If you follow my blog at all, you know that I write a number of reviews. The majority are book reviews. I’ve always loved to read. I started reading on my own when I was around 3-years-old. No, really. I did. When I was 9, we lived about a block away from the public library. I had my own library card. I went to the library every chance I got. I was a latch-key kid, so after school, I would just head to the library rather than coming home right away. I got my love of reading from my mother. Sometimes we would go to the library together and she would point out some of the great books she had read. In high school – junior year – we had to read one book outside of the classroom per month. A parent had to fill out the form to “prove” that we’d read it. I turned in about 10 a month.
So, yeah, I’ve always been a reader.
A few years ago, I decided to put my love of reading and my education in the analysis of literature to use by writing reviews. I’ve enjoyed it! I haven’t done it as much as I’d like, but I do enjoy it quite a bit. It’s my way of sharing my thoughts on a book with other readers. Perhaps I’ll guide someone toward a new favorite author.
What I do not do is write bad book reviews. It’s not that I haven’t read any bad books. Trust me, I have. Some are painful. In a lot of cases, I’m able to just stop reading and move on to another book. But for the years I was a judge, I had to keep reading from cover to cover. Sometimes it would have been easier to poke myself in the eyes with acid-tipped needles. I had to give explanations for my low scores on those books. And I did so honestly. But only because they were confidential.
But I won’t put that negativity out into the world. I know, I know. I could put out that review and “warn off” other readers. But, really, am I warning them off? Maybe the book that I think is banal and unimaginative is the book that speaks to the heart and soul of another reader. Just as my glowing report of a book could end up causing someone to pay for a book that they simply do not like. I mean, it happens.
That is to say, my reviews are subjective. They speak to me.
I try to explain why I find a book engaging or interesting – without giving away spoilers – so that someone might say, “Oh! I like those things in a novel, too!” Some readers are in it for the characters. Some are in it for the plot twists. Some are in it for the sex scenes. Some are in it for the complex narrative. Some are in it for all of the above.
What it comes down to is that we read individually. We each have our likes and dislikes. Some people don’t like Romance because it’s too “formulaic”. Well, guess what? Pretty much every genre is formulaic. You don’t think there’s a formula to writing a mystery or political intrigue? There is. It’s all in what the author does with that formula. So that’s what I try to focus on – what the author does with a formula. An author can write nothing but romance novels, but as long as I don’t feel like I’m reading the same story with different character names, then things are okay.
So, what do I look for when I’m reading and reviewing books?
Characters: I want good characters! And by “good” I’m not referring to the character’s “moral code.” No. I want three-dimensional characters. People who seem real and who have some depth. I also cast off the notion of the “likable character.” I don’t think you have to like the character for it to be a good character. For example, Lucius Malfoy is a heinous person. I mean, come ON! He’s horrible! But he is a fantastic character! Ditto for Draco. Double ditto for He-who-must-not-be-named.
Character development: Characters who remain stagnant throughout a novel (or series) are just not interesting. There needs to be something happening and it needs to be clearly shown on the page. The character doesn’t have to become a “better person.” It can go the other way. Look at Elphaba in Gregory McGuire’s novel. She didn’t start evil. Circumstances brought about the perception of evil. Yet, there’s still growth and development there.
Language: Is it good writing? Oh, my stars, this is so important. I need the author to have an understanding of basic grammar, at least. Construct a good sentence. Then another. Add a few together to form a paragraph. Use proper verb tense. Spell things correctly. Use proper punctuation. At minimum. But, also, become self aware. Can someone hand me a manuscript that has no identifiers regarding the author, but I can still figure out who wrote it based on favorite words and phrases? If so, then the language needs to be tightened up.
Genre: Does the book meet the standards for the genre? If the publisher claims it’s a romance, but there’s no happy ending…then, to me, it’s not a romance. If the crime isn’t solved by the last chapter, it’s not a mystery. (This is where that formula comes in, folks.) But, beyond that, is it a shining example of that genre? These are key.
Of course, I pay attention to other things, too. I take note if a book adds effective bits of humor. I love some good secondary characters – they’re kind of essential in my mind. Protagonists don’t exist in a vacuum. Narrative descriptions – the scenery and surroundings, when described well, often become additional characters in a novel. Is the dialogue fresh and believable?
And so on and so forth. But those mentioned above are key for me.
Now you know. This is why my reviews often seem to be “formulaic” in their own right.