Tag Archives: book reviewing

Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Second Hand News

On Book Reviewing – Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a book reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the basis of 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 strange?   Sad to say but if the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   Oh, the story may have some positive features but lacking plausibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it’s still a pig.

What does the reviewer do when in this situation?   Focus on the writing itself 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 hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing…   If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never, ever, ever.   His or her 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.   What it translates into is a case where a plausible story – supposedly based on real-life – was botched in the writing.

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 reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it is critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he 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 – its either on the written page (“on all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s 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

This article is one in a continuing series.   Pictured: The False Friend: A Novel by Mya Goldberg (author of Bee Season) which will be released by Doubleday on October 5, 2010.   This is one of those books that we look forward to reading and reviewing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Matter of Perspective

On Book Reviewing

wangs-vs-the-world

One of the issues that will come up for the book reviewer is the matter of perspective.   From what perspective will the reviewer summarize a book, a novel, for the prospective reader?   In my view it should be a middle-of-the-book perspective.

Let me explain what I mean.   Let’s say that I’m reading a popular fiction novel about a young woman in the Midwest who is bored with her life, hates her parents, and wants to run away to New York City with her artist-musician boyfriend.   One chapter into the story the reviewer doesn’t know enough to write anything.   Fine, but a reader does not actually want a “last page” review – meaning that the person who’s considering reading this novel does not actually want to know “what happened at the end.”   (At the end, she moves to Manhattan, dumps her boyfriend, gets homesick and moves back to Ohio where she meets the quiet guy she marries.   See, you didn’t really want to know all this, did you?)

So I think it often comes down to that middle-of-the-book perspective.   Halfway through a novel I should know whether it’s a page turner or boring, a book filled with surprises or highly predictable, etc.   Most importantly, I should know whether it’s a book I want to finish in order to find out what does happen at its conclusion.

I’m not saying here that a reviewer should stop at the halfway point and write the review.   What I am saying is that at this point a reviewer should be able to see how his/her review will start, and what pluses and minuses are going to be included in the review.   Conclusions are often over-rated.   If you read a book that you love for 399 of its 400 pages, and it ends in a way that you aren’t completely fond of, the odds are you’ll still recommend it to others (“I wasn’t totally happy about the ending but it was really, really good!”).   And a great or perfect ending never saves a boring and predictable story.   One would never say to a friend, “You know, I hated all 399 pages of this book but once I got to the 400th page I realized I loved it!   Those last two paragraphs saved it for me!”

Thus, a reader-reviewer’s perspective reached halfway through a new novel is likely the viewpoint that he or she is going to retain while writing the review.   There will of course be an exception, as there is to any and every rule in life.   On occasion, there’s that novel that starts off like a house on fire and somehow at the halfway point falls off of a cliff.   I hate to name names but, for me, I Thought You Were Dead was one of those stories.   Dead started out funny and unique but once the beloved talking dog Stella died, the story was essentially over.   Hhhmmm.

The reverse situation does not matter much.   If the first half of a story is awful and painful to read, there aren’t many readers who are going to stick with it for what might be a surprisingly brilliant second half.   At least I think most reviewers can assume this and write a review that honestly states, “This book may have gotten much, much better in its second half, but it was almost impossible to get through the first 200 pages of this mess.”

One final point is that a review written from the middle-of-the-book perspective means the reviewer is never writing a review with a so-called spoiler alert.   Remember, the reader does not really want to know what happens at the end; that’s his/her personal payoff for reading the story all the way through.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Making the Time to Read

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.”   David Bowie

A female book blogger mentioned recently that whenever people learn that she writes book reviews, they ask a common question, “Where do you find the time to read so many books?”   It’s a good question, and one that I’ve been tempted to ask film reviewers.   “How do you get the time to watch so many movies?”   So, the question being on the table, let’s see if I can provide one set of answers to the question as it relates to reading.

First, it helps to be a speed reader.   I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Program when it was all the rage (John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter being two of its graduates); and once you paid the initial enrollment fee, you were free to re-take the entire program again and I did.   There were and are many misconceptions about speed reading in terms of what was offered by the Wood Program.   No reading “tricks” were taught.   The Wood Program was actually a memory course applied to the skill of reading.   One started without much confidence in one’s own ability to remember long passages but through constant reading and test taking (similar to mock SATs), Wood students learned that the brain locks in content quite quickly.   The Wood Program also illustrated the value of instinct as in learning to accept the rule that one’s first answer to a question is, generally and statistically, the right one.

