Saturday, October 8, 2016

How to Review a Book

I may not be the world's leading authority on this. My book reviews were not the most trafficked pages on MuggleNet, when they were even still being posted there. I no longer possess an advanced enough computer to meet the technical requirements to post my own stuff on MuggleNet, and it's been about two years since the staffer responsible for posting my reviews has bothered; but for a while there, the Book Trolley was a point of pride. But I have amassed a collection of more than 1,500 book reviews, besides ones that have slipped through the cracks, never to be seen again. If you follow this link and then click the first letter of an author's last name, rinse and repeat, you can find all the ones I can find. I've developed a bit of a rhythm for writing them, which pleases me and, I hope, is helpful to other people looking for suggestions about what to read next.

1. Know Your Mission
I pitched "The Book Trolley" to the admins at MuggleNet in 2003, and for quite a few years, it was my main outlet for sharing the joy of reading with the internet. I got some good feedback about it, while the MuggleNet feedback system was keeping me in the loop, and lots of suggestions for readers about books to review - more than I could ever keep up with. This wasn't how I started writing book reviews, however. I really started reviewing books - and some of my MuggleNet reviews originated - by way of correspondence with a college friend who taught school several years in an Alaska town north of the Arctic Circle.

My original mission a reviewer, therefore, was simply to offer ideas for books she might enjoy during a long winter trapped indoors, and books she could share with her students. She reciprocated by sending me some books she thought I should read; many of them are represented by reviews on this blog. But as I re-purposed my existing reviews for MuggleNet and moved forward with the Book Trolley, my mission as a reviewer took on the added wrinkle "If you like Harry Potter, you may also like..."

Sometimes the connection to Harry Potter is pretty thin, though. Some books are really close to what a Harry Potter addict would most likely go for. Some are pieces of literature that I think may have influenced J.K. Rowling at some point in her creative process. Some are just good books for teen readers, people who like fantasy, or people who just like a well-constructed and emotionally satisfying story. And some are listed there because, as someone who likes Harry Potter, I reckon anything else I like could fit the bill.

On a deeper level, my mission as a book reviewer is not to be a cultural critic, an ideologue, or an apostle of style. I think of myself, rather, as a "book booster," pushing the awareness and appreciation of good books and the pleasure of reading, especially on younger readers who may not have a lot of experience picking stuff they like to read.

2. Describe the Book
One of the dangers of writing 1,500-plus book reviews is the tendency for many roughly similar books to blur together. So it becomes increasingly important to lead each review off with a tight, clear description that identifies distinctly what this book is about - what kind of main character(s) it has, what situation they're in, a sketch of what happens. This part is tricky, because it is sometimes hard not to give too much away, and sometimes to avoid that (or to avoid getting bogged down in an endless explanation of the book's complexities) you have to hold back so much that you can only vaguely tease the story. So you must be able to live with a frequent sense of not having done justice to a book in your description of its contents.

I admit that at times, I have fallen into the ditches on both sides of this narrow road. In my review of Kappa, for example, I am aware that I pretty much forgot to say anything about what happens in the book. (Some mental patient explains how he fell down a hole and found himself in Kappaland, learned to speak Kappanese, and observed the social foibles of the Kappas, then escaped back to the human world and lived to regret it. All right?) On the other hand, I have caught myself spoiling practically every detail of a story in some of my reviews; at times, I deleted a lot of what I had written and changed it to a "long story short, don't want to give away too much" summary. Then there were times when I didn't check myself, and the review went out there, spoilers and all. Which is too bad, because those are probably my most boring reviews!

A goal I must strive for, and that I recommend to other would-be book boosters, is to tell just enough of what happens in the story to give a mental picture of what to expect in general, and perhaps to pique someone's interest.

3. Evaluate the Book
Another thing I often have to remind myself is not to end the review without saying in a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two, what I thought about the book - to "sell" what I liked about it, while being honest about my reservations. Since my audience of habit, even years after parting ways with MuggleNet, remains kids, parents, and book nerds of all ages for whom Harry Potter is a gathering point, I often mention precisely why I think this book should appeal to them, even if the reasoning is somewhat twisted. And because kids and parents are part of that expected audience, I also try to light up "Adult Content" and "Occult Content" advisories and other content warnings where they seem needed - not to censor the books, but to allow individuals and families to brace themselves for challenging material, or to self-select whether they want to proceed.

