What makes a good review?
I suspect an author would have a rather different take on this from a dispassionate reader – especially if their own book was under scrutiny. So I was interested in the blog of Simon Thomas on this subject. No, no no, not the politician, not the footballer, nor even the TV presenter – no, I mean Simon Thomas, blogger, of Stuck in a Book fame. On 12 June he wrote:
‘I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog. Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers. I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.’
Now, Stuck in a Book’s own reviews are delightful to read. Simon comes across as fair and kindly, discerning but not arrogant. And I had a lovely friendly exchange with him some time ago when he reviewed my own Remember Remember. He readily admits that he has certain ‘blocks’ or idiosyncratic tastes – like his aversion to several high-profile male characters in the classics (Mr Rochester, Mr. Knightley, Heathcliff) for instance. Imagine!
So do I agree with these views on reviewing?
Well, let’s look at the six points first. Basically, yes … for serious review-bloggers. It’s the kind of yardstick I’d like critics to use when judging my books. And I specially approve of the bits about not giving away the plot (a pet hate), and treating the author with respect, and not complaining because he/she wrote the book he/she did and not the one you wanted to read.
Will I change my own reviews? Probably not, although I might just add more quotations from the texts in future. OK, OK. I can already hear several of my regular followers groaning. Short and snappy, they cry. And I know they’d hate lots of secondhand quoting. So fear not, I’ll be circumspect.
And I think I can afford to take this line because my blog is not principally a review-blog. My comments are designed to draw attention to the things I’m reading as a writer; things that are influencing me in some way. Quotes that give a flavour of the author’s style, or that emphasize important points they make, are legitimate in that context. I leave the longer more thorough critiques to luminaries like Dovegreyreader or Cornflower or Stuck in a Book himself who all do it so well. If you haven’t visited them I recommend you do.
January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.
‘Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.
The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’
The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.
The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral. And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.
‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …
Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …
My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …
Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’
But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.
It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.
The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).
Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.
To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?
And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.
I must confess that I started my blog because I felt I needed
a) to make my website more active and
b) to relate to visitors more as the real everyday me.
But I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy writing it. It’s rather compulsive, actually. Getting feedback from readers has spurred me on and proved unexpectedly encouraging. Plus there’s the bonus this year, when my mind has been distracted, and time fractured by matters to do with my mother’s deteriorating health, of the therapeutic value of regular writing. Producing something is definitely better than producing nothing. The latest novel has hiccupped along; the weekly posts have demanded focus and imposed gentle but necessary deadlines.
The experience of writing my own blog has also given me a new interest in other bloggers – especially bookish ones. I’ve learned a lot from studying their entries, what appeals, what repels. You’ll find some of my personal favourites on the blogroll on my homepage (Cornflower, Dovegreyreader, Stuckinabook, top the list). I’ve been fascinated by their reviews of a wide variety of books, as well as the way they let readers into their lives. Not to mention gobsmacked by the sheer speed of their reading in the midst of busy lives, and the thoroughness of their analysis. Where do they find those 36 hour days?!
It was purely by chance though, that I discovered blogs by a paramedic had attracted sufficient interest to be converted into books. Tom Reynolds won the Medgadget Best Medical Blog and Best Literary Medical Blog for randomreality.blogware.com. I’ve been reading his books: Blood, Sweat and Tea and More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea, on my travels this past month, and in odd moments when I needed diversion but couldn’t concentrate on my normal kind of reading. The short extracts lend themselves to those with a limited attention span; you can dip in and out without losing the thread. And these particular stories fulfill a useful function for me right now because I want to get a feel for the life of paramedics for my current book; these snippets give me a little insight.
I like the air of self-deprecation Reynolds adopts – the honest accounts of how he failed the ambulance driving test several times, how he fell for patients’ tricks and colleagues’ banter, how he froze at critical moments. And in spite of the serious nature of the work, there’s a pleasingly wry humour mixed in with the compassion. No effort is made to disguise the sheer mundanity and sameness of much of the work; the glamorous moments, the adrenaline rushes, few and far between.
But there were things about Reynolds’ writing style that irritated me, so I’ve moved on to Peter Canning’s Paramedic. At the age of thirty-six Canning left his well-paid and cushioned life as a speechwriter and top health department aide to a Connecticut Governor, to work on the city streets as a paramedic. Here’s a man who wrote for a living and it shows. But, though more fluid, the writing is delightfully unadorned too. And again there’s that light mocking tone that appeals to me. He recounts his failures more than his successes, and the effect they and his job have on his confidence and self-esteem.
‘I’ve been in a bad funk lately. Normally it is only on Tuesday morning when I ride into work for my first shift of the week that I feel the doubt and wonder why I am doing this, but this week the doubts last all week long. I just turned thirty-seven. I have no pension built up. I have no law degree or medical degree or business skill to fall back on. I am barely living on what I make, borrowing from savings to buy books. I will have to borrow again to get a new used car as my trusty old Plymouth has a limited future. I think if I gt married and have a kid by the time I’m forty, I will be sixty when he is twenty, seventy-seven when he is my age. That’s old. I wonder how I will be able to send him to college or help him out with pocket change. My body is stiff and sore now. What will it be like then? Will I be able to throw a baseball around with my grandson, or will I have to be led on a walker to his Little League games on day-leave from the nursing home?.’
