Tag Archives: writing book reviews

The First Album, The First Book & more

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Let’s suppose you’ve spent a few years in a rock band, The Runners. You haven’t starved, but you’ve just managed to get by in terms of life’s necessities. Finally, the band releases a first album, It’s the Runners! It may not be as big as Meet the Beatles!, but it’s brought you enough income to pay the rent for a year and buy a reliable car. Do you produce Son of It’s the Runners! or something completely different? (Either way the critics are standing by to slam your decision.) Most likely you’ll record something that’s as close as possible to the first album, and wait a while before electing to modify your style, your sound.

This is a roundabout way of explaining why I’m fond of debut novels. The first novel by an author, like a first album, is generally the result of years of preparation and effort. And it’s usually quite obvious in the pages of an initial effort. There’s an earnestness, a feel, a serious energy that’s often lacking in subsequent works. After all, the first book is a “go for broke” product. If it gets published and sells well, the writer has a new career.

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Yet, it seems like what follows for a successful debut novelist is parallel to what happens with the band recording a follow-up record. The author may think, “Why rock the boat if I’ve discovered a winning formula?” Thus, what results is a second novel that’s quite similar to the first, but without the same punch. (“Let’s Twist Again” to “The Twist.”) And it appears that publishers strongly encourage the successful debut novelist to turn out the second book pretty quickly; before the book one buzz wears off. This may be why second novels often start off well in pages 1 to 150 or 200, but conclude with what seems like a rushed and unsatisfying group of pages marked 151 to 350 or 400.

But let’s suppose, for a moment, that the second book is just successful enough. It may not approach the sales of book 1, but it may hit the 80 or 85% level. What happens then? Well, the author may decide to write the same type of book, the same style of story, over and over again for a reading audience willing to accept and purchase what can amount to a type of self-plagiarism. This is not terribly, horribly rare when it comes to authors who achieve mid-range or greater success. In fact, I remember a case not so long ago…

There’s a popular fiction writer whose books sell quite well. And reading one of her books is extremely enjoyable. But if you read any of the other novels she’s manufactured – a term I’m using deliberately – you realize that they are all basically the same story. Only the names have been changed to protect the original characters. So it was not quite shocking to receive an information sheet from her publicist a short while back about an upcoming release: “It’s completely different!” Whew, I thought, it’s about time.

And this is, of course, what happens next with both authors and bands. Eventually, they get tired and worn out with making money by repeating the same old thing. So then they record or write something that’s… “Completely different!” And it’s either viewed as a work of genius (think Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s) or as turning their back on their fans, their original audience.

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This is when the reviewer-critics attack or praise with their pens, but in my view this is secondary. What truly counts is the judgment of book and record fans/purchasers. They may decide that the more unique a work is, the better it is. Or they may hate something that reads or sounds too “different.” Either way, the “new thing” shouts out that the artist is willing to take a risk because this is what art, what life, is about.

I may be wrong, but I think that if the “new thing” came from the heart (rather than the head) of the artist – and was not simply contrived for commercial purposes, the audience will come to accept and/or love it. And in a very roundabout way, this article is an attempt to explain why I may love a writer’s first book, but not her second, third, or fourth. And it’s an attempt to explain why I might find that she’s regained her voice – her true, instinctive and once-again original form, with her fifth book.

But maybe it’s just me.

Joseph Arellano

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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.

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Easy as 1-2-3

Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)

The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book.   The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion.   In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.

The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success.   The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?”   We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile.   I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web.   Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book.   If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed.   Very, very disappointed.   This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student.   For such is not writing, it’s compiling.

The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?”   The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures.   They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related.   Except that sometimes they are not.   I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.

Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else.   In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.

Yes, it was entertaining.   The only problem being that life is not like this…  At least not usually.

If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”

The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?”   Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon.   A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things.   When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.

If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent.   The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.

This article is the third in a continuing series.   Note:  The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds  like an interesting read.

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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.

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