I have been reading a lot of book reviews lately, mainly because I’m looking for reviewers for my novel Love of a Stonemason and also because I have been reading a lot of new and independent authors, wrote some reviews myself, and like to get someone else’s opinion.
I came to realize that writing a successful review requires talent and effort just like writing the original novel, story, or poem. As readers we all have likes and dislikes and we often have a gut reaction to a book. We either love it or hate it or we like the beginning and not the end or vice versa. Reviewing a book, however, is not just expressing one’s likes or dislikes but the reviewer needs to approach a work with a certain impartiality and objectiveness, in order to write a fair review.
While reading reviews, I came to realize, this “rule” is not always adhered to. One thing the reviewer shouldn’t do is review apples, if he hates them and loves oranges instead. (Excuse my bastardization of the phrase.) If a reviewer for instance reviews a romance, when he really doesn’t like that genre and loves thrillers instead, he is likely to be unfair. That sounds like a no-brainer, but believe me, I read reviews that did exactly that. Now, there are of course certain elements of good writing that apply to all genres but there are differences, for instance in pace, between a romance and, let's say, a thriller.
I think the first thing a reviewer needs to ask himself or herself is: What is the intention of the author? What is the book about? And how well did the author fulfill his intention? If the book is a romance, the focus is on relationships and you won’t find a lot of blood and gore as in a thriller. It may proceed at a more leisurely pace and that’s okay for a romance. So if you are disappointed that there is no murder in the second paragraph of a romance, that’s your problem, not the author’s. Okay, I’m exaggerating of course.
Here is an example that may show what I mean. I read a review of a novel that I know well. It was a generally favorable review. The novel was what I would call a romantic psychological thriller (my own term). The main character was a troubled, insecure, young woman, who is the victim of a satanic cult and has severe psychological problems. She is confused about what’s real and what is merely in her imagination. She doesn’t trust herself or anybody else.
One of the reviewers was irritated by the fact that the woman came across as a helpless victim and it irked the reviewer that she didn’t have more backbone. The reviewer obviously likes strong, tough women characters. That’s fine but that’s not what this novel was about. The intent of the author was to show the young woman as extremely vulnerable and confused. In the course of her development, she did grow stronger but it was a long and arduous process.
Another example: A reader wrote a review of my own novel, Love of a Stonemason. The core of the novel is the relationship between a young painter and her boyfriend, a sculptor. The story takes place in three different countries. One of the complaints of the reviewer was that there wasn’t enough description of the different locations. The reviewer didn’t know those countries and didn’t feel he or she knew them after reading the novel. Now, that could be a valid complaint. It’s very important that the reader gets a sense of the environment.
However, what puzzled me was the fact that the very thing the reviewer criticized was the feature all other readers (at least until now) praised. They liked the vivid descriptions and the concrete, sensuous details of the environment, as seen through the eyes of the painter. One reader, who had never been outside of the United States, said she felt she was actually travelling to these places.
I tried to make the scenes as vivid as possible, but again, my intention was NOT to write a travelogue but to give enough information for the reader to get a feeling for the place. Of course, there is a lot more to these countries than is described in my novel. I hope I stirred up some curiosity and if anybody wants to get to know these places better, they can always read a Lonely Planet book or other travel guide or, what’s even better, take a trip there! (Okay, that may be too much of a strain on one’s budget.)
These are some thoughts on reviewing from the point of view of an author. I am not an expert on reviewing and I admire anybody who takes the time to read a book and then tries to write something intelligent about it. I believe there are as many different opinions about a book as there are readers.
If anybody is interested, one of my favorite novelists, Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Coastliners, The Lollypop Shoes) has some excellent advice for reviewers in her article Everyone’s A Critic: an Idiot’s Guide to Reviewing. In fact, I believe it should be required reading for anyone attempting to write serious reviews (see item 4).
Comments and feedback appreciated!
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Some thoughts on book reviews
Christa Polkinhorn, originally from Switzerland, lives and works as writer and translator in the Los Angeles area, California. She divides her time between the United States and Switzerland and has strong ties to both countries. She is the author of five novels and a collection of poems. Her travels and her interest in foreign cultures inform her work and her novels take place in several countries. Aside from writing and traveling, she is an avid reader and a lover of the arts, dark chocolate, and red wine.