How to Write a Book Review

For starters, what tempts people to review books at all? If it’s for a prestigious magazine or newspaper, it could be money, though rookie reviewers are often happy to review in return for a free book and a chance to raise their profile.

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It can also be a chance to preen, to get in as many bon mots as possible, and to dazzle readers with a vertiginous vocabulary. If there’s room to slip in a lethal knife wound as well, so much the better. Will Self’s review of Julie Burchill’s Unchosen is often quoted as the epitome of this type of review:

“I can’t really dignify her latest offering with the ascription ‘book’, nor the contents therein as ‘writing’ – rather they are sophomoric, hammy effusions, wrongheaded, rancorous and pathetically self-aggrandising.”

He goes on to cite “Burchill’s repugnant gallimaufry of insults and half-baked nonsense.”

One snag is that it wasn’t a review as such. Still, it’s pugnacious stuff, and entertaining to read. Unless, perhaps, you are Julie Burchill.

Accusations are the stock-in-trade of many reviewers. In The Scotsman, Allan Massie says of Craig Raine’s oeuvre The Divine Comedy: 

“It isn’t a novel, no matter what author and publisher choose to call it. There is no real narrative interest and the characters are no more than names.” 

He goes on to give evidence for his view, leaving the public in little doubt that Allan Massie is a more riveting read than the book being dissected.

FreeImages.com/Davide Farabegoli

For a short while there was even the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. But several things have happened since then. Firstly, jokes about hatchets are a bit tasteless in a troubled world. Secondly, there are now more reviews on blogs and book review sites, far more than you’ll find in mainstream publications.

Online reviews like these are more workaday, and may serve their purpose better than the virtuoso variety. old-books1

Reviews just have two main tasks: guiding potential readers to their next book, and helping authors write what readers love most.

More readers could leave reviews, but I know that many feel inhibited from doing so. Yet the rules, such as they are, are pretty simple.

1 Short is OK, though preferably not as short as the one-word review “Book”.

2 Never include spoilers.

3 You don’t have to be a smarty-pants. In fact, it probably detracts from the value of your feedback. Just concentrate on what might help readers like yourself. 

4 Did you like the book? If so, say you did. You could also describe briefly what kind of book it is. “It’s a fantasy story about a girl who finds herself in an alternative reality which contains talking animals, strange new rules, and a lot of fun, some of it clever.” That’s not the most erudite description of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it’s enough to guide people, and it doesn’t give away the plot.

5 If you didn’t like it, don’t be rude. 

6 By all means add whether, in your opinion, the story is fast-paced, has lots of characters, is full of suspense, contains wonderful dialogue, and so on. It is your opinion, not the opinion of an English Lit professor, but it should be founded on evidence.

Your evidence should come from the contents of the book, and not depend on whether you liked the shoes on the cover, or whether Amazon delivered it to the wrong address. Here’s what one recipient wrote of a second-hand book:

“The book was in much worse condition stated, it would have been nice to have been warned about the blood stain that ran through several pages. Not happy at all as had to buy a second copy.”

7 If you feel like it, you could say which characters you liked in the book. Were they well drawn? Did their dialogue ring true? And so on.

8 Try to mention who might be the ideal reader. “Fans of cosy mysteries may enjoy this book.” It doesn’t hurt to mention other authors of books along the same lines, if any come to mind. But there’s no need to wrack your brains.

There’s a lot of really helpful advice on this blog post by top 1000 Amazon reviewer (and author) Debbie Young. If you’ve never written a review before, just come on in. The water’s lovely.

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I still have a soft spot for this spoof review of Orwell’s 1984, by a reader called So-Crates. As feedback it’s not that useful, and you need to know something about 1984 to appreciate it, but it does show that jokes don’t have to have a butt.

“Do not buy this book if you’re expecting to find out anything at all about 1984, as this writer seems to have been living on a different planet. I was trying to do a bit of research into the influence of New Wave on cross-over dance music in the Mid-Eighties, but I found “1984” a complete waste of time… Jackson’s “Thriller”? (the soundtrack of the summer, and the biggest selling album of all-time) – not mentioned; Frankie Goes To Hollywood (their breakthrough year leading to world pop domination) – not a whisper.”  

You can probably guess what he says of The Road to Wigan Pier.

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The Dangers of Learning to Walk

Bringing up a child is the most natural thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as forty-year old Laure was finding.

FreeImages.com/Ana Grenz

Jack was toddling now, with a confidence far in excess of his ability to balance. To stop himself falling, he’d grab at whatever came to hand. It could be a tablecloth or a lamp. Today he got brave and weaved his way unaided across the middle of the living room, screeching with pride once he reached the little table on the other side of the room. He lifted one foot after the other off the floor, then took both hands off the table. He squealed with glee a few more times and promptly fell, mouth open, onto the edge of the table.

