Category Archives: Book Reviews

Guest Post: How to Start a Book Review Blog–And Score Some Free Books!

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This article has been reprinted with the permission of Web Design Relief.  Whether you’re just starting out or a best-selling author, Web Design Relief will improve your existing website or build you an affordable, custom author website to support your author platform, boost your online presence, and act as a hub for your social media outreach. Web Design Relief is a division of Writer’s Relief, a highly recommended author’s submission service. Sign up for their free e-publication for writers, Submit Write Now! Visit the site today to learn more.

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If you are a ravenous book reader, you may be able to turn your passion for the written word (and your love of sharing your opinion) into a rewarding book review blog. Not only do book review bloggers get the satisfaction of reading and critiquing, they also often score free books from writers and publishers who want to generate some book review blogger buzz. Here’s what Web Design Relief wants you to know about how to start a book review blog!

How To Start Your Own Book Review Blog

Pinpoint a genre/readership. Although your reading tastes may run the gamut from quiet literary fiction to noisy international espionage thrillers, you may want to focus your book review blog on one specific genre. When you focus clearly on a particular target audience, you’ll have a better chance of connecting effectively with that specific readership.

Sharpen your hook. There are a lot of book review blogs out there. What makes yours stand out? Now is the time to think about how you might distinguish your blog from others.

  • Do you want to write a “shock jock” style book review blog that invites controversy by both delighting and enraging readers? Are you willing to risk being alienated by certain writers or book review-seeking publishers by having an in-your-face style that cuts to the heart of reader concerns?
  • Or do you prefer a milder, more moderate approach that focuses on the positive, supporting the authors who inspire you while choosing not to devote attention to those books that don’t spark your interest?

Find your voice as a blogger. The tone and style of your book reviews will help define your future readership. If you are reviewing books that have an academic or literary focus, you may be able to get away with writing long, formal, winding sentences in your book reviews. But keep in mind that the most popular bloggers often embrace a witty, chatty, casual style, because the way people read using a computer or mobile device is different from how they read print. Learn more: Author Website Copy: Five Essential Tips For Writing Web Text.

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Establish a format for your book reviews. The traditional publishing industry format for book reviews includes dedicating the majority of the review to the facts of the book in question (story/content/synopsis/background). Only in the last few sentences, would you share your personal opinion and include both strengths and weaknesses of the book.

But you don’t have to stick to the traditional style of writing book reviews. As a blogger, you can take creative liberties with your book reviews. You may decide that the bulk of your review should focus on opinion, with only a few sentences dedicated to summary of the book itself.

Develop a book ranking scale. Another thing to consider is how you will rate or rank the books on your book review blog. You can use a traditional five-star system, or you can develop your own rating guide—using anything from emojis to color schemes. You may want to link each of your book reviews to an explanation of your personal book ranking system so that readers who are new to your blog can understand it.

Focus on value. Whatever the format/style/voice you choose for your book reviews, keep in mind that the most successful book reviews are those that are practical and helpful to readers who are trying to decide whether to read or buy a given book. Readers who are looking for the next great addition to their TBR list may not want to waste their time reading a lengthy diatribe about a book you consider a “don’t buy.” They might prefer to spend their time learning about a book they will actually want to read.

Select which books you will review. Your choice of book titles to review will say a lot about who you are as a blogger and what you value as a reader. Will you choose to join the conversation by reviewing nationally released, buzzworthy books that are already being discussed all over the Internet? Or will you focus on hidden gems from independent presses? 

Keep reviews short, memorable, and quotable. Book readers want you to cut to the chase and let them know what makes a particular book a great read. Witty insights, pithy phrases, and unique perspectives can make your book reviews memorable. Plus, authors who are happy with your turn of phrase might just feature your book review quote and URL on the cover of their next book release—which will help spread the word about your book blogging efforts!

Reach out. Book bloggers rarely succeed by writing in a vacuum. To generate an audience and increase the likelihood that writers and publishers will send free books your way, you’ll need to do some marketing. Here are a few ideas:

  • Connect with other book bloggers
  • Reach out to writing groups to invite book submissions
  • Cross-promote with other bloggers
  • Host book giveaway contests
  • Feature writer interviews/Q&As/guest bloggers
  • Integrate your book reviews with social media feeds 

Final Thoughts: Are You A Book Reviewer? Or A Writer?

If you are active in the creative writing community as an author, you may want to be aware of how your book reviews will be received within the community of your peers. What you write today about a given author’s book could affect you tomorrow if you sit down at a luncheon and an author you once lambasted is seated right beside you. Also, if you come down hard on a particular publisher’s title in a way that makes a big splash, that publisher might not be particularly receptive when it’s time for you to pitch your own book for publication.

Your words have power—as both a book lover and an author, you’ll have to make decisions about your priorities and values if you decide to start a book review blog. Learn more about what it means to be an author who also writes book reviews.

 

Question: What most influences your decision to buy a book?

Review of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward         

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Review of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward         

Poetry is a source of delight for me, and I’ve always wished I could write poetry, but my attempts in elementary and high school were lame.

A few years ago I tried again, by working through a book I’d originally bought for my daughter Carly who was studying writing poetry in college (and I never gave her the book): poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. I discovered to my great surprise that I could write decent poetry.the crafty poet

After I finished that book, I found The Crafty Poet, and I happily journeyed further down poetry lane.

