Writing Book Reviews – An Application

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Recently, I was honored to host an essay by Dianna L. Gunn. In the essay, she talked about how to write book reviews. Upon reading her essay it struck me, I have never attempted to review a book. I read, I take notes, I incorporate my notes into blog posts, but never have I reviewed. What a disservice to the authors I truly appreciate. Today I’ll remedy that. This post is my application of Dianna’s review guidelines to review Andrew Blackman’s Award Winning Novel, On the Holloway Road.

1. Read slowly.

I read On the Holloway Road over the course of a week. The book is 202 pages of reading bliss. It took some effort to hold myself back from gobbling it down even faster.

2. Take notes.

I bought the book in paperback so I took the opportunity to jot down notes in the margin and underline paragraphs of interest.

Here’s an example of my sloppy but practical underlining:

3. Deconstruct the book to figure out what works.

I deconstructed the book so I could come up with some very rough opinions/general thoughts about the areas Dianna suggests reviewers consider.

  • Why do I like/dislike the main character?
I like the main characters in the book, Neil and Jack because they are real people with faults and inconsistencies.
  • Does the writer use all the senses well?
The descriptive language in the book is beautiful. The setting varies widely throughout the book and the author does a brilliant job of bringing the reader to those places.
  • What makes the location of the story so interesting?
The location is interesting to me, being from the United States, because it is completely unknown, almost like a fictional world. The impression a native citizen of the UK might get would be completely different. I find that very interesting to consider.
  • Did I learn anything from this book?
I learned real people are vulnerable despite what impression they may give you when you meet them. I learned the way relationships develop, even among two people, is very interesting. I learned those relationships change when you interject another person into the dynamic.  I learned the impact of a relationship is for a lifetime even though the formation of that relationship may be by chance.
  • Who else would enjoy this book?
I think fans of Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath or Jack Kerouac would enjoy this book. I also think anyone  interested in the dynamics of a friendship would enjoy this book.

4. Figure out what you would have done differently.

I feel highly unqualified to offer this opinion. To follow the guidelines though, as a reader, I would like to know more about Nicola, another character in the book.

5. Decide on a rating system.

Because I will  post the review on Amazon.com I decided to go with a five-star rating system.

Having considered the areas Dianna discussed, I wrote my review.

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On the Holloway Road is the winner of the Luke Bitmead Writers’ Bursary which was offered in memory of Luke Bitmead, an author, who passed away five months after the launch of his first novel. The award is intended to support aspiring writers. You can learn more about the author, Andrew Blackman, here. I hear his next book is due out Spring 2013 and will be called “A Virtual Love.”

The two main characters, Jack and Neil, embark on a road trip after meeting on the Holloway Road. The book focuses on Neil’s powerful influence over the people he meets, his attitude toward the world and the people he encounters, and on their trip together. Jack has left behind an unfinished novel and his mother to embark on the road trip. Neil has left nothing behind aside from his past brushes with the law.

The characters are developed as real living human beings. I value this. I tire of stereotypical characters created more out of an idea than a true story. It is these real faults and inconsistencies that make people rather than characters. People make stories unpredictable and thrillingly real.

The book uses vivid literary descriptions to bring us across the UK with Neil and Jack as they search for…something. For Neil, the search seems to be for adventure. For Jack, the search is more of an internal struggle for identity. As of the date of this review I have never been to the UK. I like that I read this book, though, before I had anything concrete to compare the setting to. Blackman uses the blank slate that is my understanding of the UK landscape and creates the beautiful geography of a UK road trip.

The book raised questions in my mind worth evenings of consideration. The characters, even and especially Neil, are vulnerable humans. None are handled delicately by the world or by the author because to do so would be to keep the reader from feeling the true nature of their own existence. For all the outward appearances of bravado and anarchical tendencies, the real story is what every reader knows the characters are struggling with under the surface.

