book review · books · On Writing

The Funnel Theory of Book Reviews

I read books.

Many, many books….about 125 a year.

Some are pre-release review copies. I read them and post my honest review on amazon, Goodreads and wherever else the author has specified. My favorite guidance from an author was to post my most forthright and honest review prior to release date because any review is better than none.

During a dynamic seminar by Gabriela Pereira, she talked about her stance on book reviews: she doesn’t do them. She is also a prodigious reader with wide-ranging interests and deep expertise. Her view is that if she posted reviews, they would have to be what she thought of the good, the bad, and the ugly — and she doesn’t want to do that. If she did not post negative book reviews along with the positive ones, she reasons that you won’t be able to trust her integrity, intelligence, and discernment: when every book is brilliant, no book is brilliant — obscuring the truly remarkable, important books of brilliance. (Plus, she is a profoundly kind, compassionate, and encouraging person.)

I completely understand her point.

If I were a more patient and kind and open-minded reader, I could well wind up in that position with towering piles of books surrounding me, demanding their due.

However, I am not that reader.

While I finish reading approximately 125 books a year, that is not the total number of books that I eagerly borrow from the library or clutch to my chest in bookstores, swap meets, and other venues.

Many, many books don’t make the cut.

The cut is not a well-developed, profoundly considered benchmark. A book makes the cut when I am lost in the story, captivated by characters, laughing out loud in quiet public spaces, or weeping through every tissue. It is a lively experience, me and the words on the page, the story enticing, inspiring, and urging me to think, to feel, to imagine differently than I ever have before. This relationship with the book extends to all genres, all types of fiction and nonfiction alike.

Simple test: do I think about the book when I am not reading it?

Another simple test: do I stay up late reading the story?

Yet another test: do I carry the book around with me and dive into it whenever I can?

One writer has a ritual that she uses to decide on a book: she reads the first lines, a random passage in the middle of the book, and then the ending. This way, she likes everything that she reads, thoroughly investing herself in the process of spending time in the story world. Her approach means that she knows what she’s getting herself into with the writer’s voice, story premise, characters, and happy ending.

I like to be surprised as I read, to turn willing, happy putty in a writer’s story, so this approach wouldn’t work for me. That’s why I give a book the benefit of my suspension of doubt from the solid first lines until it veers off course or there’s visible magic smacking me in the face.

My book reviews tend to be positive, because I don’t read books that don’t work for me. It’s a big world with all kinds of readers; what doesn’t draw me in may be the best possible experience for someone else. Let them read it, review it, and attract readers who like that kind of story.

I was compelled to write a negative review only once .

In the past ten years, I have written and posted exactly one negative review for a book that shall remain nameless. It came home from elementary school in my child’s backpack with sternly worded instructions that my child and I were to read the book that night, discuss it using the enclosed guide, and that I deliver the book to the school the next day with a certified note that the book has been read and its profound messages thoroughly absorbed.

Wow, I thought to myself. This must be an important book! I read it right away.

A few minutes later, I finished. Shocked by blatant, merry sanctioning of a difficult neighbor “disappearing into the night” and the boisterous block party that followed, I did read it with my son. However, we did not use the official discussion guide. Instead, we talked about how important it is to think for yourself, to be aware of the story behind a story, what is actually being communicated through bright pictures and inviting images. As directed, I did enclose the book and its bossy materials securely into their heavy-duty packaging.

I visited the school principal the next morning.

“Have you read this?” I asked. He hadn’t. I waited while he did.

Trying to keep my voice from shaking, I asked him what he knew about the “disappearing” of political rivals, of inconvenient others. We had our own wide-ranging, unsanctioned discussion. Later I learned that the book and the whole YOU MUST READ THIS OR ELSE enterprise were dropped from the school’s program.

That was the only negative review that I have ever posted — never would I have elected to read that book unless it was being foisted upon my child.

My book review funnel tapers to a narrow opening.

My book review funnel starts with a wide top of the books that I come across in my travels or are pressed into my hands by trusted others. It swiftly narrows to the books that I actually read from start to finish. At the end, it tapers to the books that move me to write about them, not as a shill or a supposedly objective critic, but from my own reader’s experience.

I review the books that strike me as important, as so blazingly good that I absolutely must share them with everyone. With all the books that I read, there must be something incredibly noteworthy, something more universal than my own quirky, eclectic taste, for me to recommend the book to anyone else.

If I review your book, trust that it hit me where it matters most, in my writer heart in admiration for your story and the way that you told it. It may go beyond that straight to a personal encounter, if I have heard you speak or met you at a book signing or cornered you at a Starbucks in New York City (yes, that’s you, Beth Barany). Alternatively, I may have read your earlier books and am gobsmacked at how your craft has advanced with this latest book or how your story has helped me develop my own (Beatriz Williams, Dan Blank, Donald Maass, to name a few).

I won’t post a bad review because I don’t read bad books — or not very far into them. I give a book a solid effort if it comes highly recommended or is my book club’s pick — but that’s as far as I go. If there isn’t something fantastic, compelling, and admirable about the book, I return it to the library or donate it to the world. Just because a book isn’t for me does not mean that it has no value for anyone else in the world.

There is also the Wow factor of a book with a great cover, strong premise — particularly one that dovetails with a blog post that I posted not too long ago as a love letter to my book club. It’s too early to say if this book makes the cut, but I’m hopeful, as always, for a good read.

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