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What’s in a Book Review?

What’s in a Book Review?

James O’Meara gives an interesting glimpse into what is possible in the realm of book reviews:

I had almost reached the massive iron door, hidden behind a construction dumpster, that serves as the entrance to the abandoned glove factory that has been my squat for the past several years when a figure in a black balaclava appeared from the shadows and a huge hand grasped my slender bicep in a grip of iron.

“You!”

Dog of Flanders, I thought in a panic; have the antifa tracked me down? Would it all come down to this, a fight to the death in a shit-strewn alley in Akron, Ohio? I reached for my trusty waiter’s corkscrew, whose foil-cutter provided me with a perfectly street-legal switchblade,[2] as well as the eye-gouging corkscrew itself.

I stopped, however, when I recovered myself enough to see who the hand belonged to: Jef Costello.

His highly trained, animal-like intuition sensed my recognition, and the grip relaxed… slightly.

“You!” he repeated, in a gruff voice that made Christian Bale sound like Charles Nelson Reilly. “Must . . . read . . . this!” And he shoved into my free hand . . . a book.

“A book!” I thought to myself, and smiled. Jef always was a sentimentalist. What year did he think it was? Were we still Nicaragua, backing up the forces of Subcommandante Menos de Zero?

Lost in reverie. That was a mistake; a foolish one.

By the time I recovered he was loping away, serpentining across the ruined industrial park the way they taught us in El Salvador. Good times.

Dammit, more reveries! I was getting soft. Maybe that was why he had traveled this distance. To redeem an old comrade.

Again, sensing the return of my attention, he called back, the distance smoothing the gruffness: “It’s a gift. A better gift than Fight Club.”

Riding the freight elevator up to my eyrie on the top floor, I finally took a look at the gift.

It was a blue-black book. With no girly “dust jacket,” the title was embossed in gold: Adjustment Day: A Novel.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Fight Club.

Part of the humor in this entertaining little introduction is the fact that O’Meara is reviewing Palahniuk’s new book–evidently at someone else’s request–only a few days after Jef Costello had already reviewed it on the same site.

I myself have reviewed a number of books on Counter-Currents, including SJWs Always Double Down by Vox Day, The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford, Why Honor Matters by Tamlar Sommers, and  Set the World on Fire by Augustus Invictus. I’m not inexperienced in writing (or in reading) book reviews, but I have never seen–let alone written–one that so audaciously and personally took on the flavor of the writing being reviewed. Perhaps O’Meara believed he had to do something like this in order to keep things interesting, the subject being somewhat redundant already. But what is curious is that it works, not merely as writing, but as a review.

He works in some criticisms as well as observing many positive qualities, and makes a few original observations and some very astute connections. More importantly, these observations and connections flow with the piece. My only criticism would be that about halfway through, the review loses the ostensible aim of evaluating Palahniuk’s book and begins using Adjustment Day as a springboard for O’Meara’s own ideas. This is a separate and independently useful point about what works and what does not work in a book review.

So what does make a good book review?

General rules for good writing obviously apply: clarity, conciseness, and coherence are not only as important as in ordinary writing, but are arguably more so. If the reader wanted something challenging, long, and perhaps slightly contradictory, they would be reading the book being reviewed, not the review. So to begin with, a review should be about the book.  This ought to include at least a general idea of the plot, as different people have different tastes where content is concerned. I absolutely loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for its style, humor, and moral seriousness, and these three qualities are agreeable to most people. However, it would be unfair to present a potential reader with this portrait of the novel without mentioning (at least as an aside) that the anti-hero of the tale happens to be a narcissistic and manipulative pedophile, and that the story is about his abduction and abuse of an adolescent girl. Without this most basic yet sometimes overlooked object (the content), the review cannot easily accomplish its second task, which is to leave the reader with a deeper and broader understanding of the book. Here, O’Meara seems to have marginally succeeded, bringing light and shadow to Palahniuk’s Adjustment Day without having focused very heavily upon the book itself. This, however, was only possible because of the unique situation of doubled-up reviews, which O’Meara heavily and self-consciously relied upon in his own piece.

Perhaps the most important quality of a review, however, is that it tells the reader whether or not it is worth reading. This is a difficult subject, since taste is somewhat subjective, and the quality of a story has much to do with taste. There are, however, many ways of effectively providing this information. The most common manner is by referencing other books in the same genre and covering the same content. Both O’Meara and Costello do this with Adjustment Day, with Costello comparing it primarily to the author’s previous and (in)famous book Fight Club, and O’Meara comparing it to a host of other writings, including many of his own.

Finally–and this is where O’Meara’s example really shines–a review ought to be an enjoyable read itself. An honest review will not necessarily say that the book in question is worth reading, but an enjoyable review gives the reader the sense that the reviewer has good taste in what is good writing and what is not. Regardless of whether the review is positive or negative, if the review itself is enjoyable, then the quality of the review lends more credibility to the claim:

Adjustment Day is indeed, as Costello says, Palahniuk’s best novel since Fight Club, and possibly his best novel to date.

  1. On-topic
  2. Informative
  3. Judgmental
  4. Enjoyable

This seems to be the recipe for a good book review. Your mileage may vary, but O’Meara hits three of these (2,3 & 4), and all four with Commander Costello’s assistance.

As a direct result of their efforts, I’m awaiting the arrival of my copy of the book, which–Amazon informs me–will be arriving tomorrow. I can’t wait.

Admittedly, part of my anticipation is from “reviews” like these:

[1-Star] Worst Book I’ve Read in 20 Years
By Keith B. VINE VOICE on August 28, 2018
Format: Kindle Edition

Quit at 53%, couldn’t stand it any longer. I spent five + weeks trying to drag myself through this book. It’s nearly turned me off of reading. I normally read two, three hours a night, every night and I was letting days even weeks go without picking up my Kindle because I knew Adjustment Day would be sitting there waiting for me.
Every time the book got interesting it would switch viewpoints and sloooow down. I’m half convinced this isn’t a novel but some twisted way for Palahniuk to push some disturbing ideals onto the public as fiction…

Absolutely horrifying.

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