When I post my reviews on starred review sites, such as Netgalley, Goodreads, and the late and lamented Shelfari, I take the opportunity to apply a second round of evaluation to each book. But I would rather not review a book at all than say nothing but negative things about it; and I want to encourage people to read books to the limit of how positively I can evaluate them, while doing justice to my concerns about them. So my starred reviews tend to err on the side of having more stars than I think the average "book critic" would provide. To me, 5 stars means it's a book I really enjoyed; 4 stars means I strongly recommend it, but with a few reservations; and by far the majority of my reviews take 4 or 5 stars. Books that I deeply, personally cherish get added, if possible, to an additional list of "favorites."

As for 2- and 3- star reviews, they seldom happen, and they tend to mean something about the book seriously disturbed my reading pleasure. This doesn't, however, mean there is nothing about the book that I would recommend. I don't remember whether I've ever given a 1-star review. I would, in effect, be saying I hated the book, since giving it zero stars would be equivalent to not reviewing it at all; and whether or not I opted for that route would depend on how strongly I wanted to urge people not to read it. Whenever it comes to that decision, I tend to remind myself to be a book booster first and a critic second.

4. Put It All in Context
My usual procedure for ending a book review is to say a few words about the author, putting the book concerned in the context of a writing career and/or a series of books, and suggesting other books in the series or by the same author that might be fun to read. Also, it's important to acknowledge when my review was based on a pre-publication proof and how I came by it.

Occasionally, I also enjoy an opportunity to brag about having corresponded with an author. In my current day job, I get to interview a lot of local people and write feature stories about them for the newspaper. I've interviewed three local authors now, though only one of those interviews was mainly about their writing career. Those interviews are nowhere on this blog. But I am still proud of the handful of interviews I have blogged with authors whose books I had reviewed. I hope I will have more chances to do this in the future.

5. Optional Stuff
Most of my reviews go straight to the point. But sometimes, it's fun to indulge in a little fancy verbal footwork, building my comments on a book into a brief essay to entertain. On these occasions, I often relate my experience reading the book with aspects of my personal life. Or, I may compare the present book with one I read a while ago, and riff on their similarities and differences.

If I have a genuine, strong emotional reaction to the book, such as laughing, crying, being frightened out of my wits, or (in a recent case in which I let loose a loud stream of profanity before realizing the whole neighborhood could hear me) becoming exasperated with the book, I'm almost sure to mention it in my review. I think that kind of thing brings the reviewer and the reader of the review closer together in their shared experience of reading.

I'm not too big a man to argue with a book that I think is wrongheaded (if you'll excuse the fancy that books have heads). I'm not too little a man to praise a book with which I disagree. I'm not so rigid in my ideas that a book cannot change my mind. And sometimes, the only way I can explain what a book means to me is to drop a reference to another book in my review. Occasionally, I'll include a quote from the present book as a taster.

6. Nuts and Bolts
A few other things deserve mention. I like to include links to a site where the reader can find the book; usually it's Amazon, unless I can't find the book there, although Amazon dumped me as an affiliate after my state made some change or other to its sales-tax law. I also try to include a link to the author's website or, failing that, their Wiki page or, failing that, a page about them on Fantasticfiction - I site I often consult to learn what else an author has written, or which installment in what series a book is.

I also like to include cover art from the book. In the past, I also tried to dig up a picture of the author, but I gave that up for a number of reasons, including simply needing to simplify things to speed up the process. I also used to try to ensure there was a picture on the screen at all times while viewing any post on my blog; but these days, I'm content if there's at least one picture embedded in the post.

And finally, going back to that index page of the Book Trolley, I try to remember to add a link to each new review to the catalog of books I have reviewed, listed alphabetically by author's last name. That way, when I am preparing to review a book by an author whose work I have read before, I can remind myself how their other books struck me and put my review in context with them.

Wow. There's a lot to this. But when you've done it more than 1,500 times, most of it becomes second nature. En route to that point, you go through a phase when you try really hard to make each review different from all the others that have gone before. It doesn't last long. Then you just write what you enjoy writing, and accept that you'll have written stuff much like it, many times before. The thing that matters is the book. And as long as books don't stop being interesting to read, there will always be something interesting to write about them.

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