The Oft-Misunderstood Art of Book Reviewing
By Barb Caffrey
Folks, Stephanie Osborn has asked me to discuss with y'all the often-misunderstood art of book reviewing. Because I have reviewed many books in my lifetime, plan to review many more, and have a regular gig reviewing books at Shiny Book Review (http://shinybookreview.wordpress.com), SBR for short, she figured I'd be a good person to explain what goes on in a book reviewer's head – or at least what goes on in mine when I review a book.
Now, you might be wondering, "Why talk about book reviewing at all? Surely it can't be that difficult to review a book – can it?" Well, that all depends on the book.
And the fact that book reviewers are often just as misunderstood doesn't help. Some of the popular misconceptions run the gamut from, "Those who can't write, review," and, "What does she know about books, anyway?" Yet writing a book review isn't that much different, if you do it properly, than writing anything else – the trick is to read whatever book you're planning to review thoroughly, then ask yourself a number of questions.
These questions, roughly stated, are:
- Did this story make sense?
- Did this story make me care about its characters?
- If it's a fantasy, did I believe in the underlying premise, or not? (If not, why not?)
- If it's science fiction, did I believe the math, physics, and/or other scientific concepts were plausible?
- If it's a romance, did I believe the two characters could actually be a couple in real life in whatever time period the book in question has set them?
- If it's a mystery, was the mystery compelling? Difficult? Understandable? Or just weird?
- If it's intended to be funny, did it make me laugh?
All of these questions may seem incredibly obvious. Perhaps they are. But those are the initial questions I ask as I read – and those are the questions that must be answered in order to get a good or better review.
To give one example not exactly at random, Stephanie Osborn's three novels in her Displaced Detective series answer the relevant questions in this way:
- Did the stories make sense? Absolutely.
- Did the stories make me care about their characters? Yes, yes, yes. (I loved modern-day physicist Skye Chadwick, and who doesn't love Sherlock Holmes?)
- As this is a science fiction/romance, did I believe in the romance? Yes, I did. (I said so, too, in my reviews.)
- And did I believe the scientific background was plausible? Again, yes – I definitely did.
All of these questions were answered to my satisfaction, which led me only to one conclusion – these are good books. I enjoyed them immensely, found them internally consistent and highly satisfying, and gave each book an A rating (or better).
In other words, with any book that's fun to read and/or makes its points well, the above-mentioned questions get answered satisfactorily or better – which makes reviewing them much easier. Being able to process these various things in question form helps me as a reviewer to sense the overarching plot, which helps me assess a grade and get the review done and out.
The problem with reviewing a book comes in when the above-mentioned questions cannot be answered satisfactorily. To use another example drawn from one of my reviews at SBR, I had a difficult time reviewing Debbie Macomber's "Hannah's List" (http://shinybookreview.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/debbie-macombers-hannahs-list-contrived-predictable-and-infuriating/) because of its various shortcomings.
Here's how my initial list looked for this book:
- Did the story make sense? No way. The doctor character was supposed to be happy his late wife "suggested" three potential mates for him via a letter he received on the first anniversary of her death, which I found to be extremely unlikely.
- Did this story make me care about its characters? Well, while I cared about Dr. Michael (the main character), I was angry that he was letting his dead wife lead him around by the nose. I also wasn't thrilled with any of the three women his wife pointed him toward, as the two good women basically weren't available, while the one flighty, available woman was not worthy of his time.
- As this is a romance, the next question is whether I believed the two people who end up together could really be a couple if translated to "real life." My emphatic answer was "No." (I'd use stronger language, except this is a family blog.)
The upshot was, I couldn't recommend Debbie Macomber's book because as a widow, I knew that most of how the main (widower) character acted was, if not wrong, highly unusual. And the idea that Hannah, the late wife, was somehow being saintly in giving her husband her little list, when at best Hannah was being meddlesome – and at worst, she was being Machiavellian in the extreme – really bothered me.
Now, the main reason I'm using Ms. Macomber as an example of a negative review is this – she's a well-known romance novelist with over one hundred books out, thus should be able to handle a negative review now and again. Most of her books are good; some are outstanding. But this one just didn't work because I had more than enough knowledge, as a widow, to realize that what was going on with the main characters just didn't make any sense.
So the next time you read a book review, remember that the reviewer is doing her level best to discuss and describe what she saw. Please remember that the reviewer is not "out to get" the writer if she gives a negative review of one of your favorites, because that just isn't the case with 99.999999% of the reviewers out there. And if you want to discuss this blog, or anything else regarding reviews, writing, or life in general, please feel free to say something here, at my own blog (http://elfyverse.wordpress.com), or at SBR (http://shinybookreview.wordpress.com).
Thank you, Barb. I appreciate your experiences and your knowledge, and thank you for guest blogging for me!