Just Creative Writing

Book Reviews

As technology moves forward at warp speed (which these days may be a snail's pace), the question opens: Are books important?

With the advent of Kindles, and Nooks, and iPads, and smart phones, and everything else that has hit the stands, one does wonder about the future of books and paper. We've already seen  the conversion of many newspapers from their once popular physical form, to the new digital form. Perhaps the biggest benefit here is that some trees are being saved. But, I digress...

I've been a reader my entire life. My parents were avid readers and as a toddler my mother would read bedtime stories and this began my lifelong love relationship with reading - books, magazines, newspapers, catalogues...hell, I'll read a matchbook cover if that's all that's available. I carry books and yes, even my Kindle, with me to doctors' appointments - one never knows how long one will have to wait at the doctor's office.

But books are my favorite reading material. Several years ago I had the opportunity to read books and write reviews for the New York Journal of Books (www.nyjournalofbooks.com) and this is one of the joys of my life. My house is full of books that I've gotten from NYJB and they run the gamut of good, bad, or in between. Recently I read "Inside the Critics' Circle" by Philipa Chong. It's a book about how to write book reviews! Can you imagine...a book reviewer reading a book about how to write book reviews? I mean...really? But I believe there is always something new for me to learn and so I read this one. And I learned! Chong focuses primarily on reviewing fiction, and I was comforted to know that many of her points are things that I already do, and yet there was still more to learn.

I read and review fiction, nonfiction, and creative nonfiction. Just wrote a review for New York Journal of Books of "Deacon King Kong" by James McBride, one of my favorite authors. He did not let me down. On a scale of 1 - 5 stars...I'd give him 6 if I could. I also find myself reading "cozy" mysteries. For the most part, they will move quickly. Cozies do not have overtly expressed sexual situations (I don't care about that, but most cozy readers do) and violence takes place off-site. I've read 3 cozies within the past 2 months and it seems like they all follow the same template:

1. Young to middle-aged female protagonist; 2. Might be the possible murderer and has to prove her innocence, or a relative/best friend is in that situation and she must prevail; 3. She owns or works in a bakery, restaurant, book store, craft shop, library, or some other small place that is a raging success; 4. the murder occurs and she is the sleuth...perhaps of her own doing or by being pulled into the task by others; 5. There is a love interest who may be police or military; 6. She is told, directed, required to not stick her nose into the investigation, and she ignores that; 7. the police are totally inept. 

I should note that I grew up on Nancy Drew mysteries and today they would fall into the category of a cozy, but the audience was young girls of upper elementary school age. Today's cozies are geared more toward an adult audience...begs the question, WHY? Regardless, if the writing is good and the premise is good, the cozy will be good. If either of those two fail, the cozy will fail. 

Writing a review for fiction is different from writing for nonfiction. In fiction we look at the characters and how they are developed (what role do they each have and do they meet the rules of that role, i.e. protagonist, antagonist, other major characters, etc.), the premise of the story, and the general flow of the story. The reviewer will not give away some of the high points of the story, and certainly not the ending. The reviewer will discuss the writing style of the author--his or her strengths and weaknesses in that style. Creative writing techniques may be discussed, especially if they are very strong or very weak--point of view, viewpoint, dialogue, tension, conflict, etc. Of course, if the reviewer is restricted in word count, s/he will pick their words carefully for full impact.

Nonfiction reviews differ in several ways. Of course, nonfiction is...well...fact. History covers a time past and we all know the outcome, so the reviewer is not bound by keeping the ending under wraps.. In cookbooks the reviewer will focus on a few categories, the simplicity or difficulty of the recipes covered, the nutrition explained, etc. Reviewing political books requires an impartiality, unless of course one is writing for a partisan organization such as FOX or MSNBC. Then nonpartisanship may go out the window. The bottom line with nonfiction is the importance of getting the main points of the book identified so the reader can determine their own interest level.

So the question still remains...Are books important? That's a question we have to ask ourselves and decide, but for me? I love the smell of books; the feel of them, becoming involved with the characters (fiction and non), wondering about the outcome (fiction), understanding the outcome (nonfiction) and my house will always be cluttered with books. If I could take them with me when I die, I would surely do that...of course...paper burns easily so I might have to be careful.