Your advice?

I’ve been blogging for over four years now. In that time, I’ve had two addresses, four jobs and three cars. I’ve written two books, lost a parent, added a new grandson to the family tree, been to Israel twice, joined Curves twice (sigh), and have attended three different churches. 
What hasn’t changed in my life? Besides the unwavering love of my Savior and the grace-gift of a patient, patient husband, there has been at least one other unchanging reality for me: words. I have read more books than I can count, and mixed in the thoughts of dozens of bloggers along with the content on websites that have taught me everything from the White Supremacist view of the Bible (wrong and terrifying on so many different levels) to how to bind off the knitting stitches of that first scarf I made a couple of weeks ago (super helpful). 
I once fed my book reading jones with a non-stop flood of new books when I was working at Trinity’s bookstore. It is now coming in the form of a pretty steady stream of books to review from a couple of publisher programs (Thomas Nelson, Hachette) and a couple of book review websites (TheOoze Viral Bloggers, Englewood Review of Books).
Reviewing books merges my perpetual hunger for words I can devour with my desire to score free stuff. I’ve been at this reviewing-in-order-to-devour-and-score game for quite a long time. I was a book and curriculum review for years for a home school magazine. And though the evaluation and review process was lots of fun for a word nerd like me, I quickly discovered that my efforts served others as well. Reviews help others make decisions about where they’re going to invest their time and money. A review needs to be simultaneously charitable and brutally honest. The reviewer’s own biases need to show so the reader can intelligently filter the reviewer’s opinion through his or her own grid. And all this has to happen while the reviewer is giving the reader an relatively-untainted synopsis of the book’s content. It’s a bit of a high wire act. 
That said, I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to share my thoughts about what comes in my snail mail box with those of you who are nice enough to stop by my blog (or read the echo that pops up on facebook). 
My husband is looking forward to writing his first book review for ERB. I guess the love of reading and critiquing must be in the chlorine-flavored tap water in this house! 

As each of us dig into the stacks of print here, I have a question for you: What makes a book review especially helpful for you? What do you look for in a well-written review? 

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About Michelle Van Loon
  • Jane Steen

    I like a review to give a) a taste, but just a taste, of the subject matter of the book. Just 3-4 sentences. b) reasons why or why not the reviewer thinks this book is worth reading c) if the reviewer has some constructive criticism ("needed better editing", "too many adjectives", "poor ending") I like to hear them. If I disagree I'll post my own review! d) opinions like "too New Agey for me" or "heretical" are great too, but not laid down like they're Holy Writ. Tell me that it's your opinion and be open to the possibility that you're wrong.

    A great review is witty but not cruel, incisive and yet encouraging. Reviews of an author's first book should adhere to the tradition of being kind; if it's a successful author you can be a little more astringent. I think the point of reviews is, as you say, to point people in the direction of new reading material and to encourage good writing. It is NOT to destroy an author, disparage a genre you don't like, or use the platform to sound off about your personal cause. Not that I think you'd do any of those things, Michelle!

    And to end with my pet peeve… using a review site to publicize your own book, although "Reviewed by Jenny Jones, author of 100 Best Book Reviews" is acceptable at the end of the review.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    "Tell me that it's your opinion and be open to the possibility that you're wrong." Yes!

    All great points, Jane. Thanks for adding them to the list.

    Years ago, I wrote a negative review about a piece of curriculum. The author contacted the magazine and basically told the publisher I'd demolished her life's work with my words.

    I honestly wasn't trying to be mean. I was trying to give a realistic assessment to the magazine's readers, who depended on frank reviews to help guide their own educational purchases. I had an opportunity to massage the language I'd used in the review before the mag went to print. I toned it down, but tried to keep the essence of the review intact.

    Though I question the curriculum writer's seemingly-manipulative motives, the event was an education for me about the responsibility a reviewer has to her readers – as well as to the person who has created the product she's reviewing.


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