Book reviews help both readers and writers. Readers are more likely to buy a book with many reviews, even when they’re not 100% favourable. Writers consequently are always trying to encourage their readers to post reviews online. Many bloggers write reviews, and thus are courted by review-seeking writers.
Read a book, write a review. If nothing else, it’s a way of sharing your thoughts about the books you read, helping other readers find good books.
People who have no problems articulating their experiences with a lawnmower or a pair of pants become constricted when it comes to writing a Book Review. The very fact that this term exists makes it seem like a big deal. After all, no one talks about Pants Reviews. But the thought of writing a book review may bring back memories of the dreaded Book Report from school days.
So what is a book review, exactly?
One thing it isn’t is a critique. Readers who are also writers may confuse the two, because they belong to writers’ critique groups or serve as beta readers. In such situations one reads a manuscript and compiles suggestions as to how the author may improve the work — remove a character, change a scene or rewrite the whole thing in first person. I sometimes see “reviews” of this sort, most likely produced by writers or would-be writers.
A review should convey a reader’s experience of the book as written, the thoughts and impressions that arose while they were reading and after they finished. It’s not advice to the writer (too late for that), but a response from one who has partaken of the written offering.
Reviews may be formal or informal. Most of the reviews posted to the internet are short and informal, but those written for magazines, newspapers or book review blogs are longer and include certain elements: a brief (really brief) plot summary or description, followed by the reader’s impressions of the characters, the writing style and story arc. Formal reviews may provide comparisons with the author’s other works or with similar works by different authors. It’s common as well to see the reviewer’s idea as to what kinds of readers might appreciate the book — mystery lovers, aficionados of literary tomes, or people who like thrillers with nonstop action.
Informal reviews, purists would say, are not “reviews” at all, merely impressions or comments. In many cases that’s true, but brief comments are certainly better than none at all. The best time for a reader to post their impressions of a book is right after they finish reading it. Writers may take advantage of this by inserting suggestions to this effect right after “The End.” In ebooks, a link to the book’s page on Amazon, Goodreads or similar sites would be especially helpful.
Readers intimidated by the idea of Writing A Book Review may be encouraged by the idea that all they have to do is say whether they liked the book or not, and why. No plot summary is needed (in fact, reviews that consist largely of clunky rehashes of the plot are pretty much useless).
Here is a really short “review” I posted on Goodreads recently, of Smile Now, Cry Later by Paul MacDonald: “A bit of a different twist on the private-eye-by-accident theme, spiced up with lots of cynical humour about corporate culture. Definitely kept me reading to the end.” Most authors would be happy with a bunch of these.
Finally, a word about the negative review. Some readers refuse to write them, which is the safe course of (in)action. A thoughtful negative review is perfectly responsible, in my opinion. The crucial point is to say why you didn’t like the book. Silly plot? Flat characters? Too many flashbacks? “This book is a piece of crap,” is not a review, by any standard.
Thing is, reviews are 100% voluntary. Authors cannot compel their readers to write them. Sincere reviews — even negative ones — are freely given expressions of appreciation, and should be valued accordingly.
Bamfield is a community of a couple hundred permanent residents on the far west coast of Vancouver Island. It occupies both sides of Bamfield Inlet, which divides the town into East and West Bamfield. The coastal rainforest comes down nearly to the water, providing a good habitat for the Swainson’s thrushes, who prefer closed-canopy forests. It’s all the human inhabitants can do to beat back the lush vegetation.
A row of charming old houses and shops lines the boardwalk along the shore of West Bamfield.
Many of the houses have attractive gardens.
Even the weeds are beautiful in their wild lushness.
Captivating sights are found around every corner.
One of the quirky features is the Cat Haven, a set of shelters for feral felines that were live-trapped, neutered or spayed, and then returned to live out their days in these charming cat houses. The population control process must have been very effective; we saw not one cat anywhere during our stay.
The best reason for a trip to Bamfield in July is Music By The Sea, a unique music festival in a special place. The repertoire is classical and jazz, the musicians come from all over North America, and the venue is perfect — a small auditorium that’s part of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
Imagine, if you will, wide windows overlooking ocean and islands, fronted by musicians plying their trade, playing chamber works by composers from J.S. Bach to Alexander von Zemlinsky, or improvising on tunes by Billy Strayhorn, Nat Adderley or Jay Livingston. Imagine mezzo-soprano Nan Hughes singing Debussy’s Ariettes oubliees, or pianist John Stetch reinterpreting “Never Let Me Go.” Then intermission on the balcony as the summer light slowly fades, and the Swainson’s thrushes call back and forth across Bamfield Inlet.
You can get to Bamfield by logging road from Port Alberni (a distance of fewer than 100 km or 60 miles, but it can seem a lot longer if you don’t have the right sort of vehicle and aren’t used to potholes, dust and huge logging trucks barreling along). Or you can take the Frances Barkley, a ship that carries passengers and freight, operated by Lady Rose Marine Services out of Port Alberni.
