Perspectives on book reviews

New York Times Book ReviewIn the latest New York Times Book Review James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, and Anna Holmes, an editor at Fusion, discuss whether book reviews should be considered a public service or an art. Since I review books for the Historical Novel Society and, more recently, for the Washington Independent Review of Books, I thought I should pay attention to their perspectives.

James Parker suggests that book reviewing is a craft “because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of criticism for the primary zone of creation, he’s sunk.” Good reviewing demands “an absence of prancing and posturing”.  A little later he says the reviewer needs to “describe, nimbly and briefly, the contents of the book. You need to offer a considered, but not ponderous, critique. And most trickily, you need somehow to solidify in the reader’s mind the aesthetic criteria by which the critique is being made.”

Anna Holmes says that book reviews “are more public service than art”. “They are work done for others’ enjoyment and edification … they are meant to inform an audience, not perform for one.” Readers expect a book review to answer two fairly simple questions: “(1) Is a book good? (2) Is a book good or interesting enough to justify buying it” [and the time required to read it]. “[T]he best things they [book reviewers] can do for readers is to be straightforward, unselfish, and to remember to get out of the way.”

Great advice for those of us who review books, but what do you readers think?

 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Non-literary Influences

This week’s Bookends, a feature in the New York Times Book Review, asks two authors to describe their non-literary influences. Thomas Mallon who writes historical fiction cites photos such as one of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination while James Parker says drummers, comedians and bakers. (An odd mix, don’t you think?)

LE James 1915My own non-literary influences are photos and music. For a number of years I have had two cork-boards next to my desk filled with photos taken during a trip to northern France and postcards I accumulated on that same trip – an iconic picture of five WWI soldiers silhouetted against a backdrop of skeletal trees and barbed wire, another of a trench filled with human detritus, one of the bombed-out remains of Ypres beside a present-day photo of Ypres restored and one of men going ‘over the top’ and out to battle. I have a picture of a soldier leaning against boxes of ammunition writing a letter, of three men wearing gas masks and a photograph of the main figure of the Vimy Ridge memorial, a woman with head bowed gazing at the tomb below. A particularly poignant photo is the one of my grandfather taken in 1915 just before he went overseas. The grave innocence of his face haunts me and is on the cover of Lies Told in Silence.

Whenever I needed – or need – to recapture the feelings associated with the insanity that was World War One or the bravery required to endure, I looked at these photos to recapture that feeling.

Music played a different role in my writing. While working on Unravelled I often played songs from the late 30s and early 40s as a way to imagine the feelings of those living through WWII. Some tunes are upbeat, others full of longing and regret. Simple lyrics for the most part, but through them, you hear the heartbeat of war and purpose – the defence of family and country and loved ones. A sweetheart missing at Christmas, a soldier hoping to reassure, a father wondering if his son will ever know him, a woman drowning her sorrows.

Photos and music – one author’s inspiration.