Journalist and novelist Sharon Griffiths has reviewed hundreds of books in her professional life.
Here is Sharon on the Art of Reviewing.
Tricky things, reviews. Nearly as bad as judging a bonny baby contest.
After all, every book is someone’s baby, brought into this world as a hard labour of love – and often taking a lot longer than nine months. Just finishing it is an achievement in itself and deserving of respect.
But readers deserve respect too. In a world where there are already so many books and too little time, they must by necessity pick and choose. A good review is a guide along a very cluttered pathway.
So how do you make it as clear as you can?
- Tell readers what sort of book it is – a modern crime story, historical romance, a psychological thriller – and tell them a bit about it but don’t tell them the plot. PLEASE don’t tell them the entire plot…
- And what is it really about? Not just the story but – briefly – what lies behind it. Maybe it’s about never giving up on love, or being true to yourself or a clash of cultures, frothy escapism or a searing indictment of modern society.
- But your review is all about your Did you like it? If so, why? Was the setting vivid, the plot convincing, the characters real? Was the dialogue zippy? The ending satisfactory? Did it transport you utterly into its world? (After reading The Siege by Helen Dunmore, I could barely bring myself to throw a cabbage leaf away…) Above all, did it make you want to keep reading?
Some books make you skip boring pages, others make you gallop through because you enjoy them so much. A few – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was one – make me read more and more s-l-o-w-l-y as I get towards the end because I just can’t bear to finish it..
The awkward bit comes when you can see a book has something about it, but you just don’t like it. Don’t be afraid to say so – as long as you say why. For instance Booker prize winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was beautifully plotted – but I couldn’t have cared less if every single character had fallen down a mine shaft in the very first chapter. It was a cardboard construction and I really resented the time I’d spent on it.
Money by Martin Amis is a whippy, aggressive testosterone-full read. It reeks of sex and hangovers and failure. It was hard to care about the central character. Yet I couldn’t quite give up on him and in the end was glad that I hadn’t. It was a brilliant book but would never ever be one of my favourites.
All you can do is say what you think and why you think it. Not everyone will agree with you. But lots of different opinions will add up to a pretty clear picture.
And other readers will thank you.
Hugh Cross reviews The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch.
In the 80s, I devoured the Iris Murdoch canon, and read each new novel as it came out. To me, she was the most stimulating novelist of her time, and she never let me down.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I returned to her work, reading her penultimate novel, The Green Knight. Would she seem dated, would her concerns not have any relevance to the present day? I knew that she was out of fashion amongst those who decide such things, and I hoped I would not feel disappointed.
Like many of her novels, the book is concerned with a small group of intellectuals driven by events – often of a strange kind – into a reflection on goodness and evil, resulting in an existential crisis resolved by some kind of redemption.
In The Green Knight the reclusive polymath, Lucas Graffe, kills a man in self-defence and disappears after the ‘not guilty’ verdict. When he returns, the ‘dead’ man reappears. He enters the lives of Lucas, his actor-brother, Clement, a man called Bellamy who is renouncing this life for a monastery and giving away his possessions – even including his dog – and Louie, a widow with three teenage daughters. The widow leads a seemingly untroubled life. The intruder, Peter, like the psychiatrist guest in T.S.Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, enters like an accuser, and they all feel guilty.
Each character becomes, in his own way, less wrapped up his own domestic concerns and looks for some kind of metamorphosis.
As the story unfolds, the members of the tightly knit group find themselves with new preoccupations. From waiting for the storm wind or tsunami to carry them to some higher level, they reach self-acceptance and goodness.
The book reveals the author’s wide ranging philosophical concerns. The healing process is woven into the narrative and never feels tacked on. The narrative is shot through with irony and is often comic, such as when the girls’ mother worries more about whether everyone has a cup of tea when a crisis occurs.
There is a lot of talk about magic in the book. Lucas and his avenger, Peter, are portrayed as two great rival magicians and the younger man wishes he had magic powers to get him out of an emotional impasse with a girl-friend.
Depending on how you read The Green Knight, this novel may be seen as overheated nonsense, as some contemporary critics. Or as I found it, a very stylish and compelling read. Murdoch is undeniably an impeccable technician.
