Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Learning from Reviews, Part II

Following on Monday's repost about book reviews, I always find that I can learn a lot from the reviews of other books. A few years ago I noticed a particularly scathing review of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in the NYT Book Review, and I was really dismayed that the review was essentially a vehicle for trashing Dan Brown, rather than a discussion of the faults the book actually has, or why it remains popular despite its faults--both topics we might have been interested in, as opposed to yet another trashing of Brown.

And in Monday's re-run post, I started out by saying how negative the reviewer seemed to be for a sci fi book review column in my local Sunday paper.

That was in November 2009. Now, March 2011, nothing has changed--the reviews from the sci fi reviewer are just as nasty as ever and a recent column from him proved this.

A few weeks ago, he trashed three books in a row on a lavish scale, making me wonder if he'd sat on a chair full of tacks or had a dog die while reading the books or something. I wanted to see what this guy took issue with, exactly, so I read his reviews carefully. For the first book, "The Remembering" by Steve Cash, the reviewer pointed out right away that the book was the last of a series, and that Cash was merely turning the book in to fulfill a publishing contract. Thus, obviously, the book was the equivalent of a steaming pile of armadillo poo. The reviewer ends with, "Don't waste your time or money."

Fair play, I haven't read the book or the series. But really? Is this how it works? Writers get awesome multi-book series contracts and then get tired and submit ramblings from their golden retrievers as the final book, because they're "tired"?

If our intrepid book reviewer had pointed out where Cash gone wrong in the book and left it at that, I might have believed him. But he went a step further to assume weird things about the author, and thus negated the credibility of his review.

But maybe this first book was truly bad--who knows. I read on to the next two reviews.

They were for "At the Queen's Command" by Michael Stackpole. Stackpole, the reviewer starts out, "is a professional writer...who has published more than 40 novels since 1988 and he understands the craft of book writing." Oooh, alarm bells rang right away. We're starting with the author's credentials, not the book. The reviewer goes on to say that, "At the same time, though, cranking out two 100,000 word novels a year is more about production than deep thinking."

Oooh, Mr. Cranky Pants reviewer, just because you don't have the drive or typing speed or even intellect to write two long stories a year doesn't mean other people don't. As you point out, Stackpole is a pro, and probably does this as his day job. And anyway, who cares? The reviewer points out that the book is a "fun ride in alternate 18th century America." So, what--Stackpole didn't write a dissertation on American history? And that's a bad thing? Strike two!

Cranky's final review is for "The Habitation of the Blessed" by Catherynne M. Valente, and our soldiering reviewer says that Valente has written "some interesting books and I've stuck with her through strange digressions, but with [this book] she's lost me."

Sigh. Cranky never quite gets to the heart of why this book annoys him so, except to say that he dislikes Valente's way of showing the concept of the Word of God made flesh through her characters. Once again I haven't read the book so I can't really say, but surely that's an example of showing not telling?

These reviews are all fine if Cranky didn't really like the books. But when I read a book review, I want to hear why the book works or doesn't work-- I want to hear whether the story question was answered, whether the characters were fully developed, whether the author wrote well. Not this silly complaining about the authors themselves and how they obviously threw in the towel. That's not really how writing a novel works unless you're James Patterson. (Snap!)

This is the danger I find with book reviews, online or newspaper. When the reviewer makes it personal, I have to start discounting the actual review. When the reviewer takes pot shots at the author rather than the writing, I have to assume he or she has eaten some bad pork and spent all night with his or her head over the toilet, because he or she has clearly forgotten that book reviews are about writing, not about authors. Or that they shouldn't be about authors.

The point of my post today is to please read the negative reviews that you see carefully --and decide for yourself if the book merits the thrashing it gets, and if the reviewer has thought about the story and its themes, rather than how shoddy the author is.

It shows.

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