Tag Archives: book reviewers

19th Nervous Breakdown

Perspectives on the Publishing Trade

A Disturbing Trend

Increasingly, I’ve been bothered by a new trend in fiction that’s not at all positive.   This is the creation of the novel that has no plot, no true story line.   Such books – which are often actually novellas – revolve around a few days, weeks, months or years of a character’s life.   The reader-purchaser is often fooled by front jacket blurbs that promise exciting plot twists, and sometimes mention “crimes,” and indicate that one absolutely must read through to “the last page.”   Ah, yes, but when the reader has completed all of the 240 or so pages, he/she may find that nothing happened in the space between first page and the last.   No crimes have been committed, no major characters killed, no cities threatened, no buildings or homes firebombed, no fictional characters have had their lives transformed.

Why is this happening?   I have no idea, but it’s made worse by reviews that actually praise the author for being “clever”!   This type of review will read something like this, “Author Betty Robinson really had me fooled this time, thinking that her character was going to commit a heinous crime; the story’s conclusion was a clever one.”   Except that the clever conclusion involved an absence of events.

I, for one, would like to see some truth in advertising.   Firstly, books that are novellas should be clearly labeled as such, not subtitled “A Novel.”   (Recently, even a couple of short story collections have carried the designation of novel.)   Secondly, I’d like to see a Reader Advisory sticker that reads:  Warning – Nothing actually happens between the covers of this novel/novella.   It’s a book about nothing.   Purchase it at your own risk; there will be no refunds.   Thirdly, how about requiring the purchaser to sign a waiver of his/her expectations?   (“I understand that I’m not going to be satisfied by reading this story.”)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it might be a start in making things better.

Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or too strange?   If the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible, then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   The story may have some positive features but if it’s lacking feasibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a great job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it remains a pig.

What does the reviewer do in this situation?   Focus on the writing while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer up some hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing, as I’ve learned from experience…  If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel, the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never.   Ever.   Ever.   Nope.   The writer’s response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened, and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine, but that’s the author’s perspective  not the reviewer’s view.

In a courtroom, it’s often said that the prosecution has the burden of proof.   Well, when it comes to drafting a novel, I think the author has the burden of drafting something that’s plausible.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a book reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it’s critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he/she sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – it’s either on the written page (“On all fours,” as law professors say) or its absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent, the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal.   Your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Life: A Memoir by Keith Richards, which is now available in trade paperback, unabridged audiobook, Kindle Edition and Nook Book forms/formats.

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Meet the Reviewers

Since we’ve increased our staff of reviewers to 5 (or maybe 4.5 depending on how one views Munchy), we decided to update the earlier About Our Reviewers posting.   Click on this link to see the revised set of profiles:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/about-our-reviewers/

Pictured:  The Girl Who Became a Beatle, a YA novel by Greg Taylor which will be released by Feiwel & Friends on February 15, 2011.

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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Empty Pages

Sometimes, but fortunately not too often, I receive an e-mail from an author or publicist that says, in effect, “Why haven’t you reviewed the book that was sent to you?”   In thinking about this, there are probably a lot more reasons for a book to fall off of the TBR (to be read/reviewed) stack than are readily apparent to the average person.   I’ll go over some of them here.

Please Mr. Postman

Some books get lost in the mail, or mistakes are made in the mail room.   On occasion, I’ve received a book that looks like it shouldn’t have been sent to me but it’s usually from a publisher I know.   That leads me to think that another reviewer has been sent the book that I was interested in.   I’m sure it happens.

Obviously, since the people staffing publishers’ mail rooms are human, mistakes can and do happen.   There was a particular book that I had slotted to read at a specific time and it never arrived.   I brought this to someone’s attention and was told that another copy was going out that evening.   What I wound up receiving was a very nice package with nothing inside of it – no book and no papers.   Good intentions, but no luck.

Oh, and mail is certainly delivered to the wrong place these days.   I now know which of our neighbors receives ESPN Magazine or Sports Illustrated or Power Tools Today based on the mailman dropping them in my box.   It’s not too hard to figure that some of the books intended for me wind up as a free gift enjoyed by a close or distant neighbor.

Time is Tight

When I request a particular book – weeks before a review will appear – I have no way of knowing what other similar books will be released at the same time.   And on this site we deliberately try to review a wide variety of books, not just one of a kind.   So if I request a legal thriller and it shows up when I thought it would, and at a time when I’ve just finished a family novel and a children’s book, I will go ahead and read/review it as earlier planned.   But let’s say that I’ve just read two legal thrillers, and my wife has finished one, when your legal thriller arrives.   It’s going to be put aside because, unfortunately, it arrived at the wrong time.   We don’t want to be known as Legal Thriller Review.   (The same story gets played out for many genres, unfortunately.)

There’s also the fact that books arrive either earlier than expected or later.   Publication dates also change.   I have instances where I’m reading a book for a review to appear shortly, only to find that the publication date has been moved back a few months.   That leads me to close the book.   Contra, I may plan to read a forthcoming, not yet released book by a particular author, only to go to Borders and find out – yes, this did recently happen to me – that it’s been released for sale earlier than expected.   Again, the apple cart gets upset.

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party

Every now and then, for a sense of variety, I agree to take part in a book blog tour.   What this usually means is that I’m sent a forthcoming book and asked to select a date, within a particular window (usually a period of 2 or 3 weeks), when my review will appear.   I usually try to pick one of the final dates available.   If I start reading the book and love it, and everyone whose review appears prior to mine loves it, everything is fine.   But now and then I’m reading a blog tour book that I just do not like.   If I see that everyone else has written a glowing review and mine is going to be the one extremely negative one, I will tell the publicist that I’m pulling out of the tour.   I will still post my own review but on my own schedule.   I have no need to rile things up on the blook tour party.

I’m Down

As I’ve said before, there are some books that I receive and read but I refrain from writing reviews about them.   Why?   It’s generally not that they are bad, just not unique enough to make for an interesting review.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading one of five new Paul McCartney bios that are out this year.   I finish it and find that it’s full of the same stories told in 10 prior McCartney-related books.   Do I really want to write a rather boring review stating, “This book is a rehash of the same old stories…”?   OK, sometimes I will write that but only if I think I can say it in an interesting way.   Often, though, the same old thing is just not worth writing about.

Joseph Arellano

To be continued…

Pictured:  The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg, which will be released by Crown on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 (and which will be reviewed on this site on that date or earlier).

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