask someone what's great about their Mom/Dad/child/significant other, they might say something like, "She/He is just so awesome!" Now, maybe that means something to the people who know said Mom/Dad/child/significant other, but to anyone else? Nothing.

The point of a review is not just to share your opinion. "It was great," is an opinion, or even a cover blurb. It is not a review. Reviews are meant for someone other than the writer of the review (generally someone who hasn't read the book) to be able to create an opinion. For that, you need analysis.

JUDGEMENT
Where you want to avoid judgement statements for other books, the strongest selling point of a review for a book that you want to marry, is the fact that you loved it that much. (That is, unless you claim to love a book every other day. In which case, people may have stopped listening by now.)

Here's my judgement from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS (AATFK).

"I feel like every cliche possible.

"Like the story is so beautiful that I should never write another word because I can't compete.

"Like any words I use to describe it won't be enough."

PICK SPECIFIC POINTS
It's tempting to grab at a whole bunch of straws, but remember when you grab at too many things, you end up empty-handed.

DON'T just say: The setting was fab! And the characters were awesome! And the love interest! Oh, the love interest! You have to read this! Like, yesterday!

So not helping anyone.

Instead, pick a few specific points. And then give a little snippet on why you liked them.

From my review of AATFK:

"And Étienne: Best flawed love interest. He's got imperfect teeth and bites his nails and is too short. Finally a YA Love Interest that isn't so perfect that you feel like your boyfriend needs to be rock-hard and sparkly. Or have a bazillion ab muscles."

This is useful. When you read this, you either say, "No thanks. I like my Prince Charming's tall, dark and handsome," or, "Thank Zeus! It's about daggone time there was a REAL guy in a book!"

FINAL SENTIMENT
Chances are if you loved a book that much, there may have been something that stood out above all else. It's great to end with this.

From my review of THE COLOR PURPLE:
"And that's just how I felt when I finished the book. Like everything is a part of everything else. And the world is big and immense and I'm such a tiny part. Yet I'm everything."

REVIEW QUICK LIST
1. Opening feeling/thought. ( I didn't like/I loved/It was a thought-provoking exhibition of, etc)
2. What you didn't like, WITH SPECIFICS ( I start with the bad, because I like to end on a high.)
3. What you liked, WITH SPECIFICS
4. Final sentiment (It wasn't for me, but ____ might enjoy it/ You might feel this way after reading it/ This author was meant to write this book.)

There you have my (long) thoughts on reviewing. What do you disagree with? What do you agree with? Anything I've left out?

8 comments:

E.J. Wesley said...

Wow! Great post, Claire! A must read for all book reviewers, for sure. I think I'm going to continue the theme on my blog this week as my Monday post seemed to hit a nerve. (And you know I can't leave well enough alone.)

I'll probably be linking to you again. :)

Judit said...

This article is amazing! Thank you for making the time to write this down, it was very helpful.I always thought there should be a manual but nobody listened to me :D

Pam Harris said...

This post? Awesome! I get nervous writing reviews, but this is very helpful. I'm only going to review books that I've liked since I don't like hurting people's feelings. :(

Caroline said...

Thank you for this clear and thoughtful post. You've actually inspired me to write a few book reviews using your points as a guide.

I think many of your ideas should be applied to critiques, as well. All too often, I see opinion stated as fact or, worse, commands ("You need to...").

Natalie Aguirre said...

I haven't written reviews so I'm not sure how I'd do it. I think I'd just like to spotlight books I enjoy because I'm not really a book blogger.

Krista Ashe said...

Great post! Thanks for doing this and giving us other ways to approach book reviews!! Nice blog too!

Jordyn said...

Thank you for this post. :)

Michael Offutt said...

I saw your comment on another blog that I follow and found your site. This is really informative and thank you for providing the information out there for newbies like me. You're awesome :)