Sunday, June 11, 2006

Reviews of historical fiction, Part I

I've been thinking about a recent post from Miss Snark's blog for the past week or so. An author wrote in about a book "review" that was basically a regurgitation of the back cover copy, and questioned whether s/he should complain to the book review venue about it. Before I get onto the main topic of this post, I have a couple things to say. There's a four-letter word for "reviews" such as this, and that is L-A-M-E. Or "lazy," or any synonym you prefer to use. These aren't reviews, and any author looking for a serious critique of his/her work would do better to avoid that outlet next time.

I agree that it's pointless to complain about them, though. Authors who submit their own books for review should investigate what a publication's (or site's) reviews are like before sending anything in. You should know what you're gonna get, and complaining about it after the fact only makes you look silly. Also, these mentions, however lame they are from a literary standpoint, can benefit you in the long run. These so-called "reviews" are useful publicity if they can get the word out to places that wouldn't ordinarily carry any info about your book. Example: my first book (written under my former name) boasts one five-star Amazon review that consists of little other than some reworded back-cover blurb plus some positive comments. I think it's three sentences long. But 4 out of 4 Amazon shoppers considered it a helpful review, and so it was, because the publisher's own blurb appears nowhere on the Amazon page. So while I'd hesitate to call it a review, I ain't complainin'.

Anyway, that blog post and its comments got me thinking about the elements of a good historical novel review. So, I pulled my thoughts together and came up with 5 things I like to see (why 5? because I couldn't think of 10 off the top of my head) in reviews of historical fiction. Some apply to historical fiction specifically; others cover reviews of fiction in general. If you write, read, or edit reviews, I hope y'all will take time to comment.

1 - The time and place of the novel's setting. I'm talking specific years or decades, as appropriate - whatever info the author provides. There are times where it's hard to be too specific (the prehistoric era, for instance). Also, stating well-recognized historical periods often suffices: the Napoleonic Era, Civil War (in the case of HNR, I make sure it's obvious whether it's English or U.S.), and so forth. Ditto for the specific geographical locale. On the other hand, reviews that give a novel's setting as "19th century America" aren't all that helpful, because 1805 New Hampshire is as different from 1865 Virginia as it is from 1899 San Francisco.

2 - A nice balance between plot description and critical commentary. Both of these are integral to reviews, and there should be a good balance between them. Reviews that go on for 250+ words and conclude with a bland sentence like "Great story, I loved it" aren't useful to me. (I see these a lot on Amazon.) I don't need to know a point-by-point description of the plot, or the names of all the secondary characters, no matter how interesting and quirky they were. Especially if there's a limited amount of space to work with. On the other hand, I've seen reviews in which the reviewer was so intent on getting her point across that the plot of the novel was completely lost.

3 - Comments on historical accuracy, if and only if the reviewer is qualified to provide them. I like reviews that assure me that an author's work is historically accurate, as well as those that point out major historical blunders. However, the absence of such reassurances doesn't necessarily signify anything to me, other than that maybe the reviewer doesn't feel qualified to judge. (If I only reviewed novels for which I was an expert on the period, I'd rarely review anything... just don't get a royal family tree wrong, or I may call you on it :) I would much rather have a reviewer fail to comment on accuracy than do so and be wrong.

4 - Information on the author's writing style, characterizations, or other elements that stand out. There's a lot more to historical novels than time, place, and storyline, and I like seeing these other elements discussed in reviews. For example, things such as pacing (is it fast or leisurely?), tone (bleak, upbeat, melodramatic?), language (straightforward, lyrical, use of slang?), as well as anything else that characterized the novel (did it have multiple plotlines or alternating chapters? were there any characters whose portrayals were especially effective?). Of course, there's rarely enough space to cover all of this, but info on any of these factors will help me decide whether I might like a book - even if the reviewer didn't. Or vice versa!

Aside: These characteristics are called appeal factors in the library readers' advisory community, and I've learned a lot more about them since I started writing author "readalike" articles for the NoveList database. Reviews in Booklist and Library Journal, which are written for librarians, include this sort of info so that librarians will know how to recommend novels to readers. Not all reviews are like this, but I like seeing some descriptive details.

5 - The reviewer's honest opinion, presented in a way that will help other readers decide whether they like the book or not. This goes along with #2 and #4. In the end, what I really want to know is: what did the reviewer think and why? This should be obvious from the review. "Reviews" without opinions aren't reviews; they're plot summaries, abstracts, or book reports (or maybe they're repeats of the back cover copy!).

