You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.
Spoliers: It could have been better.
You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.
Spoliers: It could have been better.
A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog. It’s mostly just for fun. But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try. Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.
I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney. I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much. If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.
Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.
It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.
That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue. On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution. An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability. But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it. I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc. And quite often I’m dying to read that book. But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both. Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs. They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world. But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.
In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z. x is the goals of the author. Are they unique? Interesting? Well-constructed? Then they get a high x-value. Look at the execution. Is it elegant? Is it good? Does it get across what the author wanted to get across? High y-value. Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book? Were the characters interesting? Did the plot twist blow your mind? Did everyone get what they deserved–or not? High z-value.
To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner. The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book. The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story. Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.
As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter. This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals. And I sort of liked it. So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.
Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.
And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time. And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in. If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.
I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it. Kind of like McDonald’s. I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.
More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor. It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.
And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature. Even Twilight-level literature.
ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…
(This is not hating on Twilight. I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written. But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure. Other readers may feel differently.)
Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones. Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews. Maybe a couple 4-stars. (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.) That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc. Sure, some low-star reviews are like that. But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between. And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it. Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway. I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls. I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about. I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA. There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them. I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs. The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.
As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent. By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story. And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader. I won’t debate the issue of validity here. It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.
So, instead, let’s begin with my review. The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did. She hated her. So did I. But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point. I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent. To an extent, it doesn’t matter. half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity. I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers. That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews. Ruby is not a nice person. She’s not a mean person either. She’s more just amoral. What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong. And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster. When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted. Ruby holds the whole town under her spell. Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.
And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is. Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story. It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable. London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element. But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators. Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks? That’s one interpretation. Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power. There’s enough wiggle room to take either route. Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina. The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility. This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.
Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well. And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby. Totally believable, to me. All fiction requires suspension of disbelief. Even the real world does. And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes. When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider: perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play. Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks. But they still love to see the master work. Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud. It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality. You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time. The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance. The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.
But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people. They understand manipulation. They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder. And they learned those things for a reason. We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect. Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about. But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done. It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling. The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone. (Or is she?!) It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.
Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws. Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer. And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters. And it’s hard to ask more from a book.
In part 2, talked about what to put in the body of a review. Now I’m going to talk about the odds and ends of reviews that get scattered about. I prefer to put most of it at the end, but you can also put some of these things at the beginning of your review:
1. Comps/Recs: The first thing that I don’t see in a lot of reviews is comp titles. Comparative titles are books of a similar genre with similar stories and themes. Another name for comp titles might be rec(ommendation)s. You might notice if you buy on Amazon their “buyers who bought this book also bought” lists. Those are recs based on their similarity to the book you’re looking at. There are two valuable things about comp titles/recs, and it plays into why I’m using two names here. Recs are books you suggest to a reader because they are similar to the book the reader is currently considering/has read. Comp titles are books the reader might possibly have read already that are similar to the book they are considering. The idea is, if you liked a comp title, you’ll like this title, and if you like this title, you’ll enjoy a rec.
2. Other books by: This is a category you can put at the beginning or the end. Your telling the reader other books by this author they may have read or heard of, and how they are similar or different. The goal here is to help them decide if they might want to read this book based on those other books this author wrote. If they hated those other books, they might dislike this one, but if they loved them, they might love this.
Somewhat related is putting the author’s name in the title of your review. If you want to snag a reader that might not have liked an author’s previous book, you might leave it out of the title. That way, they’ve already gotten to your review before they can dismiss this book out of hand. Conversely, if you’re after readers who liked the author’s previous work, then you definitely want to include the name in the title, so they know your review is about the right book.
3. Topic of Interest: Some books, especially YA books, have a topic related to the story, such as mental illness, or bullying. It might in some cases be valuable to include information such as informative websites, hotlines such as the National Suicide Hotline, etc. Or a book about GMOs might link to Monsanto or anti-GMO pages. A book about space might link to NASA. A book review involving the Society for Creative Anachronism might benefit from links to the SCA’s website.
4. Other Reviews/Interviews: If you’ve read other reviews, or particularly interesting interviews with the author, you might want to link to those, as well.
5. Ratings: If you include star ratings or number ratings in your reviews, you can put them at the end of the beginning depending on your style. Ratings can be useful, because they can encourage a reader to read a book, and you can give a higher rating than might be expected of a book you had issues with but still enjoyed. However, ratings can also be misleading. Is a three-star review positive? Neutral? Has the reader enjoyed books you’ve reviewed with that rating previously? That’s something to keep in mind when considering whether ratings are a valuable tool for your review or not.
