21 March 2008

How much to reveal in a review

The reviewing rules that I use are, in general
  • Outline of story opening - no more than first 50 pages -where the book is set, background etc, this bit no more than 2 parags
  • type of book
  • book characteristics - how the author tells the story
  • about the author, other books, website
  • How I felt about the book
I've been finding, particularly with longer books recently, that many books don't really get started in the first 50 pages. So should the rule be - don't reveal anything beyond the first 20% of the book?
e.g. in a 250 page book 50 pages, in a 450 page book 90 pages

In WICKER that I reviewed recently for example, there were quite significant aspects of the book (that would appeal to particular readers) that didn't even come up until the second half.

When in doubt I often read the blurb on the book, to see what the publishers are prepared to reveal. That's when you find out that the person who wrote the blurb either didn't read the book properly, or the blurb was written before the final version of the book. [That's a different story - in the blurb on PD Martin's FAN MAIL for example there is a significant divergence from what happens in the book]
If I find the blurb has gone further into the book, I do feel as if I have permission to do so too, but I don't always take it. I am always mindful that I shouldn't spoil the book for a reader, but then I too read blurbs and reviews, but I really only remember the bits that spark my interest.

I think there is a problem too when you didn't really like a book. Occasionally I review true crime, but it is not a genre that I look for, and I rarely enjoy. Sometimes I read a crime fiction that I really can't wait to finish because I hate it so much, and that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. But then I am aware that it takes all kinds to make a world, and what I hate another may enjoy. How do you handle those, particularly if you have been given a free review copy?

I'd be interested in knowing what basic rules others try to follow, or what authors think is "fair game".


Mack said...

Thanks for this post Kerrie. It helped clarify for me the elements of a review. I support your 20% rule. I applied it to two, ~250 page books and it worked well.

Kerrie said...

Thanks for your comment Max. I popped over to your reviews and read and listened to your review of LITTLE GIRL LOST. The audio version adds a new dimension. I'd be interested in learning more about that.

Anonymous said...

It's a good question isn't it - what to reveal in a review.

I write reviews on my site to help others decide whether they would like to read the book - but I also have another personal requirement - to make me think more deeply about the book and to record what I enjoyed about it so that in the future I can look back and remind myself. I've erred away from this in my posts as I don't want to spoil things for others.

BUT if people have already read the book themselves it would open up a discussion if I did write those things.

I think I'm going to start splitting my posts into reviews at the top and then at the end - after a *spoiler* warning will write the more detailed discussion bit for people to talk about in the comments.

What do you think about this?

Kerrie said...

I have seen some reviews with a *spoiler* section at the bottom. I'm not sure that that would satisfy your desire to discuss what you thought of the book. The Murder & Mayhem yahoo group that I belong to has a system of "buddy reads" which is closer to what you are looking for I think.
Like you, I partly write my reviews to clarify in my own mind what I liked about the book and what it was really about. The other part is to encourage people to try the book.

Anonymous said...

I am a bit of a purist I suppose: I like a review to give an outline of the start of the plot, and a sense of the atmosphere of the book, which can sometimes be done quite effectively by a pertinent quote. I found a telling paragraph in Shadow in the River by(spelling alert) Forde Gryttan, which to me summed up the book. I have included it in my (still being written) review because it both epitomises the book and doesn't give away any details about the plot outcome. I also think the best reviews are either short or, if they are going to be long, a proper essay by someone who has done much research and really knows the subject, such as you read in the New York Review of Books. Often these essays aren't really "book reviews", though, they tend to use the book as a springboard to write about related matters. So you often can't decide whether to read the book on the basis of the review, which is (to my mind) a failing, however stimulating the review is to read.

Blogs are well suited to the short review, I think - apart from those who have commented in this thread and you yourself, Kerrie, some good book review blogs I like are Asylum by John Self and International Noir Fiction by Glenn Harper. but there are loads of others.

Kerrie said...

I can see quite a difference in the sort of review I write for my blog or even for posting on the web, and the more literary/academic ones that deserve publication in grander places. Sometimes I look at a review of a book that I've read and think "I saw all that, why didn't I write about it?". For me, deeper reviews/critiques do occur when I've made notes as I read the book. Sometimes I do that with sticky pad paper, but it does slow down the reading process and you end up with a book that has all these bits poking out of it. As I read a book, I often think "should remember to mention that", store it temporarily in the grey cells, and then by the time I get around to writing the review, it's gone. I've noticed some people use a set of questions to assist in the process, but I'd be inclined to take them out when I published the final review.


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