Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How to Eat a Book Review--One Word at a Time

With endless amounts of books being published, which one should I read?

The title is a rip-off of a poem I vaguely remember from grade school by Eve Merriam called How to Eat a Poem. It starts off like this:

"Don't be polite. Bite in. Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that may run down your chin. ..."

So, Eve alluded that reading poems was like eating watermelon. Kind of messy. Delicious. Not for fancy diners. No forks and knives needed, just dive in.

Since I don't like watermelon much, this may be the reason why I'm not too keen on poetry, either. And while I'm not too keen on reading poetry, (except for Shel Silverstein's or the Psalms of the Bible,) I do love to a good book. I'm absolutely crazy for books. Devour them, if you want to continue this eating analogy. I want my last meal with a book (preferrably War and Peace, or some such volume many years long.) We can talk about the last meal in another post (or on my blog.)

Most people, when they pick a book to read, pick it because they like to read a certain genre, and maybe someone has told them,"Hey, I loved that book! Ya gotta read it!" That's how they would say it here in Indiana. Just like that. And we read a lot more since they made the state championship basketball tournament a class tournament--boring--and switched to daylight savings time, thus confusing our cows, and we can't get to sleep either because of all that light still shining on our eyeballs at 10 p.m.

But also, when I read a book, it may not even be because I want to read it. Well, I want to read books, just not necessarily all the books I have to, or need to, read. Because I do reviews (less now that I gave up a column in one magazine,) sometimes I read a book in order to write a review of the book to help other people decide whether they would like to read a book. So, essentially, I rip the book apart, and then lace back together enough of the book so that others can make a decision to either buy or borrow a book. Key. So someone can make a decision. If you write a review, keep in mind the reader. So, you hate police procedurals. If someone loves police procedurals, will he love this book? Does it follow the genre codes?

I think that this is the best way to figure out if you want to buy/borrow a book to read--by reading a published review, other than asking a librarian for a recommendation. Your friend, who voraciously reads every book in the library and has all the bestsellers reserved from here to the end of the world, may be crazed, and actually likes Steinbeck. (I worked in a library for 3 years, so I have observed a lot of types of readers. If you tell me you actually like Steinbeck, and revel in his darkside revelations of the human condition, I'm gonna be looking for a side door of escape, just in case...)

That friend may know intimately what he likes to read until dawn,and then bleary-eyed and word-stricken-blind drives to work on the same roads you may be on. That's an "ACK!" you heard from me,but he doesn't know you in your dark recesses of your brain where you actually think about things unless your friend is a) a librarian b) an editor who knows his books he's buying and selling c)God. He just tells you what he perceives as his enjoyment (or edification--whatever.)

A librarian is a good source, but while she/he might like to, can't possibly read or know about all the books being published and in his/her library (I say his/her because my male cousin was a state librarian, writing a book about hangings in Indiana, and my good friend, Judy Gann is a librarian and has written a book called, The God of All Comfort: Devotions Of Hope For Those Who Chronically Suffer . Great book, by the way. I gave it 5 stars and two thumbs up and I'm not crazed--much.

And there are tons of places online to read reviews, but what are the key things to look for in a review to know if it is a book right for you?

What kinds of information do you look for in a book review? First of all, a good book review won't reveal plot points or give away "spoilers." You know how it is when someone is talking to you during a movie and says, "Ok, here's where Indiana Jones just shoots the guy who just did the scary, fancy sword stuff!" You want to smack that guy. It's like blowing the punch line. Don't tell me. I want to experience it myself. Otherwise, why read it?

While it is fine for a reviewer to tell you he hated it/loved it, you also don't want to hear too much of "I hated that book and here's why." Back to the movie illustration, how many times did you read a bad review of a movie, and you went anyway and loved it? Or vice versa? It is a matter of what you like--bottom line. A good reviewer helps you to judge for yourself with just a few clues to help you to choose.

The reviewer should be hitting these kinds of points: characterization, a little bit of plot, message ( and the tone,) style, setting, genre--and finally, enjoyment. You should be able to categorize the book and make a judgment on whether you would enjoy the book or not.

My librarian/writer friend, Judy Gann said, "Librarians don't have all the answers. We just know (usually!) where to find them. ...libraries have online sources for finding fiction books--Novelist, Genreflecting, What Do I Read Next?. These are great for the question: 'I loved this book! Do you have another one like it?'"

These sources mentioned are expensive databases, says Judy.

She says, "At my library we can access them(the sources mentioned above) online (with our library card) through the library's Web site. If not available on your library's Web site, ask your librarian if they can access them for you."

(Back to me and what I say )One of the places I like to find reviews on Christian books is Faithful Reader. You can search through the books, reviews, news and find just what you want to read. By the way, if I am reviewing a book, I NEVER look at someone else's review of the same book before I write. What I say about a book is completely my own Another great place to find books you might like is ACFW Fiction Finder. If you actually want to read and discuss books, do join ACFW Book Club. Great place to mingle with those who read and are constantly giving away books, too.

Another place to look is at Look at the reviews there, but beware--like your crazed friend who loves e.e.cummings' poetry and that Steinbeck character (ok, I read Steinbeck and while I suffered, he did write well, I grant him that much...sigh,) remember that not all of these reviews are reliable. They will, however, give you some insight into whether it is a book you might like. Read these reviews with caution. Some of those have an agenda other than letting you know whether or not you should buy the book.

Looking is for free these days and sometimes you can download the first chapter. I've downloaded now countless free ebooks on my Kindle. Do note the reviewer's comments with caution, but do note the emotion because a reviewer on Amazon will not usually post unless there were some strong feelings one way or another. Also, note the reviewers who post their real name. If they do this, they're putting their own reputation on the line. You can check the reviewer's profile by clicking on their name.

Now, get out there and find a good book. Don't forget to tell me what you are reading right now and your current favorite book, too.
As Stephen King says:
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."—

I'm currently reading Serendipity by Cathy Marie Hake (for review for Church Libraries magazine.)I love any historical romances!

Crystal Laine Miller
who has published over 900 book reviews in magazines and ezines


  1. Kindle has lots of new releases to download for a limited time. I've tried out new authors that way and really found some great stories.

    I like your Stephen King quote. He's very to the point.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  2. My bookshelf and my Kindle are both full of books I don't have time to read (although I'm getting there slowly), so I'm not looking for new ones. Right now I'm reading one I got for Christmas, and it is amazing. (Not a surprise, given the author.)

    I'm reading "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" and will be for the next five years because it's a BIG book. It drips with sarcasm and is very irreverent, but it's almost as hard to put down as a good murder mystery (or whatever type of novel you are into) is even when it changes topics. So that's my recommendation.

  3. GREAT comments and info -- fun too! And ditto for the photo that I wanted to step into so I could check out the books! PS -- I LUV all kinds of watermelons, but only some poems. . . :-)

  4. Great post, Crystal. I haven't forgotten about the interview questions - promise you'll get them soon. Believe it or not, some people consider 1997 "historical," if you catch my meaning. Kathryn, I'm jealous. I've been trying to get Twain's book and it's virtually unattainable. One of these days... I love Twain for his humor and wit. Enjoy! Waving to Millie, and I agree about the poems. Blessings!