Expanding on the subject of civility which, by the way, is a hot topic in the practice of law, I made several disturbing observations.
First, there are a lot of ugly customer book reviews floating around on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble online. I am not the only author to notice this disturbing trend. Is too much reality t.v. the culprit? Perhaps. Although I admit that I find the series, “Amish Mafia” too hilarious to resist. I mean seriously, one of the characters says, “Lebanon Levi is going down.” Good grief. Anyway….
Second, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding regarding what the function of a book review is.
Third, this leads to the logical conclusion these “hissy missives”, as I call them, are nothing more than a feeble attempt to conceal the insecurities of the reviewer.
I do not say these things out of a sense of spleenic overdrive, but rather because the goal of any book review is to inform potential buyers of both the strengths and weaknesses of a publication. Face it, we have all read a book that we thought would be really good and it wasn’t. I got sucked into the cover vortex once and bought a book because the cover was cool, and it seemed to be a story on a subject that I like. It turned out to be something not cool featuring smarmy, vaguely-felonious dialogue that held no interest for me at least. I realized this was the case after the first page. But I read on and finished it.
I finished it because someone took the time to write it, get a good cover, and got it into the market. I also reasoned that maybe I could learn something that had somehow escaped my notice when I first decided what type of writing I enjoyed reading. After I had finished, I decided that I still didn’t care for the story. Apparently the marketing aspect of a bait and switch cover was very effective. I was the dummy, though, for not reading that first page to determine what lay inside. There is something to be said for a book with a leather cover and no design to inspire people to read the content before deciding to buy, doesn’t it?
The paramount key for an effective book review is to, I don’t know, read the whole thing. Sure, you will always notice little sniglets that annoy you in any book including your own. My favorites are, “He looked up at the ceiling” (in what other direction would your vision be guided to view a ceiling, down?) Likewise, “He sat down”, “a young child,” “a small child”, “a royal princess”, and the ubiquitous use of an apostrophe to make a plural (attorney’s, dog’s, boyfriend’s). I swore that somewhere along the way, I learned that an apostrophe is a POSSESSIVE mark, not a plural-making nightmare.
My personal sniglets gleefully pointed out by my wonderful editor: well, um, uh, er, AND AND AND….BUT BUT BUT….hahahaha….yes after a while, I noticed them and they irritated the hell out of me, too.
It also is imperative that you review a book on a subject or in a genre that you either know about or that you want to learn more about.
I write historical fiction with a twist. My specialty is medieval/Renaissance history – I majored in it and I speak and read the languages (French, Italian and English) fluently because I need to be able to research the historical records and because I enjoy it. I was very pleased to read a review from someone who said that he was normally turned off by historical fiction, but that the details in my book were spot on. It tells me that all those years of research were worth it. However, if you did not know the history and politics of the period, you might be inclined to tell other potential readers that the story did not seem believable. Medieval/Renaissance politics and history were fairly ridiculous because they bear little relation to how we live today except in D.C. (that’s my lawyer dig for the day).
You want to comment on context, style, coverage of the subject, and quality of the book in a good way. What does that mean? Be objective, but not in a way that brings harm to the author. In short, be considerate of the author’s sensitivities. We are human beings after all. You are evaluating ideas and purpose to better guide other readers about the book. It is not your goal to rip apart the author personally. This type of review does a lot of damage.
Do point out typos and grammatical errors, but only if there are so many that you literally cannot slog through the book without stopping to groan and gnash your teeth, if anyone still gnashes their teeth today.
Here is an example of very balanced criticism: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/books/review/Pinker-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Here is another that is much less useful and very hurtful to the author. If I had reviewed this review, I would describe the tone and animosity of the review as “vile”:
If you notice, three people found this drivel “useful,” whatever that means. This review literally told me nothing about the book, author, or story. It screamed that this reviewer did not like it. Ya think? Very rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. Yet there is a proliferation of these types of “reviews” on the e-sites. What a pity. It is even more pitiful that potential readers may think this is good stuff. It is not. Essentially what this reviewer is saying is that she hated it, so you will hate it, too. This is a warped perspective to me.
I have reviewed books on both websites and try to strike a balance between praise and constructive criticism. The hope is that the author will read their reviews and perhaps use some of the suggestions – whether “good” or “bad” – to better develop the NEXT book. They do not have to be the length of the NYT review, but the substance should be the same and delivered in a good way.
What do you think?
“The only thing worse than a bad review by the Ayatollah Khomeini would be a good review from the Ayatollah Khomeini.” – Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses