I came across the following at goodreads and have borrowed it to say a few things about reviewing books:
This book has everything you need to make a historical novel suck. And not just moderate, forgivable sucking, but full-on golf ball through a garden hose suckage. Painstaking, ubiquitous research that adds nothing; language so stilted it topples off the page; unbelievable characters doing ludicrous things, but doing them -- importantly -- in period costume; overwrought British-accent narrative musings stretching to find some justifying meaning in the assinine [sic] shit-chimp plot. Also, a glowing cover blurb from Annie Proulx. What the fuck? My mind rejects it as true non-sense.
I grant a reader the right to be angered and repelled by a book. But this diatribe puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Kurt Vonnegut that writer Thomas Rizzo recently posted on Facebook:
“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
Vonnegut rarely said anything without irony, but I think his point here is that a full-scale assault on a novel quickly becomes overkill. And if you extend the analogy, he seems to be saying that a novel is no more than a defenseless confection anyway. What’s the big deal?
For me, the main purpose of a review is to give a reader enough information to predict whether a book will hold his or her interest. What else besides that do we expect from a book? The writer of the review above doesn’t do that. All I know is that he or she thinks the book sucks and then complains about it in a way that doesn’t help me as a reader at all.
Here are some points the reviewer might have considered:
Plot. Safe to say, most readers of fiction read for plot. It’s possible to sum up the plot of a novel in 10-25 words. It’s often enough to simply state the premise:
It’s 1876 and two aging Texas Rangers take a herd of cattle on a perilous trek across Indian Territory to points north.
Beyond that, a summary of the plot needs no more than what a reader requires to understand the rest of the discussion of the book. Meanwhile, most readers don’t like spoilers, so I try not to give away too much. Surprises should remain surprises.
A review can say that a novel ends happily without spoiling anything, if how it does that is left unexplained. A dramatic turn of plot can also reveal something of the content of a story without being over-specific. For example:
A life-and-death crisis develops as a confrontation with a band of hostile Indians leaves one man mortally wounded and another wandering alone and on foot across the trackless prairie.
It's tricky knowing where to draw the line, but I find reviews sometimes that are blow-by-blow synopses of a plot. The writers, I think, are confusing plot summary with something like a Reader's Digest condensed version of the novel. That's not the job of a review either.
Characters. It’s also safe to that readers like to be able to identify with characters, so a few words describing them can be helpful. And I try to keep them objective, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the characters sound likable or even believable.
The two rangers, Gus and Call, are opposites in temperament. Gus is the more generous and congenial, his daring reflected in the rescue of a young woman who has been abducted. Call is reticent and given to outbursts of anger. Both men are haunted by memories of former loves.
Readers also enjoy hating well-drawn villains, and they are worth a mention, too.
Dislikes. No novel is perfect, and it’s easy to find fault. Some novels, especially with self-publication, have been rushed to print before their time. I consider them unfinished and don’t review them. If my dislikes about a book outweigh any merit I find in it, I don’t review it either.
I recently considered two books that fell on either side of that divide. Neither was written by a skilled storyteller. While it may have been partly fiction, one was really more of a memoir about the writer’s youth packing horses in the Sierras. In style, it was no more than proficient, and there was not a great deal of depth to it.
Another novel began as a murder mystery, set in the Southwest of a century ago. I liked that it began in a town under floodwaters and had a feeling for the period. But I put the book down when a scene that had taken place in chapter two had been retold for the second time. And wanting too much to be clever, the teenage narrator got way too quippy.
I decided to finish and write up the first book, with a review that will probably start: “I didn’t think I was going to like this book, but it kind of grew on me.” The second one has an audience somewhere, maybe YA readers, but its first chapters couldn’t hold my interest. There won’t be a review.
Caveats. If I think an otherwise well-written book will put off some readers, I include caveats at the end of a review, as I did with this one:
One of the characters is an ugly man, a bully long rotten to the core. You learn things about him that are frankly revolting. Readers should also be warned that there are scenes of graphic and brutal violence.
And this one:
The blunt sexual content of some stories pushes the boundaries of the genre. While it may shock some readers, the intent seems not to be erotic but to represent a fact of frontier life, reflecting a gross brutality to be found sometimes among hardened men and women.
Selling. Something I try not to do is use a review to sell a book. Like this one from an amazon customer:
Anyone who enjoys a good western will enjoy this book. I am an avid fan [of the author] and was, in no way, disappointed with this story. The plot was solid and riveting. The characters were strong and the suspense of the story made it very difficult to put it down until I had finished the book. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense, romance, and good strong heroes in their books! This was a great read!
All this tells a reader is that the reviewer really loved the book. He or she may have very different ideas from you and me about what makes a “good western.” For that matter they could be best friends of the author or a member of the family—or these days it could even be the author himself. Which is not to say I don’t review books by writers I know personally, but I try my best to be objective and descriptive. I certainly make no promises about whether you’ll love a book.
As for the reviewer at the top of this post, well, it’s still a free country. Say what you want, but don’t figure you’ve made your point just because you’ve said it.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Roni McFadden, The Longest Trail