Oh and BTW, I'm deliberately excluding many of the basics, namely that reviews should be well written, of the appropriate length, with correct grammar and punctuation... and they should present the novel accurately. Now, do all the above in 300 words or less! (For Booklist you'd have to do all this within 175 words or less… what can I say, I like a challenge.)

Questions: As readers, what do you like to see in reviews of historical fiction? As reviewers, what do you try to include? As authors, what do you expect?

Coming soon: Part II, my personal pet peeves.


  1. As a reviewer, I'm about to give novel reviewing a rest. This is due in part to the amount of foot-stamping I've seen from authors about reviewers who dare to point out problems or even express an honest opinion. I've become tired of the whole business. Best to give it a rest for a while and just read for pleasure.

    As a reviewer I try to include all of the main aspects you mentioned. In fact yesterday I rejigged a non-fiction review as I realised I was concentrating too much on pointing out reference gaffs rather than what was in the book. Overall the book is fine, but the weighting of the first draft of the review would have belied that, despite the fact I recommended the title. Well duh. I've still mentioned the sporadic referencing problems, but haven't gone into details.

    As a reader, sometimes reviews help me decide to read a book if the subject matter is marginal for me. But if the book suits my interests anyway, I'll read it even if the review's a downer.

    I'm not a published fiction author, but I would hope to take the line of the most savvy authors: at least my book's been reviewed and put in the public eye (and see above my comments on being a reader about still reading books of interest to me, even if the review's bad)

  2. As a reader, I look for the same things you mentioned here, and as a reviewer, I try to include them. Since I prefer novels where real historical figures play a prominent role, I also like a reviewer to mention that--I've been disappointed a couple of times to get a book and then find that the historical figures concerned put in only a token appearance.

    If a reviewer doesn't know enough about the time period involved to vouch for a novel's accuracy, I like the reviewer to mention that (if there's room, anyway).

    I also like to get a sense of the reviewer's own biases if they affect the review. For instance, if the reviewer's main criterion is that the heroine be "strong" in the sense of satisfying modern-day feminist expectations, it'd be nice to know that straight out instead of having to read between the lines.

    As an author, I'm happy to get reviews and am not inclined to quibble with the reviewer's style or to expect unstinting praise. All I ask is that the reviewer actually have read the book.

  3. I try to include all the stuff you mention and always try NOT to allow my own feelings about a certain period/topic etc interfere with my assessment of the book.

    Though I didn't think I should have to state up front when I DO and DON'T have an expertise in a particular period. Hmmm.

    Thanks for the link to the RA handouts - I've printed some of them off :-) Very helpful. Especially in light of the fact I'll be writing my reviews over the next couple of days ;-)

  4. Alex, sorry to hear about your experience. I can understand where you're coming from. I rarely hear anything from the authors whose books I review, but I do hear grumblings from authors about reviews in general. Negative or critical reviews don't stop me from picking up a book. It depends a lot on who reviewed it, and whether the topic interests me.

    Publishers' blurbs can occasionally mislead me to think that a novel's based around a well-known historical character when it's not. I think Alianore pointed this out on her blog; I can't tell whether the upcoming Queen Isabella novel will be one of these or not. This may be deliberate.

    Most reviews have limited space, so I don't expect people to say whether they know about a period or not. I do expect, though, that if reviewers comment on accuracy, they should know what they're talking about. With HNS, I know most people's periods of expertise fairly well. Reviews that say "I don't know anything about this period, but XX seemed fishy" will get edited accordingly (I'll take those sentences out, as I don't believe they're fair statements to make).

  5. I haven't been on the receiving end of wrathful authors; I try hard to temper my reviews, even if I find the book dire. But I have observed what's said on e-lists and elsewhere.

    I've only had one author contact me, and that was to ask where the typos were in her book. Unfortunately, I had thrown away my notes by then!

  6. I'm generally of the opinion that all publicity is good publicity, and that authors who complain publicly on e-lists about reviews aren't doing themselves any favors.

    Typos - I'd want to know that too, if only to ask my publisher to correct them in future editions. On the same note, my husband was recently reading a novel (not for review) in which the copy editor seemed not to know how to use commas appropriately. (I'm giving the author the benefit of the doubt; these problems didn't occur in other novels of his.) It really was quite bizarre, and these problems were in the finished book.