Laure rushed to gather him in her arms. The bleeding was torrential. Had he torn an artery in his mouth? Or knocked out one of his new teeth? She struggled to take a look but he screamed and wriggled and kicked and cried. Each scream pumped out scarlet blood mixed with saliva.

“Poor baby, poor baby,” she incanted as she grabbed paper towels from the kitchen. She could see a jagged wound right through his lip to the inside of his mouth. No wonder he was howling.

She felt her breathing change. Harsher at first, then faster. And her heart was beating all over the place, especially in her chest and her temples. Her hands trembled despite herself.

“There, there,” she intoned, barely audible above his screams. He had spat out the paper towel. She could smell his blood, his baby smell, her own helplessness.

Who was there to call? The health visitor was elusive after 10 a.m., and the GP was never available.  

She tried some ice. Jack didn’t like it, but the bleeding was easing off.

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Calmer now, Jack dribbled a little blood-stained saliva onto his beloved blankie.

As he was happily playing with his toys, Laure left it. She also left the bloodied paper towels on the kitchen counter as exhibits for Dan when he got in.

He breezed in from work, his kiss reeking of garlic.

She gave him a blow by blow account.

“Relax,” said Dan. “He’s learning to walk.”

“He could have really hurt himself.”

Jack chose this moment to beam at Dan and say, “Car,” as he offered him a plastic vehicle.

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“Yeah, but he didn’t. It’s only a cut.”

She frowned at him. “It’s a very deep cut. Have you actually seen all this blood?”

“It’s stopped now,” Dan pointed out.

Laure’s heart was still racing.

You can read more about Laure, Dan, and their friends in Hampstead Fever, available online and in bookstores.

 

How to Launch a Book

Launching a ship requires a goodly crowd and a large bottle of champagne. Exactly the same principles apply to book launches, though without all the sea-water.  

Daunt Books, Hampstead Heath

I’ll skip the question of whether you “need” a physical launch. I didn’t have a launch for any of my non-fiction books, unless you count one publisher’s lavish effort with a bowl of peanuts and about three people.  

Here’s what I learned from the launch of my novel Hampstead Fever earlier this week.

1 My best tip: share the launch with another author. But no sailing under flags of convenience.  You must like the other author and their book.

I shared Wednesday evening at Daunt Books, Hampstead Heath, with my fellow author Christine Webber. It was her second novel and my second novel, and we’d both had around 12 non-fiction books published already. While Who’d Have Thought It? isn’t much like Hampstead Fever, it’s in the same genre and both make good summer reads.  

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2 Invite people because you like them, not just because they’re “useful”. The second type has a disconcerting habit of finding something more interesting to do on the night. Besides, you’re celebrating your achievements, so you should enjoy the proceedings.

3 Don’t be ill.  I got this terribly wrong last week. On the plus side, some people thought it was a clever marketing ploy.  “So,” said one waggish author friend. “I suppose you’ve got Hampstead Fever?”

4 Have plenty of food and drink. Especially drink.  If you can, have someone to serve people wearing white gloves. Class.

Fron L to R: me, Orna Roass, Jane Davis

From left to right: me, Orna Ross and Jane Davis

5 Take a pen. Of course you’ve already practised your authorial signature and worked out what to write by way of dedications, but something to write with does come in useful.

6 Get someone to take photos. Even better, ask several people, just in case. Make sure they capture the really important shots, eg with your family.

Christine with some friends

Christine Webber with some of her friends

7 Say a few words about yourself and your book.  You might mention the drawers full of unpublished masterpieces, or explain why you write instead of doing something easier, like transplant surgery. Thank key people, but remember it’s not an Oscar acceptance speech. Five to seven minutes will do, especially if more than one person speaks. Christine and I didn’t do readings, but many authors do. At a recent multiple launch, authors from the Triskele collective had others read excerpts aloud, to great effect.

7 Consider getting someone to introduce you and/or field questions from the audience. Someone might want to know how you write (“Is it true that you do your best writing in a rainy orchard with nothing on?”) or whether that scene is based on real life. On second thoughts, skip the questions.

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8 Consider merchandise (bookmarks, pencils and other trifles) or a draw for a book-related prize.  You could also have a slide-show or a book trailer running. The sky’s the limit, really, but it can become tacky, look desperate, or interfere with sheer enjoyment of the event.  

Concentrate on essentials like chilled fizz and plenty of copies of your book, and you’ll have a great send-off for your new title.

Pippa and Bethany of Daunt Books

Pippa and Bethany of Daunt Books