The simple matter of gaining confidence in one’s reading retention abilities meant that a Wood graduate felt he or she could (and did) read faster, not worrying that it would soon be forgotten.   (There’s a parallel to learning a new language.   If you’re learning Korean, you will initially speak slowly and perhaps loudly.   With confidence, you’re speaking the language faster and in a more normal tone of voice.)

Second, taking public transportation to work and back home builds in periods where reading is relaxing.   My light rail trips mean that I have almost three-quarters of an hour each work day in which to concentrate on a new book.   In fact, if I don’t read while commuting, the trip seems longer, something that most airline passengers have learned.   (There are a lot of books sold at airports these days!)

Third, is to learn to combine a walk and a reading break into each work day.   The walk is good exercise and spending a few minutes reading is a nice reward before trekking back to the salt mines.

Fourth, if you skip watching the local and national news in the evening, you will gain another half hour to 90 minutes of reading time without the depression and angst which result from hearing – and seeing – bad news.   Life is simply more relaxing when valuable time is spent reading instead of tensely watching the tube.   And, of course, there’s more time gained by treating newspapers as an optional, sometime, non-essential activity.   As one of my former supervisors told me, if something truly important happens you’ll know because someone will walk up to you and say, “Did you hear about…?”   That’s when they supply you with the news you’ve missed.   It’s the way of the world.

Then there’s the certified trick of book reviewers everywhere, audio books.   If you drive yourself to work all that formerly wasted commute time now becomes valuable audio book listening time, and the same holds true for out-of-town trips for work or family matters.   This is why I will occasionally plead with a publisher for an audio book.   And there’s a related audio trick…  I used to listen to music on headphones virtually every night, but now that time is and can be reserved for audio books instead of listening to old Doors albums.

So, just like that I’ve covered six ways in which reader-reviewers like me create time (we don’t actually find it) in which to read.   Are there other tricks of the trade?   Of course, but as our wise old cat Munchy says, “Yeow!”   Translated into English this means, “There are secrets that go with the territory!”

Joseph Arellano

One article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson, to be released by Plume in trade paperback form on July 27, 2010.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Solitary Man

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reviewer

Mid-to long-distance runners are said to be lonely individuals.   That’s because they put in their miles and miles by themselves, then suddenly one day they join hundreds or thousands of other runners in a competitive event.   Book reviewing is a bit like that.  

The book reviewer is alone while he/she reads advance copies of books that others will not see for weeks or months.   Then, when the book is released he/she joins the crowd and finds out what is the consensus about the book.   The reviewer’s call has been made earlier at a time when he or she could not reflect public opinion because it has not been formed.

Let me state this again.   If I like or dislike a book it’s a call that I have to make early on in the publishing process, often when there are no other reviews to read.   This can be fun but it also introduces a scary aspect to the process.   To use the running analogy again, it’s like being excited about running a marathon on a course that no one has ever run before.

There’s also a loneliness based on distance.   The great majority of publishers are on the east coast, and most of them are based in New York City.   When review copies are mailed out, the publishers often provide a reviewer with the names of persons to be contacted if there are questions.   But the contacts are three hours ahead of our time in the west, and a reviewer with questions after 2:00 p.m. in Sacramento or San Francisco is not going to get a quick answer.   Thus, the questions are not usually asked.

Then there’s the Catch-22 of galleys.   Galleys are early release copies of forthcoming books that, by definition, are not yet ready for prime time.   It can be a sign of recognition for a reviewer to begin receiving more galleys but… 

One source has said that a great majority of the corrections to soon-to-be-released books are made at the 11th hour.   In reading a galley, a reviewer is often reading the draft that precedes the final draft.   The reviewer who wants to add life and depth to his/her review by including quotations from the upcoming book is hampered by the standard publisher’s statement that, in effect, “No quotations should be taken from this version without checking them against the final version.”  

It’s a bit hard to finish a review near the publication date when one does not and will not have access to the final version.   The result is that a reviewer is going to pull out a quote with a hope and a prayer that it was not changed in publication.   Ah, well, this is just another frustrating aspect of the work of the solitary book reviewer.   Yet there’s still something special about reading one of only a few hundred copies of a galley or an advance review copy (which often cost more to produce than the finished product) of an upcoming release.   It seems like an honor.

The lonely runner keeps putting in the next mile and then the next.   The lonely reviewer reads the next chapter in the galley and then the next.   The race never ends, but the reward is found in the journey.  

Joseph Arellano     

This article was originally published by the Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized