April 15th, 2012

Prairie Fire Review…and Reviews in General

Tara at Biblioasis passed on a lovely review of *The Big Dream* from the current issue of Prairie Fire. It’s not online, but if you’re curious what TBD is like, it might be worth grabbing the print copy because I think Bob Armstrong does a really excellent job examining the book review. Yes, he also seems to like it a great deal–which obviously makes me happy–but his praise still makes it clear what kind of book it is, so people who don’t like that sort can steer clear. I really like to see a couple sentences like the following in a book review. “It’s located in an industrial park in Mississauga near pearson Airport…her stories focus on the people who work in the call centre, deal with tech support, oversee hiring and firing, or spend all day, on a good day, tweaking a new logo.” They shouldn’t be the whole thing, but some of every book/movie/tv/restaurant/hairstyle review should be just descriptive prose, no judgment implied. You can see how those exact words could’ve come from a very negative review, too. And you can also see how a careful Prairie Fire reader could read Armstrong’s whole review, including the wonderful line, “For readers who want fiction that engages with the world we live in, Rosenblum’s work matters” and still not want to read the book. Armstrong’s praise is wonderful, but I can still imagine reader who want that engagement in another way, and knowing to give my book a pass when they spot it on the shelf.

I think a good review does that–doesn’t *only* evaluate a book but also describes it accurately enough that a reader can make his/her own assessment. Which is why I am so happy about Armstrong’s review when others, which may have been equally positive–have made me a bit uncomfortable. This happened more with *Once* than *TBD*, so I’m not sure if it’s me or the reviewers who did better this time, but I felt…alarmed…by some of the praise I received for *Once*. I would never criticize someone’s reading of my work–once it’s in your brain, it is yours to interpret. But some interpretations, without adequate context or quotation, can lead readers to believe a book is something it isn’t. And that can give a writer heart-attacks–what if people who only like *this* sort of book buy it, and then hate it, when really the book was never intended to be *this* sort.”

The quick response to this is that I need to calm the heck down, and that would be a good one. But I am also trying to learn how to be a book reviewer my own self, looking very closely at the good ones and the bad ones, and trying to see why they are what they are. And I think one key is context–liberal quotation balanced with specific assessment. No matter what anyone says, a list of quotations does not make a review. But neither does an assessment entirely in the reviewer’s voice. Reviews need to be a balance of both evaluative and descriptive to work, I think.

What the exact balance is remains a mystery for me–I guess that’s the art of it.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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