A Letter to Aspiring Book Reviewers A Blog Series

6: Reading to Review:

At the outset, quite a few aspiring reviewers will read the full book, and then set out to summarize the story and the experience as though “the reading” and “the reviewing” are separate functions. They are not separate functions at all. You are not reading for entertainment, you’re reading toward a purpose. You’re reading to prepare yourself to write on a topic, that being the book you chose. You’ll need to express the emotional experience presented in the book and although you may also need to discuss the way the book made you think about this or that, in the review of any work of fiction, it is the emotional experience that is key. Your own thoughts and feelings should guide you to your conclusion regarding the work. It should guide you to how many stars you offer, and it should guide you to what you have to say in your review. Here’s how to do that:

As you read, take notes. If a particular event in the story touches you, jot it down. If particular sentence or line of dialog really speaks to you, make note of it. By taking notes, you are keeping a record of your experience. Later, when you are ready to write, you can refer back to those notes and very naturally give your review an emotional flow and texture. Your review will read better, and in turn it will prove to be more valuable to your followers because you’ll have a grasp of the flow of your own emotions during the reading experience.

You should also jot down your thoughts as you read. Every writer writes to a point, be it a topic, a thought or idea, or even an emotion. In everything you read, there’s a point, just as there must be a point to everything you write. As you read to review, you’ll be looking for that point both in the book, and in your own thoughts and feelings. When it come times to write, you’ll want to have that point in mind. It’ll make for a better review.

The “point” may be found in the theme of the story. The theme is what the story is about on the highest level. Is the book about a love lost and how that love can seem more perfect than the love standing before you? Is it about a young person coming of age in a difficult time? Is it about alienation, or is it a reflection of the hero’s journey? The overt story or plot may be about the exposition of corruption in government, but the theme may be about the fear a person might feel when addressing power or in opposing power. It’s not likely you’ll need to state the theme outright in your review, but knowing what the theme of the book is, and being able to reflect on how well the author addressed that theme (or surprised or inspired you with it) will give you a solid perspective to consider when you set out to write the review.  You’ll be able to use theme as a touchstone when determining how many stars you give the work. You chose a book with a potential for five stars, did it come through for you? Take notes, and consider theme, and you’ll have your answer.

Be certain that you jot down some of your final thoughts once you finish the book. If the book was mind-blowing, you might not be able to say anything but “wow!” That’s alright. Jot it down. If you can manage it, try to explain why you felt that way. Next, set the work aside. Maybe give yourself a day or so to consider what you’ve read. This will help you gain some perspective. When you return to the work to begin writing the review you’ll be able to add that perspective to your review.

Notice I said, when you finish. You should read the whole book. Notice I also said should, not must. We’ve all read books with great beginnings and great endings and middles that make us sigh. Some even make us yawn, but if we press on, the story picks up again, and in the end we are satisfied. Stephen King’s books typically have great beginnings and engaging middles, but his endings are sometimes awkward. When you write your review, you are writing about the overall experience. Don’t hold your authors to some unattainable standard of perfection. I strongly suspect that if Stephen King were held to those standards, the fact that the “terrifying clown in the sewer is actually a giant ancient spider from outer space, (and the kids have to do what to defeat it?)” would mean he’d be back to washing dishes and millions of people would have been denied the delight that is the experience of his work. I remember the “Hand of God” toward the end of The Stand, It has stuck with me all of these years, and while not all of his books have such a powerful ending, the ending for The Stand was indeed powerful. Give every writer every chance to surprise and inspire you, even when the writer is not the great Stephen King.

If you simply cannot read on, go back and look at your notes. Reflect a little on what caused you to select this book in the first place. Maybe even set the book aside for a day or two. Consider the events in your life, and consider your own feelings. After all, books aren’t the only things in our lives that are all about feelings. Are you tired? Are you a little distracted? Are you unable to go on because of the book, or is it something else? If the writing is so bad, the plot twists and behaviors of the characters are simply unimaginable, or if you find yourself rolling your eyes and squirming uncomfortably in your chair, then you should stop. If you’ve used the Kindle Unlimited method I have suggested, and you have not contacted the author to indicate that you will review the book, then by all means stop reading, and seek out the next book. If you really don’t like the read, then neither will your followers. Pressing on will serve no purpose. Consider how you came to choose this book and choose more cautiously next time. If you did choose well, then once you finish it will be time to write the review.

In the next post I’ll discuss “Writing The Book Review,” and I’ll give you some pointers and tips that might help speed you on your way.

-J

Suggestion: Often enough the theme of a book may not be readily apparent until the final chapter. Frequently I don’t fully realize the theme of a well crafted book until I’ve set the book aside for a day or so and let my unconscious do what the unconscious does. As you read don’t wrestle with the theme too much. Just look for clues and make some notes on the subject. Maybe write your thoughts as questions. Is the theme this? Is it that? Keep in mind too that the lead character may be in conflict with the author’s intended point, and as the character(s) experiment and learn, they will come to the ultimate conclusion and take you along for the ride. Take some time with theme. Theme is the most rewarding experience of a novel and the most useful aspect of a novel for a reviewer.

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