Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How and Why I Write Book Reviews on Amazon - Margaret Chrisawn

I am really chuffed that Margaret agreed to provide an insight into her approach to reviewing a book. I have read a lot of Margarets reviews and will say that, in my opinion, here is a person that knows exactly what she likes in a book, has very high expectations of the structure and the content and is very VERY knowledgeable of the historical period in which she reads. So much so that if I were writing a Napoleonic period fiction I would be signing her up as a research resource! One of the many aspects of her reviews that I find outstanding is that she doesn't just say things, she proves them!

- here's the problem, here are the examples of the problem, here is the remedy - 

And she is fair, although she doesn't suffer fools. 

I read and review historical fiction, with rare forays into other types of fiction. My reviewing “style” doesn’t rely on plot synopses, analyses of the characters and their conflicts and motivation, action versus description, and similar issues. If you’re reading a historical novel about Marie-Antoinette, for example, I don’t need to recount her life story in my review of a book about her. The same is true for Anne Boleyn, Richard III, or Josephine Bonaparte. What I do need to comment on in a review is the use of history in the novel; the degree of understanding of political, social, economic, and cultural features and whether they are portrayed convincingly throughout; and dialogue among the characters, how they think, speak, and react in their historical world. These are critical points for me, although I admit I‘ve been criticized by folks who screech “It’s fiction, after all, just a novel! Lighten up!” I also admit reading reviews praising an author for using modern language and modern terms throughout a book because “it makes it easier to read and more relevant for today.” I believe both points of view are spectacularly silly with regard to historical fiction. If a reader wants to read a novel with modern language and relevancy, why on earth read a novel about Catherine the Great, the Wars of the Roses, or about any man, woman, or child who lived before 1950?

So I write reviews based on what I would like to read in a review. I want to know whether a book will be enjoyable, a fairly decent read, or one to avoid at all costs. It’s not enough to read generic phrases such as “Couldn’t put it down!” or “Fast-paced and exciting,” or “Really put me right there in the 14th century,” or “Too descriptive and slow” or “Poorly written.” None of those examples tells me anything remotely useful besides the reviewer’s opinion, brief though it is.

I prefer to let a book speak for itself. That approach removes my review from the realm of pure subjectivity to that of greater objectivity because I use quotes liberally to bolster a specific point I’m making. If the historical facts are wrong, I’ll use quotes that demonstrate the errors. If the book is replete with anachronisms, I’ll show what they are, and not simply one or two but many, particularly the in-your-face examples.  The same is true for dialogue, which is difficult enough in contemporary fiction, but a potential nightmare for the inept. Historical fiction dialogue often ranges from the hackneyed “forsoothly” speech patterns to indicate Ye Olde World to the 21st century young adult speech or my personal favorite, Tweet-Speak. I will always provide a multitude of examples of Bad Dialogue, just so a reader won’t accuse me of making anything up. Then there are other factors that constitute the difference between good and bad historical fiction—use of language other than English, a veritable sinkhole for many an author, and the social and cultural environment that dictates who sits when and on what, or wears which gown to what function, or how much a newspaper costs in the currency of the day, or how one prepares rabbits or fowl on a spit in an open fireplace, or what vegetables and grains were available when and where. All these examples are what distinguishes historical fiction from other genres, and what makes a particular book unique to the period in which it takes place. If an author ignores any of these examples, or plays fast and loose with them, then he or she deserves to have this failure noted.

As a result of this self-imposed attention to detail, I often get carried away and write lengthy reviews. Most people would see that long parade of paragraphs and click on a review that has but a single paragraph with a sigh of relief. I’m fine with that, because I’m writing for the few—or the many, even—who might want to know beyond a doubt what is good, bad, and middling about a work of historical fiction before investing their time and money in said book. And I get slammed sometimes for my negative reviews by fans of the author or the book, which bothers me not at all. I also have been yelled at by authors whose skins were perhaps not as thick as they should be, and that certainly bothers me even less. Regardless of the feedback—and the majority is extremely positive—I will write reviews for readers like me, who truly want to know what’s what. The time and effort required to do so is worth it.

See a selection of Maragrets reviews here

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