Thursday 25 August 2016

On writing gush-free reviews

I was recently reading a first novel by someone I won’t name. The cover carried a quote from a fellow YA writer which suggested that the novel was utterly marvellous and gripping. Inside were a dozen more such quotes from well-known writers. Now of course, I understand that writers want to support other writers they know, and it’s also possible that these writers share an agent or a publisher who asked them to read and quote. But can you trust these quotes? Probably not. All that gush strikes me as so much luvvy back-patting. (Though I will say that I did enjoy the book.)

I do read these quotes, of course I do. It’s nice to think of this community of authors supporting each other in this way. And it must be a fine thing to be a first-time author and have some big name give you a puff for your book cover. But the only ones I’m inclined to trust are the quotations from reviews in the newspapers or publications such as The Bookseller or Books for Keeps. As for the quotes from book-bloggers and book-tubers, I have very little idea who to trust and who to ignore. For all the industry apparently fetes this group – and I’ll be courting them too when my next book is out – I find some of them entirely too gushy to take seriously.

And in spite of feeling this way, I keep on reviewing books myself and, on the whole, I only publish positive reviews. That doesn’t mean I put a positive spin on all my reviews, but that I only bother to review books I feel strongly enough about to want to bring them to other people’s attention. Of course there aren’t a lot of people handing me free books and asking me to review them; I might find my position compromised if this were the case. Occasionally, if I’m reviewing an award shortlist and there’s a book on it that I can’t get on with at all, I’ll post a ranty review. This tends to be more a cry about how shortlists are drawn up than an outright criticism of the book itself. 

For me, writing the review has become almost a part of the reading experience. I generally have to wait a day or two after finishing a book for my thoughts to shake down into something that makes sense. There’s generally quite a lot of me in my reviews. I’m aware that I’m not objective. I may even go out of my way to be subjective. A review will start, as you would expect, with a short plot summary and something to position the book in the reader’s mind, a note so they can virtually shelve it – it’s comedy or sci-fi or for younger teens. I’ll probably tell you about the writing style and the characters: all the usual things. If there’s something to tell you about the background of the book, such as how it fits into a series or compares to other titles of the same genre, I’ll tell you that. If the author that interests me, that’ll go in too. Next, I may tell you about my reading experience – if I couldn’t put it down, or it made me cry, or I kept reading bits out to anyone who’d listen. 

Finally – and of course this is the important bit – I’ll try to sum up why the person reading the review should now read the book. This is where it’s hard not to gush on the one hand or be too bland on the other hand. I’d like to think I get the balance right most of the time. 

You can read my reviews – along with reviews by the other Paisley Piranhas – here.

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