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Honest book reviews

by J. C. Greenway
Honest book reviews book and a cup
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From a writer’s point of view, reviews have one purpose. Make people read the damn book and now. But when approaching reviews with my reader’s hat (you should see it, it’s a thing of wonder) on, I have different demands. Tell me: is this book worth a punt, what was the writer trying to do, did they achieve it? I want honest book reviews that give me enough to go on to decide whether to embark upon reading without spoiling the best bits. By those criteria, Madam Miaow’s excellent dissection of Julia Lovell’s The Opium Wars is more worthy of a read than the tome it is reviewing. I confess to not knowing as much as I perhaps should do of this inglorious period of British history, but Madam Miaow’s review makes me determined to address that, even if it is unlikely I will be starting with Lovell’s book when I do.

Similarly, I am not sure that I am ever going to add the Twilight fan fiction publishing sensation that is 50 Shades of Grey to my ever-expanding reading list. The little I know of Twilight (once half-dozed through the first movie) and 50 Shades… (my high school students are passing it around like my friends and I once shared Judy Blume books) has led me to believe that I won’t get much enjoyment from them. That said, I found plenty to enjoy and ponder in Jennifer Armintrout’s consideration of whether the relationships depicted in these novels are, in fact, abusive.

A review of my own which was more fun to write than the book itself was to read features Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and can be found here.

While I could see that the publishers would be less than happy with these honest book reviews, for readers I consider them to be invaluable. If you have any other examples of similarly useful reviews, do please share them in the comments.

Happy reading! (Or not.)

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Our Man in Abiko 27 May 2012 - 8:16 pm

Honesty as a reader is straight-forward. When you are a writer too, selling your wares, it’s tough. Plus, the longer you are in the game, the more writing folk you actually know. Then, how can you hope to be impartial or at least not sycophantic, when you want nice reviews too or at least not to be smacked in the face by the slighted writer at parties?

Possible solutions:
1. Never be honest in reviews.
2. Be honest, but never go to literary cocktail parties
3. Never review friends’ books.
4. Always love everything by your friends.
5. When reviewing books, write about anything except the book.

Personally, I alternate between 2 and 5.

Carry on!

Sean Lotman (@SeanLotman) 27 May 2012 - 8:19 pm

A good book review is a work of art. It’s actually a very difficult process to summarize a book’s merits (or conversely its demerits). That’s why the reviews on amazon.com are often a waste of time. It’s incredible when you consider it. People will spend hours or days with a book only to say that they did or did not like it. It’s rare that they can justify their response beyond vague generalizations and it’s truly special when they can contextualize it within its relationship to a writer’s canon or its place in the halls of literature. But never mind. There are enough underpaid masochists who take the trouble to produce book reviews often more worthwhile than the books themselves. Give them some applause as such a performance is arguably an existential victory as well a job well done.

Joanne Greenway 27 May 2012 - 8:48 pm

At the risk of sounding sycophantic I would agree with everything you’ve said. I also think that writing the kind of contextualised, reflective reviews you mention is an essential part of the writing process – if you can’t analyse others’ work and your response to it, how can you expect to do the same for your own writing?

Joanne Greenway 27 May 2012 - 8:45 pm

True. I think Private Eye has a feature every summer where they mock writers puffing their friends’ latest releases in the newspapers’ Summer Reads columns. Difficult to risk a spat with a mate over perceived flaws, but then I also think/hope that an honest appraisal is worth more to a writer. Be kind to each other because you know what’s been gone through to get it on the page, but don’t turn away from pointing out something that didn’t come off if you have the opportunity to do so.

markwoff 28 May 2012 - 5:04 am

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” — Dorothy Parker
… which quote I was reminded of by gigoid http://gigoid.me/2012/05/27/oldnew-dogstricks/
I have actually done that with a book. It was ‘About a boy’, Nick Hornby, and I suffered about one chapter.

alylonna 8 June 2012 - 5:27 am

I’ll read most anything. I don’t tend to write reviews but if a book makes me think or feel something out of the ordinary then I’ll write about it. Sometimes I’ll blog it (as in the case of your book) and sometimes I’ll fictionalise how it makes me feel in my own works. Sometimes in reading the words of another you come to truly understand the words in your own soul. You just needed a sounding board to make sense of them. I’ve read a great many books recently that I didn’t enjoy and I actually gave up on two of them. I’m almost ashamed to say that I didn’t leave reviews for any of them because I was afraid there would be a retaliation in the reviews for my books (so far all positive!). I like to kid myself that silence is more effective than a bad review lol.


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