Have they missed the very best of life or can they re-create the lives their favorite legends of the past lived? Have the best times come and gone? Have the Tom Joads and even Jack Kerouacs of the world been hunted into extinction? If they have, then who is responsible for their demise? Is there any place for a hero unwilling to admit his vulnerable nature? Is there any room for an individual to live without restriction and based on whim? Is there room for true friendship or camaraderie today?

Like Hemingway, Blackman brilliantly keeps the real symbolism and emotion out of sight, but still in the readers’ mind. (Remember Hemingway’s statement, “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”) Rarely, and only using the most cutting dialogue, Blackman gives the reader a taste of what the characters are really struggling with.

The scenes involving Nicola invoked more emotion in me than any other in the book. It is in these scenes Neil is revealed to be, ultimately, selfish and where Jack is shown to have been truly harmed by Neil’s selfish nature. Neil’s selfishness is not seen as malicious because he is unconcerned with the consequences of his actions, but Jack is hurt by them. There is another entire book in this dynamic. I would like to hear it told by Nicola. I would like to hear her explain whether Neil imposed his will on her or whether she submitted to it. I would like to hear her explain herself to Jack. None of these omissions, however, negatively impact the book Blackman chose to write. Jack and Neil’s story remains the focus of the book. I’m just left wondering what the other eighth of the iceberg looks like.

I believe, despite the setting being the UK, the book is an American book. It deals with the American dream and the concept and symbolism behind the open road. I’m an American, so of course I could be biased, but this book seems to be written in the tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Kerouac. If your sympathies align with Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath or with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road then you must read this book. If your sympathies don’t align with Tom Joad, of course, I’d love to hear you try to make the argument, sober, and with a straight face.

I give the book five stars.

Now to figure out how to put it on Amazon.com.

Update: You can read the review on Amazon.

Have you recently reviewed a book? Where can we find your review? Share in the comments.

12 Replies to “Writing Book Reviews – An Application”

  1. As the Book Review Editor for VSPN.org a website devoted to veterinary technicians and other veterinary support staff, I can appreciate the time it takes to do a good review. Now granted my reviews are on textbooks that relate to the study of veterinary medicine however the review of a novel or other book is equally challenging. Kudos for your post on this most important service that I have come to rely on.
    Regards,
    Oreta

  2. Great post, and a very complete review. Maybe, like Hemingway, Blackman doesn’t venture too far into Nicola’s character because he can’t quite get into her mind….he goes into everyone elses’ minds (even the lions) in “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, but not Margo’s.

  3. Thanks! I loved the way Blackman used her to have us look at the other characters in a new light. He definitely left me wanting to know more of her, but that’s Blackman’s skill in this book and it shines through time after time.

    Such a great read.

  4. I love reading book reviews – always helpful in making my final decision on what I might avoid and what I should dive right into. I’ve been writing down my thoughts on books ever since I had my very first blog I think. But it was only just recently that I had my first book review actually published in a magazine. I wrote about the book Zazen by Vanessa Veselka in Paste. I highly recommend it! You can read my review here.

    One thing about book reviews that always frustrates me though is the star ratings – I always have a difficult time deciding on the final score. Different books do so many different things in different ways, and our tastes are always evolving. If I can avoid giving books a final score, I usually do so.

    1. Nice! I’ll check it out.

      The rating thing is troublesome and maybe the reason I have stayed away from reviews for so long. Unless I can give something the highest rating I feel like I am slighting an author that is obviously a much more accomplished writer than I.

  5. I have reviewed the books I’ve read for a pretty long time, to try to improve my writing but not with any more thought than how they have moved me, if they have. I really like the idea of including more structure. I also think the ideas here are provoking in terms of how you actually read the book. I think I’m going to be looking out for senses more now and how I feel about characters definitely. Thanks Brandon.

  6. Thank you for the comment. I will probably try to review a few more this year for fun. Good reviews mean so much to authors these days. Book buyers seem to buy more informed than ever with sites like Amazon.com displaying them so prominently.

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