Reviewing Books from a Reviewers Perspective

Being a very recent entrant into this publishing reviews game it's been interesting to watch a lot of the chatter from readers, other reviewers and writers getting around these days.

Writing reviews is an extremely nerve-racking game, or at least it is for me. Doesn't mean it's not fascinating, but there are days when you start to read a book and you can feel the cold sweat breaking out.

I sweat it if I'm finding I'm loving the book and I sweat it if I'm hating it and the reason's basically the same. How do you comment on this book and sound balanced, reasonable and vaguely sane.

After all, a review is simply one person's reaction to a particular book. That reaction is very base, visceral almost and it can defy another's understanding. We all know the tales of two people reading the same book, which could be two different books when they describe it.

Personal perspective brings so much impact to book enjoyment, in the same way as it does to the personal choice of comedian, favourite TV program, life partner choice and so on. Just imagine how complicated it would be if we all wanted to spend the rest of our lives with the same person - okay that person might or might not think it was okay - but the rest of us would be pretty pissed off with the queue for attention! :)

Same with books though, not everybody is going to be queuing up to read the same books, and not every reviewer is going to identify with the message that an author is trying to portray / get it / like it / care a jot about it and so on. That failure to connect does not necessarily mean that the author's done a bad job or that the reviewer is a congenital idiot - it just means that they are both looking for or seeing different things.

I'm very aware of a series of personal prejudices that affect my reading - I find it really hard to stomach violence towards animals and I, frankly, am not that fussed about the same issue with kids (don't bother sending me abusive messages about that - heard 'em / don't care). Of course, I care if any of the violence is gratuitous / shock value only - and that is the same whether the victims are children, adults, politicians, used car salesmen (who else can I offend....).

I'm also a big fan of ambiguous endings, loose ends, temperamental characters (I'm definitely personalising there). I can't stand everything wrapped up in the final pages for the sake of wrapping everything up in the final pages - drives me bats.

So all of my personal prejudices come to the fore when I'm reading a book - and when I'm reading for a review I do try to work out what it is that didn't work for me, what it is that did work for me, and articulate that in the review. As any author can sometimes struggle to articulate a message, a reviewer can sometimes struggle to articulate that prejudice.

I'm also aware that as a reviewer, I can have off days - there are days when I fail to string together coherent sentences that explain what is, after all, a visceral reaction. Some books just trigger a "good lord I hate this" reaction that defies explanation - there are days when you flat out can't say why something is annoying, you just know, deep down inside where you live, you're irritated as hell button has been clicked on and there's nothing you can do to turn it off.

So where does that leave everyone? Frankly I have no idea. Ultimately you have one group of people who are creating something - artistic types / putting their ideas out into the universe for others to consume. The consumers of those ideas are fickle. They just simply sometimes refuse to get the art for what it is - the greatest art that the producer can create.

Certainly in amateur reviewer stakes I'd be saddened if there's anyone out there that isn't a true fan of the art of the mystery writer, and I know I'm cheering the publication of every single new mystery book, regardless of whether I'd ever be interested in reading it or not. If I review a book I try really really sincerely to be fair about it. There have been some books that I've absolutely loved to itty bitty tiny pieces, and there have been some books that I've loathed with every fibre of my being.

But their presence on the shelves of the local bookshop makes me happy.

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Comment by Ayo on April 11, 2007 at 9:24pm
I love reviewing but also agree that it can be incredibly stressful. Even more so when the book you are reviewing has been written by someone you consider to be a friend. I have also felt that it is certainly not good to sit down and write a review as soon as you have finished reading the book because you need to be sensible about what you write. I always explain why I may not like a book, you have to remember that just because you don't like the book someone else might. It is always about balance, being truthful and being fair not only to yourself but also others who might be reading your reviews.
Comment by Steven Torres on April 11, 2007 at 2:04pm
I don't mind - in fact, I expect - that the reviewer will have personal preferences. If those preferences are going to affect whether or not you'll like a book, I do prefer if they're stated at the start. For instance, if you don't like violence or cats and you're reading a book with violence or cats, then I don't think it detracts from the review to start by saying "I was a bit wary of approaching this book because I generally don't like cats in a story..."

Of course, a lot of trouble would be saved if editors could make a harmonious union between book and reviewer. Nothing worse than to have a noir novel given to a lover of cozies to review (or vice versa).
Comment by Kerrie on April 10, 2007 at 6:01pm
I agree Karen. Reviewing can be very fraught, because in the long run you want to be fair but also honest, and as you say, a certain amount of personal preference rises to the top

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