‘I watch the doctors in their offices or at their workstations as they consult and hobnob with each other. There is a real class system here. The doctors are at the top, then the nurses, then us at the very bottom. I tell the nurses what I get for vital signs. They retake the vitals themselves and write them down on their pads. I tell them the story, they say thanks, then turn to the patient and ask what is the matter. They need to do it, but it makes me wonder what the point is sometimes. I might as well just pick them up, put them on the stretcher, and deliver them. I write my run forms, but they seem just like pieces of paper that will go unread.’
‘In a few days I will snap out of it. I will remember that I love this job. I will start doing challenging calls again. I’ll give nitro, Lasix, and morphine to a man in congestive cardiac failure, and it’ll chase the suffocating fluid out of his lungs, and he’ll be able to breathe, and relax, and live for a while longer. And I’ll be on scene just six minutes at a bad car wreck – I’ll get my lines, make a patch, and get the patient into the trauma room. And I will gently convince an elderly woman suffering from gangrene to leave her north end home which she loves for the medical treatment she desperately needs. And I will goof with some kids …’
Surgeon, Atul Gawande, adopts the same kind of self deprecatory tone too, in his series of books about life and experience in a busy American hospital. (I wrote about him back in July.) These are men who do a hugely valuable job, earn public trust, hold lives in their hands, but they know that they are but cogs in a larger machine, and that everybody makes mistakes. They are humble enough to acknowledge their own fallibility. As Canning says after one particularly gruelling call when everything seemed to go wrong: ‘I feel again that overwhelming burden of failure that I try to ignore for fear the sheer weight of it will crush me to the ground.’ Later that day he says, ‘I learn from every call I do. I have never done a perfect call.’
I guess I instinctively warm to people who aren’t puffed up by their own importance. And most of the people I know who have achieved great things are like that, in my experience. They don’t need to trumpet their prowess; their lives and achievements speak for them. And they’ve had the courage to learn through their mistakes.
Because, of course, very few successful people were born with a silver spoon. They’ve just not allowed failure to daunt them. I think I feel another blog coming on on that subject …
Tags: paramedics, Tom Reynolds, Atul Gawande, Cornflower, Dovegreyreader, Stuckinabook, Peter Canning, humility
Wahey, Remember Remember is now officially launched – a mere three months after publication date.
Last week, as I wrote my blog, you may remember, I was cooking wee delicacies for the nibbles (the very ones pictured below), and juggling several other competing demands (humdrum domestic as well as professional ones), wondering if I’d ever be ready on time.
Anyway, on the day, the food looked passably edible. You can’t go far wrong with fresh Scottish strawberries now, can you? And a 100% silk overblouse I acquired from a wonderful lady in the Royal Highland Show a couple of years ago allowed me to pretend I had nothing better to attend to than the shape of my cuticles and the shade of my eye shadow. Did anyone guess that up to five minutes before guests started appearing I was wielding spreading knives, and sparkling wine glasses, and tangling with clingfilm, I wonder? Actually, doing the physical preparation myself this time (my own choice, I should hasten to add. Well, you know how obsessive I am) was quite therapeutic. Stopped me getting too bogged down in mental preparation – of the ‘I’d-better-read-every-report-and-academic-paper-and-legal-case-on-the-subject-just-in-case-some-omniscient-wiseguy-challenges-my-credibility’ variety.
The sun shone brilliantly, lots of lovely people came from all sorts of different professions and backgrounds and perspectives, and they mingled beautifully. Everyone was polite enough not to spit the food back at me, and they were so responsive to cue that they all sat down spontaneously after early mingling without so much as a raised voice, or a bell, or a gong in sight.
But I’m sure they’d all forgive me for awarding the gold medal for the night to the chairman, John Killick. He’s a poet who works closely with people who have dementia, encouraging communication and creativity – hence his role interviewing me about a book on the subject. You can read more about him on www.dementiapositive.co.uk although his site doesn’t do justice to his international reputation. (Nor does this photo, but somehow importing it lost something of the sharpness of the original. DJ and I laboured long and hard to rectify this, but to no avail. So sorry about that.)
Anyway, John’s a delightful man, and on this occasion he set a perfect tone for the evening with his relaxed and amusing approach, alongside a total grasp of the subject under discussion. We organised the programme much as a book festival interview, and John had dug up some impressively insightful questions for me on the story I’d written. It’s always gratifying for an author when someone has analysed and thought about the structure as well as the content of their book, and John had taken this to an extraordinary level.
One other guest deserves a special mention too. And that was Cornflower. She writes a hugely successful blog about books (recently ranking number four in Wikio’s Top UK Literature Blogs) and was kind enough to review my last one, Right to Die, last year. If you haven’t visited her site you should. (She’s the pretty smiling one with the bag large enough to carry lots of books around.) This was my first time meeting her (and Mr Cornflower) in the flesh, but we’ve already arranged to have coffee together to have a proper chat. If you’re the author at a launch it behoves you to skim over the surface of the pond hovering superficially beside every guest, not dive deep in one spot with any one individual. Regrettably. There were lots of diving companions I hankered after on Friday night.
But hey ho, partying over, it’s now time to get back into the current book about a young widowed mother and her two little girls who’re involved in a serious road accident … and a family faced with a request for organs … and a queue of sick people on the transplant waiting list … I think I’ll soon have got sufficiently to grips with the questions and issues to be ready to sally out into the real world and spend time with transplant surgeons and coordinators and recipients and … well, who knows? It’s a big world out there! And an endlessly fascinating and challenging one. One of the guests at Friday’s launch knows someone who became a live donor and introductions are forthcoming. Oh, yes, that was another bonus – all those links and connections we made that will ripple on. Great stuff.