Sunday, 16 August 2015

To Review or Not...

Susmita Chatto talks about being a book reviewer for The Bookbag

For the last few years I’ve enjoyed the privilege of reviewing books for The Bookbag, an online treasure trove featuring works of fiction and non-fiction as well author interviews and competitions.

I have been a voracious reader all my life. On one level, my love for stories is about escapism, but I also enjoy studying how and why they work – or don’t! – and I am always keen to learn more about the creative process behind fiction of all kinds.

I was delighted when I got through the Bookbag’s application process but I was also nervous about the task ahead. Never having written a novel, I worried that any criticisms I made might seem invalid. However, the first book I had was a real gem - Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, her debut novel, and oddly enough that made me understand my task a little better.

The sheer volume of books on the market means that most new books have only a tiny voice in the promotional world. Reviewing provides the opportunity to go fairly deep into the reasons why I have enjoyed a book so much and I hope that speaks to potential readers. All reviews on the Bookbag are spoiler free, but I try to address issues including style and structure so that readers of my reviews will get a sense of whether or not a book is a good choice for them.

The first time I had to review a book I didn’t enjoy, I thought about it really carefully because I thought it was important to keep in mind that some people would enjoy it and just because I hadn’t, that wasn’t a reason to deem it “bad”. I felt the main thing was to review the book the author had actually written. That may seem blindingly obvious, but I am sometimes surprised at statements made by critics and reviewers. The point of critically appraising the work that has been put in front of you is to do just that; telling the potential reading audience that the book would have been better placed in the 18th century than the 19th century, or that the hero should have been male and not female, seems to me to be missing the point.

I also feel it is fair to comment if I find the writing style confusing or clunky. Another problem that crops up sometimes is that of ramping up suspense so high that whatever happens cannot really meet expectations. It’s a fine balance; the ramping up itself is a key storytelling skill as it keeps the reader engaged, but if what follows is a let-down, then the story as a whole cannot be said to have worked. I also comment if I feel that characters have been under developed and if anything has been over-described.

Overall I try to give a fair sense of the book and always highlight good points as well as problems. I am also honest about my favourite types of fiction and state if it the book I am reviewing is the type I am naturally drawn to. I want readers to glean fair and balanced information from my reviews, so I feel it’s important to include those notes.

That said, reviewing has expanded my range of reading. For example, left to myself, I might have not have read Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves or Matthew Kneale’s An Atheist’s History of Belief. However, reviewing books has also made me conscious of keeping up with non-fiction in order to keep relating to fiction. Both those books are beautifully written and gave me a window into subjects I might not have explored otherwise.

Reviewing books has also given me the chance to help promote books that didn’t get as much fanfare as I expected. Examples include Eliza Graham’s The History Room , and Alison Love’s The Girl at the Paradise Ballroom. These both feature fascinating stories at their very core, compelling and relatable characters and sophisticated writing.

Now that I’ve been reviewing for a while, I am also seeing authors progress in their careers. A recent example is Martine Bailey. Her first book, An Appetite for Violets, was a really enjoyable read, but her second book, The Penny Heart, was even better; a triumph of tactical storytelling.

I do still choose to read some books purely for pleasure - but my adventures in reviewing – despite being a little nerve wracking at times! – have enhanced my appreciation of all kinds of writing as well as increasing my book collection. I’ve also enjoyed meeting some of the authors in person as well as chatting with them on social media. This has provided me with further insight into the novels, enhancing the experience even more. If you are looking for a way to expand your enjoyment of books, I can definitely recommend reviewing!

If you would like to review for the Bookbag, you can find the application details here

If you are a writer and would like to submit your work the Bookbag, you can find information here

You can Follow Susmita Chatto on Twitter @Scarletttelling

1 comment:

Sue Magee said...

We're very grateful to have you reviewing for us, Susmita and thank you for telling everyone so succinctly what goes into writing a good review.