If the theme is over-elaborate and the message not altogether clear, it made me reflect that if you watch a magician at the top of his or her form, then – rather than expecting enlightenment, you just enjoy the skill displayed, and the experience as a whole.
If Hugh’s review had caught your interest then the article about her on BrainPickings will fascinate you.
Click here: http://tiny.cc/vwkrvy
Brilliant thought-provoking review
by Sharon Griffiths of
Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather.
Some novels leap straight into your consciousness, becoming immediately familiar, their characters instant acquaintances – whether it’s Lizzie Bennett, Offred, Scrooge or Burglar Bill.
Other are easily forgotten. Good enough for an hour or two, they’re the literary equivalent of a sandwich – adequately filling a temporary need but not providing long term sustenance.
Then are the others…
These are the novels that refuse to be spurned. You enjoy them well enough, even admire them, then put them aside. But they refuse to be abandoned.
These are novels that maybe don’t immediately knock your socks off but instead worm their way into your brain until you can’t stop thinking about them.
For me, the classic example was F M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. And now it’s Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather.
Briefly – Lucy Gayheart is “ a slight figure, always in motion, dancing, or skating or walking swiftly with intense direction ” around her small country town, where everyone assumes she’ll eventually marry Harry Gordon, a big fellow in a small town, a skater, a banker and businessman, who yet knows and loves every inch of the countryside around him and who has a gentler side that only Lucy knows.
But when Lucy goes to Chicago to study music, she works for and falls in love with not just the great singer, Clement Sebastian, but a whole new way of life and the wide world and its possibilities. When Harry visits her, she turns him away with a cruel lie, putting her small rural world firmly behind her. Life, she thinks, is offering her far greater adventures. Harry, hurt, swiftly marries another woman.
When Clement dies in a sailing accident, Lucy is forced back home. Now we see another side of her. Her sister and father have made sacrifices for her education and she takes them all as no more than her due. She realises she desperately needs Harry, knows he’s the only one who will understand. But he can cope only by ignoring her.
Even small towns change and have their own drama but Lucy hasn’t been interested enough to learn that the old skating pond is now dangerous. Yes, she plunges through the ice to her death. To be honest, it’s hard to get upset for her.
But Harry… good, decent Harry spends a life atoning for his last callous conversation with Lucy. He makes a successful life, a civil, if not happy marriage but carries Lucy’s memory always with him and tries to make amends for things that weren’t really his fault.
Days after I’d read the book, I was still thinking about Harry. Maybe he refused to be ignored because – as in real life – there were no neat endings for him.
He wasn’t heroic. He wasn’t glamorous. He just fell in love with the wrong person. Willa Cather had created a character with real qualities and faults. His decency and his sadness were hard to ignore. He couldn’t be fobbed off by simply closing the book. He’s with me still.
And that’s the sign of a great novel.
Also see HERE the piece about Sharon Griffiths’ own novel ‘Amity and the Angel’
The next two reviews by Hugh Cross, whose book Scenes from a Life is coming out in July. WR.
Hugh Cross’s Review of Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe
Hugh Writes. This is the story of a teenage, transvestite rent boy, abandoned by his mother at birth, and put into the uncaring hands of a drunken chain-smoking foster parent, only to end up in a reformatory for ‘difficult’ children, where he is a victim of sexual abuse from the priests. He ends up making a precarious living on the streets in his home-town, and later, in London in the 1970s, when the IRA attacks were in full swing.
He tells his roller-coaster story to his psychiatrist, Dr Terence, spares no details and pulls no punches. From his story there emerges a picture of a young boy more sinned against than sinning, whose simple desire to live his own life according to his lights is shattered first by abuse and then by the onset of violence.
Underneath the outrageous physical comedy is a sympathetic, sad picture – but not for very long. The dark tones give way to the comic before it gets too uncomfortable. When Pussy, the hero, is wrongly suspected of being involved in a terrorist attack, he is questioned by an assortment of policemen who resemble the Keystone Cops more than anything else.