Side note: because the Frances Barkley departs at 8 in the morning, we spent the previous night at the Swept Away Inn, a conveniently located and unusual B&B that used to be a working tugboat, moored at the Port Alberni waterfront. Snug but comfortable quarters and an excellent breakfast.
A pleasant four hour cruise takes you down Alberni Inlet, where you will see fishing boats, log booms, forests, mountains, eagles and (if you’re lucky; we weren’t) whales.
If the boat makes a stop in the community of Kildonan, you will get to see Canada’s only floating post office…
…and a garden of plants growing out of old pilings.
On arrival in Bamfield, you get to watch cargo being unloaded using the ship’s crane, a fascinating operation. Then (if you’re doing the day trip), you get an hour and a half to explore the boardwalk, check out the general store and coffee shop, buy some ice cream, take some pictures. If you’re staying for a couple of days, you can take a water taxi to East Bamfield, or walk along a couple of kilometers of gravel road to Brady’s Beach, a typical lovely beach of the area, complete with sea stacks, grottoes and (almost) white sand.
All this and music too! Definitely a worthwhile trip.
Recently I read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and now I’m engaged in a struggle to finish Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Both books are in the horror genre, and both, in my opinion, are problematic.
The thing is, these are not straightforward genre books. They are literary horror. And that’s the problem.
Before I go on, I’ll just say that I have no problem with the writing itself. Kiernan and Cutter are skilled writers whose prose is artful and compelling. It’s the entire reading experience I want to dissect.
First, what is horror? It’s fiction whose purpose is to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of something terrible that is outside of reality. (This distinguishes it from thrillers, in which the threat is reality-based). It may be gory and graphic, it may be subtle and inexplicable, but whatever the fictional characters experience must be vividly shared by the reader. The best horror fiction lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, providing jolts of terror at unexpected moments.
Literary fiction is character-based. The characters and their inner lives drive the plot. Whatever happens to them is of less importance than how they change in the course of the narrative.
Strong, fully fleshed-out characters are thought to be a mark of superior fiction. Readers (this one included) who post reviews of books often complain about “cardboard cutout” or stereotypical characters. But I’m wondering if that criticism applies less to horror fiction.
Think about it — in horror, it’s the situation that’s the star of the show. It’s the house with something dwelling in the cellar, the forest full of malign presences, the stealthy noises in the walls. The reader should be right there, cheek by jowl with the character experiencing these things, trying to figure out what’s happening, becoming terrified, confronting the fear, discovering the terrible truth. If the point-of-view character is also a complex personality sorting through messy personal baggage and possibly struggling with mental health issues, the story sometimes becomes muddy and tedious.
Unreliable narrators are practically a given now, even in genre fiction, and they can add texture to a story. But the degree of unreliability should be limited, and the reader must be given a fundamentally sympathetic character to travel with and root for.
In both of the books I mentioned at the start of this post, the main characters are troubled to start with, as a result of unhappy childhoods or traumatic events in the recent past. Add the bizarre or dangerous situations that underpin the plots (a tree with a weird history, a research station 8 miles underwater that’s gone incommunicado) — and who is surprised when they start to crack? But the reader who just wants to experience a series of terrifying situations while sitting comfortably on the couch may get impatient when their companion character breaks down and needs psychoanalysis. It’s like when you’re on a hike in challenging conditions and your only companion starts to lose it. Yes, this ramps up the tension (always a good thing in fiction), but once a character’s psychological issues become more important than the shapes in the shadows, you have a different type of book.
And indeed, many readers enjoy the combination of literary + horror, as shown by the ratings of both these books on Goodreads. I may be in a minority, preferring a greater degree of separation between the two. For what it’s worth, I think the literary/horror balance is a bit better in The Deep. The main character, although overburdened with personal issues, including a most peculiar upbringing, is basically sympathetic. In both this book and The Red Tree, however, the psychological is too tightly entangled the with the horror for my taste.
Critics have commented that H.P. Lovecraft’s main characters are not well developed. They are usually types — New Englanders of an academic bent faced with evidence of weird goings-on, often in the form of documents or artifacts that lead to the situations and settings that were HPL’s darlings. The characters are merely vehicles to take the reader to those situations. Aside from the basics (name, residence, scholarly interests, family background) little detail is provided. And really, it doesn’t much matter. The reader is sucked right in, reading accounts of R’lyeh rising from the ocean, traveling haunted rural roads to Henry Akeley’s place, exploring the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. Who cares about Francis Wayland Thurston’s mental quirks, Albert N. Wilmarth’s love life or William Dyer’s childhood?
When I read Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” I thought Herbert and the unnamed narrator had potential when it came to character development. What led Herbert to reanimate corpses? Why did the narrator remain loyal to West even when he began to fear him? These questions don’t really have much to do with the corpses lurching around, but they led me to write my novel The Friendship of Mortals. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is definitely horror; some have called it the first zombie tale. Re-Animator, the movie based on the story, is horror of the splatter and gore variety. But my book? Answering the character-based questions that compelled me to write transformed it from horror to psychological/supernatural.
