…and when we come across a comment about a review we’ve posted, either on Amazon or via comments on a review blog, well … egos get stroked and big grins get plastered on normally glinty-eyed grammar Nazi faces.
I reviewed Chasing Kate by Kelly Bryne (a shameless plug, go read this book, you won’t regret it) and I have to admit the caliber of the review was in direct proportion to the quality of the material. When you have a piece of literature that touches you on every level imaginable, how can you not reflect that emotional and intellectual commitment?
The commenter said: “Very detailed and well-presented review, but you had me at Marti.” The ‘you had me at Marti’ had me giving her major props for 1) knowing who Marti Noxon is (screenwriter for the Buffy, Angel and other series) and 2) recognizing the quality of work that implied.
Six months ago I resided solidly in the ‘my reviews suck’ camp. In fact that’s how I titled my blog. The reason for that short-sighted self-image was because I had yet to understand why I chose to talk about a book I’d just read. I am addicted to reading, putting away upwards of 400 books per year (more if they are shorts or novellas). And if I finish a book, then I likely found something worthy in it—a character, an intriguing plot twist or such an outrageously bizarre ‘Verse that suspension of disbelief came with chains and other forms of mental bondage.
But to write about it? That smacked of book clubism and the self-congratulatory focus on dissection for the sole purpose of impressing other members of the club (or oneself). And yes, go ahead, raise those hackles … but that was my opinion. Obviously opinions change. I evolved.
Most, if not all, reviews on Amazon or on amateur and semi-professional book review sites tend toward a formulaic recitation of this happened, then that happened, and I like this character but not that one, with a riff on editing (yay they noticed!) or continuity issues (the more sophisticated approach: POV, ‘voice’, plot points).
Aficionados of the review genre claim that this is what readers want: blow-by-blows so they know exactly what they are buying (or downloading for free). I see it particularly on fanboy and fangirl sites like Ain’t It Cool News where the spoiler reigns and the stalkers of all things pop culture wallow in the satisfaction of insider knowledge at the expense of discovery (for others).
I’m not ‘most readers’ apparently. I hate hate hate knowing exactly how something plays out. It’s like going to the movies, watching a trailer that tells you the entire plot from beginning to end and you think, ‘well, that saves me $15 because I don’t have to see how it turns out’. And that includes the big budget blow ’em up blockbusters. If I don’t have that element of discovery, of surprise, then why bother?
I remember, quite fondly, the old time movie trailers from the thirties and forties (rehashed via AMC and TMC—I’m not that old!). Those trailers showed you tidbits and hints, they suggested rather than told (wow, show not tell) you why you wanted to see that movie, focusing on the characters and not the plot, emphasizing the sizzle and the conflict. And never telling you how it ends!
I think reviews should do the same thing. What are the universal elements? What makes the characters compelling? Why and how does that character(s) resonate with you, the reviewer? Is there a line or a passage that jumps off the page? What images struck and stayed with you long after you put the book down? What did we learn on this journey? A book is a pact between author and reader, an invitation and a sharing of heart and soul. Disappointment is allowed. Respect is required.
Yeah, book club stuff. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
And if I may indulge in one teensy RANT (oops sorry, that was a shout) … some reviewers do not understand the purpose of rankings (actually quite a few but I try not to get hung up on numbers). I’ve seen a distressing number of 1-star rankings that rest solidly on the ‘not my cuppa tea’ evaluation rather than an honest assessment of how well the author handled characterizations, plot, narrative and all the other elements that comprise the total reading experience. In fact I’ve seen quite a few of these 1-star wonders extolling the virtues of the book, even going so far as to recommend it to those who ‘like that sort of thing’ (oh, damn with faint praise). Obviously that does a disservice to both the author and potential readers.
I’ve also seen an uptick in ‘reviews with agendas’ … but that’s a rant for another day.
Bottom line, you don’t need a degree in English lit to write a review, just a reason to dip into that private place that was touched by a particular work. Make it heartfelt, make it real, be honest. Avoid the list, avoid the nasties.
The author and potential readers will thank you.