Sunday, December 1, 2013

Loose Leafing: Reviewing Books is Hard

Here we are on the first morning of the last month of the year, and despite the fact that I read at a glacial (Glacial, I tell you! But not as glacial as last year.  It must be the global warming.) pace, I am woefully behind on book reviews.  I have come to the conclusion that this is a result of a few things.  One, I work too much and too hard at my soul-sucking job (Did I say "soul-sucking"?  I mean busy, secure...okay, it's a mixed blessing).  Two, I never get any peace and quiet in which to assemble a few coherent thoughts and/or I am a big procrastinator that doesn't take adequate advantage of peace and quiet. 

And finally, three, book reviewing is just freaking hard.  Let me tell you why, in case you don't already know.  For starters, when you've been chipping away at your book blog for six years, everything you have to say starts to sound the same as everything you've already said...several times. (ETA: In case you were wondering, this is another one of those posts I like to write with the confused voice where "you" means me but maybe actually you too, and "I" is, well, also me...and still maybe you too?  Oh, well, you know what I mean or, um, I know what I mean. Huh.)  Also, you will find that not only do you feel like you've already described ten other books with the same words you're using to describe the current victim of your lack of writing prowess, you will find that you're tortured over how you're boring yourself and your readers by reviewing your books with the same overused format and even sentence structure of yesteryear (lots of lists and even more inexcusable parentheses!).  You will find that it's a struggle to change any of that too radically without violating your strong conviction about "what a book review is," which is impossible to define much less articulate.  You just know it when you go to cross-post your review to LibraryThing and find that it just doesn' 

Secondly, there are, all told (at least in my perspective), only three "classes" of books when you sit down to review books, each of which is hard to review for its own special reasons.  I give you now the three classes of books and some excuses for why they're impossible to review:

The Sucky Book - This book was really just not that good.  It was good enough to finish, but only because you secretly hoped the end would redeem the rest of it.  It didn't.  Now you have to sit down and say something mean about some author's poor defenseless baby while trying to fair, balanced, and well, not...too mean.  So, you sit at your computer trying to divine the good points of a book you didn't like and trying to decide if your negative comments are snarkier than the book at hand deserves.  Because I'm a book reviewing freak of some kind, I find that the Sucky Book might well be the easiest to review. As it turns out, I can do a passable job of veiling my dislike in half-compliments without totally selling out and saying I liked books that I didn't.  Who ever said negative reviews were hard to write?  I mean, at least I did have a feeling about the book even if it was, well, not a very good feeling.  Not so the...

"Meh" Book -  This book was...well, it was okay.  It wasn't earth shatteringly wonderful nor did it irritate you or disappoint you enough to draw your ire.  It was passable entertainment for a few hours, but next year or maybe only a few months down the road, you will have forgotten it completely.  What does one say about a book which left you feeling little more than apathetic?  It had a beginning and an end.  It was interesting but not compelling.  Its characters were moderately sympathetic.  I vaguely cared about what happened to them but lasting impressions are not forthcoming.  Also, I lied about the categories as "Meh" Books can actually be sub-categorized into slightly less "meh" and slightly more "meh" books.  The slightly less "meh" books are reviewable, you can focus on good qualities and artistic elements quite easily instead of worrying about getting ensnared by the snark monster (see above) or devolving into a babbling buffoon (see below).  The slightly more "meh" are nearly impossible to review through the fog of apathy, but not so impossible to review as the...

Book You LOVED - This book is fairly self-explanatory.  You loved it.  No, I mean you really loved it with a fiery passion.  Surely this should be the easiest book to review, right?  I mean, come on, you loved it.  Now share your love with the world!  Easy peasy, right?  NO!  Not easy peasy.  Hard!  Here's the thing, when I LOVE a book, it's usually not for reasons that make sense that can be easily conveyed in writing.  It's not the fantastic plot, it's not the characters that leaped off the page and became my buddies, it's not the pacing, not the beautiful prose, not short chapters or long chapters or an authorial wisdom that reveals the truth in fiction.  Well, it's sort of those things but more than that it's my emotional connection to the book.  How do you review a book that you loved so much that it pried such a visceral emotional reaction out of you that you are reduced to a bumbling moron whose only explanation for loving said book is something about "feeling all the feels" punctuated by the occasional sob, sniffle, or irrational laughter? 

