Thursday, May 19, 2011

Art of the Book Review

I'm not sure I would say there is an art to writing a book review. Although many people have been coming to me lately saying they wished they could write a book review and I why don't I teach a workshop on just how to do that. My response is usually that I don't know that I'm qualified because how do I know if the book reviews I write are really that good. I just write them and hope for the best. Hope I don't insult an author, especially if it's someone I know.

But I have been giving this a lot of thought. And I remember a book review I wrote a long time ago that, for lack of a better word, sucked. It was bland and boring and all it did was describe what the book was about. That's not a review. That's a synopsis. It's the same thing you would find on the back jacket cover.

So..a little over a year ago, when I was asked to write a review, I thought I would go into full respiratory failure. How on earth was I going to write a decent review that didn't just sum up a book. A review that had substance and showed I had actually put some thought into what I wrote.

To make matters worse, the first book I was given to review as a collection of short stories. And let me tell you, writing a review on a collection or anthology is a polka dotted zebra, compared to a review of a novel or book on one particular topic.

So here's a few things I did to prepare for that review.

Go through a newspaper, online or in literary magazines and read other book reviews. Ask yourself, what makes this review interesting. What about it makes you want to read the book, or not? Is there something that stands out? Is the review a summation of the book and then an opinion by the reviewer or is there a substance to it?

Be The Reader
Well this is a given. You have to read the book before you can write the review. I always read the book once through without giving too much thought to the review. Sometimes I make tiny notes or mark really amazing passages, but for the most part I read it not as the reviewer but as the reader and along the way think about what makes this book really good, really intriguing, what's intriguing or not about it. Does it remind me of something else, like a time in my life or an experience that I could compare it to? Again, don't put too much thought into the first read through.

Sit on It (no this is not some kind of weird osmosis)
After I've read the book, I leave it for a day or two. After the story has had a chance to percolate and churn, I come back to it. Grab paper and pen and start jotting down the things that I remember - the things that still stand out. Whether it's things about the character, about the theme or about particular scenes, it may all be relevant. I look for commonalities between the things I've jotted down.

Be the Reviewer
Now I go back and often reread the book. Yes, cover to cover. But now I am looking at different things. Great dialogue, great character development, interesting relationships and even the structure of the book.
In collections I usually try to pick out at least one favourite story. This usually isn't hard to do. And you may have different reasons for it being the favourite.

I find using actual excerpts from the book are helpful in creating a structure or bringing out a particular theme or something about the character. Make sure you reference the page number and story and author next to the excerpt.

Excerpts are not necessary to a review but I think it adds something. Not only does it show the author (and the readers of the review) that you actually put time into searching out accurate excerpts, but it gives more body to the review. I have read several reviews that don't use excerpts and I've read lots that do. I prefer reading the ones with the samples. I like getting a little sampling of the writing, but I think it's the preference of the reviewer.

Structure/Good vs. Bad

Structure in a review is almost as important as structure in a book. I like to try and have a natural progression through the review, from beginning to end.

I open most of my reviews with a thought, a comparison to something in real life that mirrors the theme of the book. Maybe even a scene that I've made up myself.

Or I start with an excerpt from the book, or a news related piece. All that relate to the book, of course.

What if I don't like the book? What if it's someone I know and I don't like the book? What if there are some really good things about the book but also a lot of bad things?

I like to structure my reviews much the way I do a critique. Start with the good, mention the bad, and end with the good. Sandwich the negative in the middle and pad it with a lot of good on either side.

But that's me.

If you choose only to write good reviews then so be it, but I think you're selling yourself short. If you choose to write both, great.

I recommend not being too harsh even if you don't like the book. This probably comes from me being a writer. Writers put so much time and energy into their projects that a negative review can be demoralizing. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to sugar coat it either.

I prefer to be diplomatic.

A dear friend asked me not that long ago, if I read a book by someone that I knew and I didn't like it, would I still write the review? I had to think about it, but I came to the conclusion that I probably wouldn't. I also, won't write a good review if I didn't like the book. No matter who it's for.

But there in lays another problem.

Lately I have been asking people to send me books to review. Some of these people are colleagues and friends. What would I do if someone I know asked me directly to write a review of their book and I didn't like it? That, I don't know and hope I never have to find out.

You will never interpret a book the way the author intended. If you do, it's probably pure luck. I always struggled with the thought of misinterpretation. What if I was wrong in how I perceived the story or theme? That's the thing about interpretation. It's fairly unbiased. Societal, familial and environmental factors make up who we are as a person and how we are going to perceive certain situations in a book. Don't let that hold you back. It adds more levels to the review and there are bound to be others out there that think the way you do, or alternatively, completely disagree.

All I can say is be fair.

Be honest. creative.

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