Tag Archives: book reviewers

An Interview

Months ago, a few book bloggers (including yours truly) were interviewed by a popular writer for an online article.   For various and sundry reasons, the article never appeared so we are posting it here with the four original questions that were posed and one bonus question.book reviews

Why do you blog?   Is it for free books or just the love of reading?

I see it as performing a public service.   My reviewers and I take the time to read books and make a judgment as to whether this is worth the average reader/consumer’s money and – even more importantly – time.   These days both are seen as precious commodities.   We either recommend a book or refrain from doing so.

If you agree to be in a book tour and you  hate the book, do you review it anyway?

When this happened to me, I notified the tour leader that I was withdrawing; I had no desire to ruin someone else’s party (a debut party for the first-time author).   But I also told the tour leader that I would be writing and posting my own honest and less-than-favorable review at a slightly later date.

By the way, on Joseph’s Reviews I’ve periodically posted multiple reviews of the same book.   In one recent case, three of us reviewed the same novel.   I did not recommend buying and reading it, but two other reviewers did.   None of us claims perfect knowledge, but we try to clarify for the review reader how and why we each arrived at our own position.   Sometimes the difference in perspective can be due to different life experiences, or even recent positive or negative events in our lives.

Why do you think you’re “qualified” to review books?

I have a degree in Communication Arts, wrote music and entertainment reviews in college, and earned a law degree from a major university.   I’ve also taught, done significant writing and editing as a government Public Information Officer, and done some pre-publication work for a publisher based in England.   However, I think the key prerequisite for being a reviewer is the ability to be completely honest about one’s views.   It is just one opinion, but it should always be a frank and honest one.

Does you blog have anything to do with your own writing (i.e., did you start it because you were writing a novel or are the two totally unrelated)?

Because I enjoyed writing reviews at a period when (in the words of The Who), “I wore a younger man’s clothes,” I elected to do something similar with my adult leisure time.   I was an avid reader of music reviews when I was in college, and I often loved the critics whose opinions I most often disagreed with – those who didn’t necessarily sway my own views but whose consistency and tenacity I admired.

Writing an engaging, and hopefully, convincing book review is a bit like trying to fashion a proper legal argument.

If you had the power to do so, what one thing would you change about the book publishing industry?

A number of years ago, when you purchased a blank music recording cassette, part of the purchase price went to reimburse artists for lost royalties.   The same is true today when you buy a blank CD-R.   I would like to see a small part of the purchase price for each book – hardback, paperback or e-book – used to fund a central editing clearinghouse.   In my fantasy, all books would receive a final read and edit prior to publication.   The clearinghouse would have to issue a stamp of approval before the publisher could actually release the book.   (Crazy people and speed readers such as I would likely work at the literal publisher’s clearinghouse.)

There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up a “finished” book and finding it loaded with typos and simple mistakes that should have been corrected in the editing and fact-checking processes.   For example, my wife was just reading a novel that placed the UCLA campus in Brentwood – which is likely a major surprise to the tens of thousands of students on the grounds at Westwood!

ucla-campusJoseph Arellano

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Everyday I Write the Book

“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.”   The New York Chronicle

“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news.   When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real.   I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter…  The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.

I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit.   Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star.   I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road.   Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life.   And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.

My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels.   I usually find fault from two different perspectives.   Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest.   The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.

The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair).   But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic.   If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark.   It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall.   Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”

The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard.   They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system.   There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires.   There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together.   Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers.   In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel.   It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.

I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.

What’s the moral of this article?   Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law.   Is there a writer who gets the characters right?   Yes, I’m glad you asked…  Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor.   Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books).   One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.

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Can’t Buy A Thrill

turn-the-page-2

Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.

1.  Happy and Hungover

Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches.   They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications.   This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases.   I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library…  The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release.   The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood.   It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose.   (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)

It can be like that for the book reviewer.   At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent.   Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by.   It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear.   This is but one of the issues that will arise.

you came back

Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book.   I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake.   I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison.   Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling.   I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings.   I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return.   Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other.   In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.

