Book reviewing – a delicate dance

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.13.12 PMSo … you’ve been asked to review a novel and agreed to do so. The novel in question sounds interesting: a dash of romance, dramatic twists and turns, life and death circumstances all wrapped up in a historical package. My kind of book.

But the reality is otherwise. Too many subplots. Too many points of view. Melodramatic, over-the-top events. Three adjectives where one would do. A heroine who is lucky at every turn. A love story that fails to sizzle.

Interestingly, the novel in question has many 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads. Clearly I am out of step with those folks.

I have another two weeks before deciding what to say and how to say it. Should I pull my punches? Advice welcome 🙂

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

My friend Douglas Burcham has created an innovative scheme for evaluating books using what he calls the five E’s.

  • Engrossing and interesting
  • Enjoyment and entertainment
  • Emotional
  • Educational
  • Ease of reading

Douglas reads widely – contemporary, historical, non-fiction – long books and short ones – books from around the world. He was on the blog almost exactly one year ago as part of a series of reader interviews.

In keeping with Tuesday’s post, Perspectives on Book Reviews, the five E’s form an excellent backbone to support a review, what James Parker calls “the aesthetic criteria by which the critique is being made”.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRecently, Douglas applied the five E’s to Richard Flanagan‘s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2014. A brief synopsis:

August, 1943: Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life, in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, is a daily struggle to save the men under his command. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.
A savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

How does The Narrow Road to the Deep North stand up to the five E’s?

Engrossing and interesting – Past 100 pages more so becoming a strong page turner one not knowing what would come next or where the story would end up. After 50 pages I could have put aside but on reaching 100 pages the book starts to find its legs.

Enjoyment and entertainment – Given the subject not a book to score highly under this heading. There was enjoyment in reading the book as a heavy hard cover rather than an e-book.

Emotional – One became bound up with the character’s lives in war and in love and marriage pre and post war. Memories of Dr Zhivago sprang into my mind as the book neared its end. 

Educational – Much interesting new information about WW2 and the war with Japan.

Ease of reading – The solid strong writing was not the easiest of reads but flowed well, despite some very deep description and different time frames, making the book hard to put down.

Summary thoughts: Despite the lack of enough punctuation and proof reading, I found the book a powerful and strong reading experience even forcing me to stop reading until the following day in a couple of places because his wartime descriptions were so graphic. I regard books like this as semi-fiction, the book being based on the war time experiences of the author’s father and I suspect much more of his life. 

Although I have read widely in fiction and non-fiction about the WW2 conflict with Japan and generally prefer factual accounts, the history told here from several viewpoints was both shocking and interesting in giving a better understanding of the Japanese psyche. One to be kept in my bookshelves. Well worth a read … and for me a reread in due course.

Many thanks for your contribution, Douglas!

Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress is slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing. He enjoys composing a monthly contribution to the TIPM blog under the heading ‘Writing and Reading for Pleasure’.