Pussy’s fantasy – that an ultra-handsome film star is waiting in the next bar to take him to his mansion and look after him for the rest of his life – is touching, not ridiculous. And when he has had so much upset that he sees himself fighting back as the ‘wrong to right avenger’, he is depicted as having guts and a rare moral character.
McCabe handles the abuse scenes, not clinically, but with grotesque and exaggerated brush strokes. The perpetrators are seen from the victim’s young eyes as physically repulsive. The point is made. Their delusion that this is proper sex reveals them as not real men, and we laugh at them.
When, in desperation, he moves to London, he doesn’t have much luck. Violence is in the air and on the ground. Significantly, Pussy becomes immune to its regular occurrence, as he back at home he’d had to live with abuse, neglect and misunderstanding back.
All this could have been a cliché in lesser hands. But Patrick – as we know from ‘The Butcher Boy’ is a master of language: here the Irish patois mixes with high camp. He describes Pussy’s Dusty Springfield’s wigs and glittering stockings as vividly as he does the horrible physical results of a terrorist attack.
Breakfast on Pluto is a funny/sad picture of a character whose development as a character you learn to love – full of human frailty like the rest of us, and looking for love like the rest of us, in the particular chaos of the 1970s, but transcending its particular into a universal experience.
Hugh Cross’s Review of ‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer
Hugh writes: Until recently, novels with gay characters were a rarity, except as examples of suffering or nostalgia for a forgotten past. Any author who portrayed gay men instantly became a ‘gay author’ and this label defined his work. Alan Hollinghurst came to prominence for his graphic descriptions of gay sex, which opened the doors for some imitators, and now gay novels are in vogue : so much so that ‘Less’, without sexual content, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2018.
What is ground-breaking is that this novel is, in my memory, the first such novel that has as its hero – a gay man who is funny, but not at his own expense. The novel is funny and tragic, but funny above all without being a caricature – a book about a gay author by a gay author.
Arthur Less is the eponymous hero of this picaresque meander through five or six European, African and Asian countries – an American in exile or on his own odyssey. What is troubling him is that he has received an invitation to the wedding of his ex-boyfriend – whom he’s been with for nine years. So, to avoid the embarrassment of saying yes or saying no he was finally persuaded – he is always being persuaded to do things he doesn’t want to – by his indifferent agent, to embark on a trip to attend crazy literary events around the world. He has a book in the offing, but more importantly, he is a few days off his fiftieth birthday. As someone who lives in the flesh, he is conscious of growing old, and meeting at least two new lovers and several old ones. So proceeds to stumbles through the helter-skelter ride, losing a suitcase, his best suit and nearly gets killed, trying to keep up with events not of his own making.
As the novel progresses, we experience his tendency to self-dramatize and his desperate wondering about why he gets partners who reflect him in the mirror of their own personality. And then someone feels ‘kind enough’ to tell him he is a ‘bad gay’, he immediately assumes he is also a bad man, a bad American and a bad writer. Tellingly, he realises that the main character of his next novel – whom he thought was a hero – is really a fool, and he knows how he has been cast. In life’s commedia del’arte.
When at the end he realises who and what he has pointlessly been striving after, he answers the question, ‘What do I want from life’ with the one word: ‘Less’.
The character’s journeys as an author give plenty of scope for satirical depictions of literary events. In the middle of the book is a hilarious set-piece where, instead of the event taking place in a library or University, he finds himself in a Berlin night-club with the attendees dressed as agents or counter agents, carrying toy guns and dropping like flies through dehydration. He reads extracts from his book translated into German, which he can’t speak, and is forced to wear a polka dot tie, as representing his country.
This is in the tradition of David Lodge’s academics and Maupin’s ‘Tales’, but where the latter’s books were just funny and a bit sentimental, ‘Less’ has a dark tinge: it is there, but not overwhelmingly so. It is more an in-depth display of a character the reader can relate to and feel comfortable with
Less is written with marked lyricism and musicality, combined with deadly accuracy about people. To use the words ‘witty and wise and piquant’ doesn’t do justice to the novel’s bold structure, its complexity and depth. A surprising and worthy prize winner.