There are certainly other extras a review can have, such as give-away copies, but the above seem to me to be the major ones. But if anyone reading this has suggestions as to additions I should make, I’d love to hear them.
Now that I’ve addressed the basics of why and how to do a book review, I want to look at how to put this together to create an actual review. So next time, I’m going to take these posts, and use them to write a review of Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone. And the post after that, I’m going to dissect that review, and explain, again based on these six posts, why I chose to include what I did, and why I didn’t include other things.
This is post number two in my discussion on what to include in a book review. Last time, I talked about the metadata for a review. This time, I’m going to talk about the body of the review:
Body of Review
Most reviewers like to start out with some general thoughts. These initial thoughts might include a quick comment on an author’s previous book, if there was one. They might include feelings the reviewer had while reading the book. They might include a quick comment on the main character.
The review itself generally, though not always starts in the second paragraph. There are many, many possible formats for a review, including just several linked paragraphs, titled sections, a quick statement of opinion on the awesomeness of the book. Many people liked to address the plot, the characters, any special subject matter, and occasionally themes. Rarely do actual reviewers comment on the quality of the prose, except to say it was incredible. With Amazon or GoodReads reviews, the reviewer might comment on anything. Finally, especially with special-interest reviewers, the reviewer might comment on particularly bad handling of certain subject matter, such as race, gender, or cultural depiction.
I differentiate between the conclusion and final thoughts, though they are often mixed together. I define the conclusion as a summing up of the major points of the body of the review. Was it a good story, well-written, clearly addressed themes.
The final thoughts generally include whether the reviewer would read this author again, are they glad they bought the book, and what they think the general audience of the book is.
Next time, I’ll discuss the miscellaneous post-review scraps.
Last time, I talked a bit about how knowing your platform can help you write a more informative book review. That covers all three my questions to ask before writing a review. So, now, I’m going to suggest what infomation should be provided in a review, and why each part of it is useful for writing reviews in general. I’ll give the list, and then look at each piece of it below that. I won’t add formatting right now. I’ll save that for later.
Body of Review
Comp Titles/If You Liked this Recs
Didn’t Like This Recs
Authors Other Works
The order of these can bet switched up if you want, but this is generally the most common and most useful order.
The metadata kind of goes together, so let’s look at it all at once.
Almost always, for obvious reasons, the title of the book goes in the title of your post. Often, and I personally advocate this, the author’s name goes there, too. For example Review: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Obviously, most pre-built blog software won’t let you use formatting in the title, but if you have your own website, or a pro-version that lets you create your own template, you can do something like the above.
Genre is useful, especially as a tag, for helping people find books they know they’re interested in. Of course, if you have a genre review blog, you might be able to leave it out. Unless you like naming sub-genres, or of you think the genre of the book is arguable.
As far as page count, it can be good to include, although it’s specific to certain editions. But some people like short books, and others like long books, so it can’t really hurt.
Publisher and publication date are less relevant. Date can tell you how old the book is, which can say something about writing style or subject, although only if the reader already knows the genre fairly well. Publisher is more just a detail. It might encourage a reader to look at similar books in a genre, but that’s about it.
The source is where you got the book from: publisher, author, agency, contest, store, library. Books received as part of publisher/agency/author promotion require a disclosure. Store, contest, library are just useful information.
Covers are also not necessarily relevant to a review. However, especially in a store or library, knowing what the cover looks like makes it easier for the reader to find. It can also suggest if they are the target audience for a book, as most covers are targeted at specific demographics. Especially in YA/NA and many commercial genres.
The last part I’ll go over for today is the summary. You can write your own summary, use a Goodreads or Amazon summary, use the back-cover or cover-flap copy, or use what the provider of the copy suggests, if they suggest anything. Summaries should not contain major spoilers, ie, major twists in the second half of the book, obvious answers to mysteries not noted on the cover copy, and they should obviously avoid specifics of the conclusion of the story. A summary/blurb’s purpose is to entice a reader, or give them an idea of what the book is about, not to spoil it for them.
Many reviewers like to put their metadata in a little box or visually separate part of the review. It makes it easier to locate on the page, and highlights it for the reader. It might also be useful to include links to author/publisher/store websites to help readers learn more about the book or purchase it straight from your review.
That’s all for today. Probably by tomorrow, I’ll publish the second half, going over what to actually write in the body of a review.
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