Monday, May 30, 2011

Lessons from book reviews

In November 2009, I wrote the below post about what you can learn from a reviewer's review. I'm re-running this post now because it turns out now, over a year later, I returned to the same sci fi reviewer's column in my local paper and found that not much had changed with the reviewer, but there was more to learn for me. More about that on Wednesday :)

Learning from Book Reviews
(originally posted Nov. 2, 2009)

Before I started getting serious about writing, I never paid much attention to book reviews in the newspaper. But after I learned about structure, plot, characters (you know, those silly story things), I started paying attention to how published books were written, and in turn, how reviews of those published books were written and what they picked out.

You can learn a lot from reviews. For example, in my local newspaper last weekend, there was a review of three sci-fi novels. The reviewer wasn’t overly impressed with any of them, but here’s what he had to say about the first one (newspaper, name, and book all redacted because the intent here is not to slam the reviewer or the book): “[Author name] is a talented author, fueled by a passionate point of view, and that combination makes [Book title] a powerful, if not exactly uplifting novel.”

Well. You could certainly say that about anything, couldn’t you? Those are some pretty undefined adverbs. This post isn’t a lesson in how to write a book review (because frankly, it’s an art—and the reviewer’s aim is not to make the reader by the book), but rather an exercise. Read a book review—find one online. Go to your local newspaper’s online arm and search for book reviews. If it doesn’t have one, go to the nearest large city’s major newspaper web site. Do the reviews tell you anything about plot? The climatic event? The depth of characters?

To get you started, here’s one I found from The San Francisco Chronicle’s web site,
It’s an excellent example of a thorough review—probably because a writer wrote it. It’s for a book called The Rebel Yell by Alice Randall.

The hook is clearly stated in the review (and not in a “I just read this off the back cover” kind of restating): “Randall raises the compelling question: How could an African American who grew up during the civil rights movement oversee a foreign policy in which imprisoned men were tortured and humiliated?”

I learned that the characterization in the novel is tough to pull off, because the reviewer says, “Randall's execution is haphazard, more concept than character-driven, less dramatized than theorized, and structurally disjointed.”

I learned that not all writers think through the what-ifs, and Randall could have benefited from that: “In her search to uncover the real Abel, Hope never considers talking to his second wife or their three daughters, who feel as flat as cardboard cutouts, props intended to show how Abel lost his way. “

And finally, the last part of the review, the reviewer says, “Randall seems to have wanted to show how a person could lose his humanity, but because she doesn't paint a clear portrait of his later life, it's hard to feel invested.”

This is a great critique. The reviewer tells us the problem areas of the novel, points out where we’ll find depth, but make sure we know that there are blurry patches. All that being said, the reviewer did start with the hook, which is compelling, and so I am left with my own decision whether to read the book (and knowing what to watch for), rather than the reviewer’s. In my opinion, this is the best kind of review because it lays out the strengths and weaknesses of the novel appropriately –and explains them, unlike the sci-fi review I listed first. And, it shows me how reviewers look at novels and what they watch for.

Do you learn from reviews? Do you read them looking for ways in which you can learn and summarize books?

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