Gone cover

After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact.   But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened.   For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment.   But that’s the way life is.   As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2.  Comparing A to B

Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same.   It seems like a potentially risky business.   If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry.   I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.

A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author.   I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find!   Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance.   That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way.   Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.

Joseph Arellano

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Turn The Page

An occasional column about book reviewing.

I.  Against the Wind

“What to leave in, what to leave out…”   Bob Seger

One thing that all book reviewers have in common is that they do a lot of typing.   These days, this means that the prime tool of the trade is not a portable Smith-Corona typewriter or an IBM Selectric but instead a computer – generally a PC Windows-based laptop or an Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.   In order to find the best of these writing tools, reviewers like me can spend many hours – sometimes an inordinate amount of time, reading laptop/notebook reviews.

Something that has been surprising to me is how much space in modern computer reviews is devoted to discussing what is largely irrelevant.   For example, we’re often told that a particular computer screen is fine for most purposes but that the images on it quickly fade when the screen is moved 45 or more degrees – as if one might close it while still typing.   Frankly, I never  move the screen while I’m using my machine – I sit straight in front of it and never move either the screen or my body.   Which brings us to the next so-called “issue” covered in the majority of these reviews – we’re told that the monitor images tend to detiorate if you’re sitting three or four feet to the left or right of the screen.   Really?   Who types while sitting a bench-length away from the screen?

Some of the reviewer’s comments are so silly that I wonder where on earth they’re going to end.   I fully suspect one day soon I’ll read that a particular computer monitor does not offer good images when the machine is turned off; or when one stands to the back of the screen.   Clearly, this is true of 100 percent of television screens but no one would be crazy enough to call it to our attention.

What relevance does this have to the book reviewer?   Well, it brought home to me that fact that it’s key to leave in what’s important, while leaving out facts that the average reader would find to be irrelevant.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading a book – a family novel – in which the female protagonist lives in Denver, Colorado.   It might be relevant if I note that the protagonist’s brother is unlikable as he’s a violent womanizer and a drug abuser.   It’s likely not so relevant if I write that I didn’t like his character because he’s portrayed as being a fan of the Denver Broncos…  Yes, all information is not equally valuable.

Something else about computer reviews is that the reviewer often hedges his or her bets with some cheap disclaimer.   Instead of recommending or not recommending a machine, their review might go like this:  “The Emerson 15.6″ AMD dual-core laptop comes with a horribly glossy display, has an awful keyboard, a terrible trackpad, a battery that dies within 90 minutes, and is cheaply built.   But, if you’re looking for the most economical thing on the market that you can use to surf the web and send e-mails, it may be just the thing for you!”   The manufacturer, of course, will quote the last 7 words of the review, hoping that the prospective buyer doesn’t look up the full review.

Again, I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for book reviewers, which is to be true throughout the review.   Don’t take a position and then run from it with a potentially face-saving “out”.   Provide an opinion and stick with it – do the prospective reader-purchaser a favor by sticking with an honest opinion.   Do not hide your recommendation in the weeds.

II.  A New Issue

One new issue that’s popped up for me is that I’ll receive a book – actually an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) – weeks or months before it’s released and begin to read it.   I’ll then communicate with the author’s or publisher’s publicist and ask if I may post a review when I finish reading it.   Often the response is that they want me to hold off on posting the review until the release date or very close to it.   So I’ll close the book and, unfortunately, often never get back to it.   It becomes a lost book, an absent review because I could not write about it when I was ready.

I would love for some of these publicists and/or publishers to consider changing their stances.   Whatever happened to the view that some publicity is better than none?   And, confusingly, some publishers take the opposite stance – that all of the “buzz” about a book should come prior to the release date:  “If a book is not being talked about before its release date, it will most likely be dead on arrival.”

It’s a confusing world out there, including for the lowly book reviewer.   LOL

Joseph Arellano

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The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

An article about a question that one book reviewer struggles with.

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