WeeklyGeeks: On Reviewing
I haven't been reviewing books for very long, and I tend to put a lot of work into it. I don't transcribe a rough synopsis and assign a numerical rating. I am trying to portray the book in an honest way, so that the person reading my review has a good idea of what to expect. I want to frame a reader's expectations, rather than tell them what to read. I don't want to do a disservice to a good book by recommending it to somebody who wouldn't like it; I once knew a guy who'd look through the newspaper movie reviews and invert the number of stars. If it got one star, he was sure he'd like it, and four stars meant too much talking and artsy crap. I'd rather give people like that a review they can use, whether I'd give it one or four stars.
Anticipating reviewing a book definitely alters how I read; often it happens even before I even crack open the book. I write at a couple different blogs, each with a specific type of content, so I have an idea of where the book is going to be reviewed before I even get a copy of the book. That means I need to think up an angle ahead of time, so I'm not requesting a bunch of review copies that I won't have a good place to review them at. When I actually get the galley, I have to be aware that I need to remember more about the book than I would just reading for fun — I know I'll need to regurgitate what I got out of it sometime in the future. That regurgitation, the writing of the review, doesn't inherently change my opinion of a book, but it does force me to look deeper than I might otherwise have invested in the book. The results of that postmortem analysis, after I would have otherwise left a book behind, has altered my opinion of a book before. Some things you miss unless you stop to really, really think about it.
I wouldn't necessarily say I'm 'rating' the book as I read it, like I said, I'm not assigning stars. I am, however, compiling what my review will contain while I'm reading, but I don't necessarily pick "good" or "bad" descriptors. I try to not frame the book in those polar contexts: while I didn't particularly enjoy reading The Dangerous World of Butterflies, and found a lot of flaws in Uncommon Carriers, I expressed my thoughts in the reviews, but I tried to frame it to help a reader avoid being surprised. If I simply said, "boy, they didn't put a lot of effort into editing Uncommon Carriers, as a book goes, it's crappy", I might discourage someone who might otherwise enjoy it. If I went the other route, amplifying only the good stuff I liked about the book, I'll end up pointing an interested reader in the wrong direction. So, I describe what's good, what's bad, how the two work against each other, and give an overall picture. I am painfully aware that this makes me unblurbable. I'm also aware that it's far more like a college-level book report than I probably need to do, but an author who contacted me a couple months ago said he was referred to me, because I do good reviews. I like to think that's because of how I write my reviews, and I'll probably continue to write that way. I'm doing this as much for myself as for the audience, writing the kind of review I'd like to read, so moving to a blurby, star-laden style probably won't happen.