Under Review

John Clark talking about another kind of writing that’s important to both authors and readers-the review. I started reviewing in 2003 when Beth and I became part of the Wolf Moon Journal family. Not long after, I was accepted as a reviewer for a Canadian website that has since closed. The books I reviewed for Wolf Moon were ones I had picked to read without any consideration as to whether I’d review them. They were by authors I really liked, or books whose plots intrigued me.

(I’m including covers of some recently reviewed books)

At first, reviewing was intimidating. After, all who was I to presume whether my opinions about a work of fiction might be of interest to others. What got me over that hump were the long and animated gatherings we had with other Wolf Moon contributors, usually at Clif and Laurie Graves’ home. Conversations sparkled with energy and enthusiasm and I found myself sharing thoughts about books I was reading, or had recently finished. I realized that a good review was similar to one of those conversations. Once that light went on, reviewing became much more comfortable.

When I began reviewing for the Canadian site, the process was different. The site manager would collect a batch of requests submitted by authors, add a brief description of each and send the list to her cadre of reviewers. The longer you had been part of the process, the more likely you were to get what you wanted to review. My first book to review was sent all the way from Australia. It was painful to read and even more painful to write a review. The thing that sticks with me about it, were the suddenly shifting emotions and behavior of the protagonist. Three sentences (and in the same paragraph) after crooning his love for the heroine, he would be batshit crazy, hammering the desert or the side of the tent with his fists. In short, there was no continuity. I wasn’t anywhere near having a comfort level with writing a review of something so bad, but sucked it up and did my best to balance the weaknesses by noting what I could that was positive.

That was an extremely helpful experience because many of the books I reviewed for that website were self-published, or from small presses. I became a much better reviewer, focusing on balancing strengths with what needed improvement as I went along. An unexpected benefit of reviewing numerous books was getting to know and become friends with authors. I was pleasantly surprised when I got to read and review Tim Hallinan’s first Poke Rafferty book, A Nail Through The Heart. I ended up reviewing three in that series and we’re Facebook friends now. Bonnie Rozanski was another author who became a friend, as was Holly Schindler. In fact, I’m a regular reviewer of Holly’s new stuff and look forward to each one.

Being a public librarian was a natural foundation for a book reviewer as we were responsible for buying a lot of books. Knowing authors, genres and how to interpret other people’s reviews came in handy in Boothbay Harbor and at the Hartland Public Library. In fact, an important offshoot of reviewing has been the ability to remember plots/ characters and then use that knowledge to steer patrons to books they wouldn’t otherwise discover. There’s no more satisfying feeling than having a patron come through the door, waving a book you suggested and asking for another that’s as good.

The Central Maine Library District (CMLD) has had a great opportunity in place for years. Publishers send books for readers ranging in age from toddler through young adult. Librarians can select from them at no cost. In return, they review each one and return a print copy of said review to Cheryl Ramsay at the Maine State Library, who forwards them on to the publishers. The book goes into the library collection. I’ve been a reviewer for that program since I worked at the Maine State Library. Beth and both of our daughters have reviewed them and I taught two volunteers at the Hartland Public Library how to do so as well. Our combined efforts have added several hundred books to the collection over the years. In retirement, Beth and I continue to review and pass them on to the Hartland Public Library.

For a period of a year or more, the CMLD had its own website where several librarians posted reviews regularly. It became a place where other librarians went to get a sense of what was worth buying. In the course of reviewing there, I was alerted to the importance (for some Maine librarians) of noting levels of profanity, violence and sexual content in books as these were deal breakers in certain instances. Sadly, that site is no longer.

These days, I’m reviewing educational DVDs and audio books on CD for School Library Journal and young adult fiction for the Buried Under Books Website. However, I try to leave at least a brief review of any book I read on both Amazon.com and Goodreads, because authors appreciate the effort and people who share my taste in books often discover unknown treasures.

What are your thoughts on reviewing?

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