There are tons of source material for writing book reviews, from those by pros in glossy magazines to the smallest, most humble blog. In my last post I offered one way to write the review in short form, i.e., a review you might write for a book on Amazon. And I promised to give you one way a more complete review might be written. My method here is something of a mixture of reviews I’ve seen on the best blogs and those by the pros. So here goes.
- The preamble – begin with a “hook,” or some curious or interesting connection between your impression of the book and some generality regarding the subject at hand, an outside thing or event. For instance: “Baseball is being sped up; it’s not the same game it was forty years ago. But in this biography of Yogi Berra we see a player who could bridge…”
- The synopsis – the better reviews provide a segue here to transition to a paragraph or so which synopsizes the book’s high – and possibly low – points. Yes, even this is subjective, at least to a degree, but that’s what’s valuable here: the parts of the book that seem most important to a potential reader.
- Style – this can be incorporated in the synopsis, but I like to have a few separate statements on the the writer’s voice, his/her style of writing, and how that worked with the story being told.
- Summary – here, I like to include any generalized impression I haven’t provided in one of the above subsets. This can include a flat statement of whether or not you enjoyed the book, what you gained from it, whether or not you would recommend it to other readers, and why.
Books, as is all art forms, are meant to both inform and entertain. The above format will generally do a decent job of depicting how well the writer did on both counts. But the primary purpose of reviews is for the author and his/her growth as a writer: to identify things done well, weaknesses the book might contain, and (possibly) how those weaknesses might be rectified. So be honest regarding your impressions of the book. Don’t be cruel, just honest – as you see it.
Having a new book out is a happy event, but it does generate some work. Collateral Damage and Stories launched on June 2 of this year, and for the first time I felt that the review agencies felt the book worthy of hiring a publicist. I settled on a publicist late in the publishing process and barely gave my team enough time to do their job.
Part of that job was handed off to me, meaning having my loyal readers read the book and write a review on Amazon. I’ll have to say that many responded, “Yes, I will!” and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. Some of those didn’t feel able to articulate a proper review, so I thought it might be in the best interests of all readers out there to give a couple of thoughts on writing book reviews.
First, there’s the short version – and that’s perfectly fine for Amazon-type reviews. This version involves just two to four sentences. In it answer these questions:
- Did you enjoy the book?
- Did the characters strike you as realistic?
- Did the story line bog down, or did it keep you turning pages to see what happens next?
- Your overall impression of the book
This sort of review works fine for fiction, but it works pretty well for biographies, memoirs, non-fiction adventures and the like, too.
One day this week, I’ll spell out some of the key elements of the longer book review, should you dear readers want to chance one of those.
Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.
If you’re an avid reader (excuse the cliche, please!), you just may be familiar with Meg Wolitzer’s fine novel, The Interestings. A group of stoned kids at summer camp give themselves this title (We’re the most interesting people in this place!), and the book follows them into their adult years – their marriages, their careers, their personal ups and downs.
Now Amazon has made a pilot of this book. You can watch it for sure if you have Amazon Prime and their app for movies. As with all books turned to cinema, it’s not quite the same as the book – which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. In fact, I rather liked the pilot. The casting and acting are well done, and the screenplay mimics the book quite well. Still, it’s different; it reminds me of another movie from the eighties, Indian Summer. Same initial setting, same sort of character interplay.
Oh who am I kidding? It’s very nearly a soap opera. But then doesn’t every drama on TV strive to be one? This one deserves some attention, though. It’s smart, witty, edgy.
And another thing. Apparently you have to vote on which pilot your prefer. If The Interestings gets the most, it goes forward in production and is shown on Amazon…if you pay up and have Prime. So give it a watch. Vote. TV watchers deserve this one, even alt TV watchers who pay for Prime, like me.
I ended up a year or so with a magazine subscription to The American Scholar. (It’s published by Phi Beta Kappa; I had nowhere near that academic track record, thus I sometimes feel like an outlier when I first open an issue.) However, it’s not as academically inclined as you might think; most of its articles and essays have to do with modern day social problems and issues, largely from the perspective of the authors. These are about equally parceled with articles on little known aspects of history.
Its writers’ perspectives is the ingredient that makes this mag worthwhile. All have some personal attachment to their subject matter, and that makes all the difference. Just this morning I read a newspaper article about a California pastor preaching that the 49 who were shot to death in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub “deserved what they got.” He kept using the term “homosexual” and “pedophile” interchangeably in his rant. Of course, in a community as extensive as the gay community, there may be a few pedophiles. But such a broad spectrum of humanity will also have conservative gays in committed relationships. Clearly this guy has no pastoral relationships with gays; thus he speaks of that community in the abstract.
And take the presidential candidate who tosses off the possibility of using nukes in Europe, of giving nukes to previously fascistic national actors. Here again, this man knows little of the impact, both short and long term, of nukes on those using them as well as on those on which they’re to be used. To him, there’s little difference in a conventional bomb and a nuke – a man who knows nothing of the nuclear triad.
These are but two contemporary examples of persons unfamiliar with social phenomena of their day, thus thinking and speaking of them as abstractions. And in both cases, thinking of them in this way, if acted on, can cause great harm.
Thus I listen when I read in The American Scholar of a man with extensive presence in our national parks. And of the wife of a journalist constantly present within the great national dramas of our Vietnam era. In an increasingly technological age, it’s easy to abstract everything. And it’s no great irony that finding information on life in its true nature still comes to us in print media.
The Coffee Trader, by David Liss
One of the biggest temptations to fall into as a writer of historical fiction or a fictionalized period piece is to become too enamored of your research into that historical era. Even modern non-fiction set in a given era must draw heavily on its human drama, not tangential history that adds little to the story to be told.
In The Coffee Trader, author Liss has two main objectives: to depict seventeenth century Jewish culture in the Netherlands, and to demonstrate that era’s Dutch version of commodities trading. The story he weaves into this culture and era is presented effectively enough: jealousy between brothers, a cuckolded husband, and an abandoned Dutch wife. In Liss’ hands the story itself approaches a soap opera (not a bad commercial strategy), with occasional passages adding character elements to the overarching fiction piece.
Liss’ writing is intelligent, sometimes excellent, but he sometimes strains in creating character voices true to the story’s milieu. His dialogue occasionally submits to turgidity; and (fair warning, writers out there) too often he uses dialogue to explain cultural minutiae best left to narrative. Sadly I never lost myself within Liss’ writing of that era.
My rating: 13 of 20 stars