With the exception of my recent look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, I don’t write many book reviews. That is for a fairly simple reason. Most books that I read remind me of a Thai restaurant near my old house. That may sound odd, but stick with me. The food at that restaurant is fine. Perfectly mediocre. Appropriate amounts of peanut sauce. Tofu in all the right places. Everything as expected. Which all adds up to me never wanting to eat there.
I want my restaurants to be more than perfectly mediocre. I want my books to be more too.
I have spent the entirety of my professional career working at libraries and publishing houses, which means that I have read a ridiculous number of books. Though each book has its own spark, its own flavor, many novels sound the same. I don’t hate all tropes – heck, I play Story Trope Bingo on occasion – but if a plot follows the usual pathways of a genre, the book has to have something really special about its characters, it style, or its overall competency in order for me to keep reading.
As a result of my oversensitivity to these plot patterns, I am not good at writing book reviews. Perhaps that assessment is unfair on my part. I am not bad at writing them – I can typically pull together a mixture of positive and negative things to say about any work – but I find it difficult to take off my editor’s cap when I read. And that editor’s voice finds its way into my reviews. My impulse is always to write a review as though the author is still in the drafting stages of the book and has time to fix major arcs. “You need to fix character A’s voice; these three plot points don’t fit together; the background details are inconsistent, etc.” And all of those points could certainly be applied in a review, but reviews do, I think, benefit from being more diplomatic than I naturally am. I need to be able to step back from criticizing character A and take a more holistic approach to assessing the novel.
(Also I have a terrible habit of perusing the free ebooks on Amazon, and some of them are simply bad. Very, very bad.)
All of this is to say that unless I go through a major intellectual transformation, I will never fill my blog with book reviews. Every so often, that knowledge makes me maudlin, but not enough for me to try and change things.
That does make me wonder though; how do the rest of you approach book reviews? I see so many fantastic reviewers who engage with books, and I am curious to hear how you all go about it. What makes a good book review, and what makes a terrible one? Are some systems for reviewing better than others? I’m not entirely sure, but perhaps someday I will find out.
Tevaprapas, “Buddha Sutra”, 2009, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bhuddha_Sutra_in_Thai-Khmer_Font.JPG.
Jean Northington, “Literary Fiction Bingo”, Book Riot, February 17, 2015, https://bookriot.com/2015/02/17/story-tropes-bingo-almost-every-genre/