Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

If you're looking for a good book to read—either for your own enjoyment or a book club suggestion—what's one of the first things you do? You can ask a friend. But word-of-mouth recommendations depend to a large extent on personal taste. If you want a more reliable gauge, you'll want to find book reviews.

Let's say you're at a bookstore and you're holding a book in your hand.  Invariably, you turn to the back cover where you find excerpts of mainstream media reviews. They're glowing, of course— “Characters with heart!”  “A non-stop page-turner!”  “A major new voice in fiction!”

There might even be a quotation or two from well-known authors: “Characters with heart!” “A non-stop page-turner!” … and so on. Authors are frequently asked by their publishers to write favorably about   new imprints on the trade list. Some authors have admitted they don't  actually read the books they're asked to review (gasp!), but they're willing to go along because...well, they're generous people.  And they want the same treatment for their own books.

Don't confuse these kinds of book comments with genuine book reviews:  what you see on the book covers are promotional blurbs, carefully culled by publishers from longer reviews, that may—or may not—be altogether positive. A blurb's purpose is to sell books, not to inform readers.

What's worse, media outlets sometimes come under pressure to write glowing comments so as not to offend their advertising clients, the publishers whose books they review. It can be a cozy, if sometimes uncomfortable, relationship for publishers and authors—but not particularly helpful for readers.

When looking for a good book review, look for one that turns a critical eye on a book's style and content. A genuine book review considers the following elements:

Characters—are main characters convincing? Do they have emotional and psychological complexity and act according to authentic motivation? Or are they flat and one-dimensional with little detail of their inner lives?

Plot—is the plot predictable or does it surprise, going where you least expect it?  Are there interesting plot twists?  Do events unfold organically, naturally?  Or are they forced—leaving you feeling manipulated. Does the ending wrap up loose ends? Does it wrap up things too neatly, to the point of being pat or trite?  Or does it leave issues unresolved, open to different interpretations?

Ideas—does the book offer an exploration of  ideas—perhaps a moral or ethical problem, or the meaning of relationships (familial, romantic, or friendship-based)?  Does it offer interesting insights or a fresh perspective?

Style—is the writing heavy handed,...uninspired with over-written or even cliched phrases .  Or is the writing feel fresh, even inspired?  Is the writing funny or witty?

Where do you find helpful reviews?  The best, most in-depth are from major daily newspapers: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times, just to mention some. Look also in periodicals like Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Atlantic Monthly.

You can head to your public library and dig through past issues of newspapers and periodicals. Better yet, many libraries subscribe to online databases that carry the full texts of articles from the major papers and magazines.

You can also go online at home. But most newspapers and magazines require subscriptions to get into their archives, so you won't always have access to full articles—although sometimes you get lucky and find them on right on Google.

You can also go to customer reviews at the big online booksellers—Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  But customer reviews tend to be all over the place and are highly idiocentric.  They can be helpful but not always reliable.

The best bet is to find an online book site you can trust, a website with an index of titles, reading guides, and book reviews. Look especially for ones that carry complete reviews—not just blurbs—by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and especially Kirkus Reviews. Libraries subscribe to these review publications, so they tend to be forthright in their assessments of books—after all, it's what libraries pay them for.

Nothing's a guarantee, but knowing where to look for reliable book reviews—rather than promotional blurbs—can go a long way to ensuring a worthwhile read.