When I truly love a book it's becoming harder and harder for me to step back and talk about all the
good rational things like plot and characters and writing quality when all I'm thinking about is how the book is soggy with my tears or something because I was all like "sniffle, sob, sniffle, YES THAT!  EXACTLY! AUTHOR, I SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING...AND I LIKE IT!! sniffle, sob, sniffle."  How exactly does one break that down into something that is going to sell someone on a great book when they are not you and perhaps do not feel all the same feels exactly the way you do? 

This year my plan of attack for reviewing such books was to...wait.  Wait until that visceral reaction mellows out a little and then attempt it.  Except I waited so long that I then forgot half the book except for that troublesome visceral emotional reaction.  Fail.  So now, here I am as the year draws perilously close to its end and half of my favorite books of the year I haven't even reviewed!  You probably all think that I, like, hate books because the only books, with a few exceptions, that I'm reviewing are either Sucky or "Meh."  Not so!  As it turns out, it is I that am sucky at reviewing books I loved because when I love them I love them irrationally and it's hard to channel irrationality into a good book review.  I've tried, with decidedly mixed results.

So, as I scramble to get all my reviews in under the wire so that I can spam the internet all December with them while everybody's too busy with holiday stuff to read them (er...FAILx2!), tell me, do you share any of these struggles?  If so, how do you write good book reviews despite the challenges? Or am I just over-thinking or engaging in the time-honored tradition of productive procrastination in avoidance of all the reviews I have to write? You make the call. ;-)


  1. Boy, do I agree with this! It's become harder and harder to write a review that pleases me.

  2. No, I don't think it's overthinking at all. I think as time goes on, I'm seeing this more and more with book bloggers. For myself, the solution is not to do book reviews at all. I share my thoughts about books, and that's all.

  3. I have two book categories.... book I loved, and book I liked. Only now and again is there a MEH one. But yeah, I get this SO MUCH! I get it!

  4. Yes - completely agree! But, as a reader of your reviews, they dOnt seem full of overused phrases etc - it is probably In your head. I keep looking for a simpler review format - not use I can keep going at current pace. You are not alone!

  5. It is SO HARD to write the "meh" reviews -- and I don't have an easier time with it when it's a "meh" book I liked versus a "meh" book I didn't really. Either way, it's hard to find interesting things to say about a book I don't have strong feelings for. The books I love may not be the easiest to write about, but they are at least fun posts to do. At least for books I loved, there is a clear point to the post, and the point is OMG READ THIS EVERYONE. :p

  6. I agree completely! From time to time, I realize that what I am writing sounds awfully familiar. I think the key is to give yourself grace. If the words aren't flowing, give yourself the freedom to write mini reviews and not feel bad about it!

  7. I've definitely started to feel this way, too...and I honestly don't know what is the hardest (maybe whichever I'm sitting down to write at that very moment!). I think a hug from book page man would feel good every once in a while, though...

  8. Obviously, all of us can relate to this! I don't mind when you use the same words to describe different books. after all, we all follow so many blogs that it's unlikely WE notice that, even if you do :-)

    And I agree about the Meh books. I just finished two like that and am somewhat dreading writing those reviews...

  9. Wonderful post.... i actually have a good time with books I love and books I hated (I try to keep it light and link to those who loved the same book) but the meh books... yeah. What to do with them.

  10. I think all of us book bloggers understand what you're saying. Book blogging is fun, but it's also WORK. Sometimes we keep up, sometimes we get behind, sometimes we love it, sometimes we hate it ... that's the nature of the beast :)