Technically, summer is just beginning, but after a warm, dry spring it feels more like late July than June. Happily, the seediness of mid-late summer has not yet set in.
The area near the pond looks deceptively lush. I’m delighted that the calla lily bloomed quite well this year.
The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.
The rather feeble potted rose “Fragrant Cloud,” grown from a cutting (and thus on its own roots, not grafted) managed to produce three luscious blooms. Here are two of them.
The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.
With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…
Note all the campion (Lychnis coronaria), mostly white but some magenta. The ideal way to treat these plants is to remove each spent flower individually — an impossible task with this many plants. They seed extravagantly, which is why there are so many.
Remember the Shoe Bird? The shoe is now full of little Bewick’s wrens, with the parents busily bringing in bugs and removing waste. I wish I had a picture of this activity, but they come and go so fast they’re gone by the time I pick up the camera. It was easier during the incubation period.
What with the wren family, a gang of sparrows in the garage birdhouse, and raccoons methodically flipping rocks over at night, the garden is full of life.
This evening, while I was at a Jazz Vespers service (a real treasure, only a few minutes’ walk from my home) a light bulb came on, about the new phenomenon of self-publishing.
This has probably been said by many, but it felt like a new insight to me, so I decided to write it down.
At one time, when “publishing” meant rendering prose into print, gatekeepers were necessary because it was an expensive process, involving printing machines, warehouses, trucks and heavy boxes of books, in addition to the talents of editors, book designers and publicists. Time and treasure. Traditional publishers had to be selective. Hence the submissions process and all those rejection letters.
Things are different now. Novels and stories may be presented to potential readers in electronic form. No more paper, ink or machines. No more warehouses full of books. Why should anyone be surprised that the gates have been thrown open? Not only have the mechanics of publishing changed, but the fundamental criteria as to what is publishable are completely different.
No longer must every book justify its existence by making a profit for the publisher, or at least breaking even. Self-publishers are free to apply their own criteria of success. Maybe it’s a couple of hundred sales a year, or a few thousand free downloads. Some writers choose to make their self-publishing effort a business; to others, it’s primarily a means of creative expression.
Profit motives aside, all of us authors must remember that our readers’ time is the real treasure. If we want to catch and keep their attention (and thus the few dollars we charge for our ebooks), we absolutely must present polished work, competently packaged. But our books are offerings, not submissions. That’s a radical departure from the world of Trad.
The closing tune of tonight’s Jazz Vespers was “This Little Light.”
Fellow writers, let it shine.
I was doing one of those google yourself (and your book) checks, and was happily surprised to find this review of the first book of the Herbert West Series.
Originally posted on Writer Style:
I found this as a free Nook book. I love discovering (well written) free books by unknown authors.
The Friendship of Mortals is about a librarian (instant draw for me), Charles Milburn, who becomes friends with a medical student, Herbert West, when West asks to view the famed Necronomicon. From that moment as they look at it together, their lives are linked forever.
West finds in Milburn a trusted friend and helpful assistant for his experiments: trying to revive the dead. Milburn, someone who is very predictable and stable, is drawn to West as someone who is exciting and possibly unstable. Despite their differences and arguments, West knows that Milburn will come to his aid whenever he calls.
Through experiments, lovers, careers, even war, the pair keep in touch for over ten years. When West asks for one last favor, the ultimate favor, Milburn cannot say no. The ending is somewhat…
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Birds nest in various spots in my garden. House sparrows, of course — last year they moved into a long-disused birdhouse attached to the garage, and have been very busy producing more sparrows. I have found three bushtit nests in recent years. The latest one was in a ceanothus right next to the front walk. Sadly, something (probably a crow) yanked it out recently. I found the nest (a small work of art made of lichens, spider silk, dryer lint, grasses and feathers) lying on the street, under a power line where the crow probably took and dropped it. I hope the nest was unoccupied at the time.
And now we have the Shoe Bird! My preferred footwear in the garden is a pair of Duck Shoes — cheap rubber shoes that slip on and off easily. Until the advent of Nelly the Newf, I used to kick them off on the back porch, but since Nelly likes to chew shoes, I resorted to parking the duck shoes on a beam that holds up the porch roof.
A couple of weeks ago, I found an amazing lot of plant material (dried moss and grass) stuffed into both shoes. Since I’d worn them the day before, I was quite surprised. The creature responsible turned out to be a Bewick’s wren. Once I observed it stuffing the shoes, I removed the current ones and put them inside, replacing them with a worn out pair I hadn’t gotten around to disposing of. I made sure to put all the nest material into the replacement shoes. The bird didn’t seem to notice, just got on with nest-building.
I have no idea whether it’s intending to hatch out a brood of tiny wrens in the shoe. Wikipedia says Bewick’s wren males sometimes build “dummy nests,” hoping to attract females to take over and finish the job. (Hmm. No comment; we’re talking about birds). Maybe that’s what’s going on here. I don’t know, but in the meantime, the bird is an interesting addition to the scene.
And, just because it’s so gorgeous, here is the second flower to bloom on clematis “Pink Fantasy.”