Lockward covers 10 poetry concerns in this book, such as generating material, figurative language, adding layers, and revision. Each chapter includes two or three tips for the topic, poems that illustrate the tip, and a prompt for you to try out. Each chapter also includes an interview with a poet about a particular poem, and a bonus prompt. The book generated about 35 poems for me.

I’m not posting a lot of my poems any more, because I’m submitting them for publication, and most journals won’t print poems that have been up on somebody’s blog. However, here are a few poems I wrote from exercises in this book that I’ve already posted:

 

Dogs Would be Better Off if They Were More Like Us Cats

Why do you beg? Have you no dignity?cat and dog anusha-barwa-428445
If the humans forget to feed you, scold.
And when they do feed you, don’t be in such a hurry to eat.
Turn up your nose. Walk away.
Come back later when no one’s around to watch.
Otherwise they think they’re doing you a favor.

And when they tell you to fetch or roll over or shake
Turn up your nose. Walk away.
Why work so hard to earn their approval?
Humans are inscrutable. Always making demands. Ignore them.

Don’t make such a big deal when they come home.
Turn up your nose. Walk away.
Why weren’t they here waiting on you?
Whose special—them or you?

You have to go out in all kinds of weather.
Why don’t you use the litter box?
Outdoors is best viewed from the windowsill.

Mona

All my life I’ve dreamed of402px-Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched
Passing below the crystal pyramid
And worshipping at the altar of
The woman with the enigmatic smile.
When my moment finally came,
I wedged in shoulder to shoulder among the other pilgrims,
Jostled and hurried.
She was much smaller than I had imagined,
Enshrined in plexiglass.
That’s it?
An anticlimactic end to my years of anticipation and saving.
I retraced my steps and
Examined the broken figures I’d rushed past earlier,
Breathtaking gods and goddesses released from stony prisons.
My eyes caressed these less celebrated masterpieces and
My disappointment melted away.

Cocktail Sauce to Die For

These are your strong points:shrimp-cocktail-1670404_640
You’re loyal.
(You could have replaced me by now;
you certainly had opportunities.)
You still have a nice head of hair.
You know how to fix things.
You can name every major battle and
how many men died on either side.
You can reach things on top shelves.
You make me laugh.
You can cook.
You make the best shrimp cocktail sauce I’ve ever tasted, deliciously sour and with
just enough horseradish to make the top of my brain ache.

I recently came across two more poetry instruction books by Lockward, The Crafty Poet II and The Practicing Poet, which are structured in the same way. I bought them both, and I can’t wait to get started.

If you want to begin writing poetry, or if it’s been awhile and you need a little prodding, I would recommend any of the books mentioned in this article.

Review of Written by Hand by Erica Tighe

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Review of Written by Hand by Erica Tighe

 

 

 

Last month, as I participated in Index-Card-a-Day by writing out scripture verses, I wished my lettering was fancier.

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I chanced to come across several books on lettering and selected this one, subtitled Techniques & Tips to Make Your Everyday Handwriting More Beautiful.

This is a beginner’s book, which made it perfect for me. Tighe presents step-by-step instructions for four different styles of alphabets (upper and lower case) and numerals: sans serif, bold serif, script, and faux calligraphy; space is provided for practice between the samples.

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My lettering took a big leap forward.

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In addition, Tighe gives hints and strategies for planning out a handwritten passage, including graphics and mixing styles, and 50 prompts (though 26 and 27 are the same).

Although many books have been written about calligraphy and decorative lettering, what sets this book apart is its ease of execution. If you want to improve your lettering skills quickly, this is a good book for you.written by hand

Review of Poem in Your Pocket: 200 Poems to Read and Carry, compiled by Elaine Bleakney

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Review of Poem in Your Pocket: 200 Poems to Read and Carry, compiled by Elaine Bleakney

I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought this book ten years ago.

Yes, I do. I wanted a book of poems. I ordered it through a book club (Book of the Month? Quality Paperback Book Club? Mystery Guild? I belonged to a bunch of them back in the day.) and in the picture in the brochure, it looked like an ordinary hardcover book.

But when I opened it, I was totally disoriented. It was glue-bound like a notepad. It had no page numbers, no table of contents.

The premise of the book is, you can tear out a poem and keep it handy in your pocket, ready to be referred to or to be offered to a friend or to a stranger.

Of course, I would never deface a book by pulling out pages. If I like a poem, I want it right there in my book where I can find it again, not in my pocket where it will get wrinkled or go through the wash, transforming itself into garbage.

Also, it’s really cumbersome opening a book and then reading pages that are bound at the top. You can’t flip through the pages without holding the book sideways.Poem in Your Pocket

I started the book several times without getting very far. But I recently committed to reading the entire book from front to back.

 

Many of the poets were familiar to me. None of the poems were. I don’t know if I am just ignorant, or if it was Bleakney’s intention to promote less-known masterpieces.

There are some poems in here that I didn’t care for at all (that risk goes with anthology territory). But there are also some that were so delightful I felt compelled to turn over the corner for ease of rereading.

For example, here is a Shakespeare sonnet I’m sure I’d never read before:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets,
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do they worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

And this beautiful poem by Robert Frost:

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it, it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars, on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

I will reread this book periodically, because I am determined to become familiar with as much poetry as possible. But I recommend it only for people who would willing go to the trouble of reading relatively obscure poetry in an awkward format. Or for people who like to tear pages out of books.

Review of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott

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Review of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott

During the 1990s and early 2000s, my critique group loved Anne Lamott and read all her books and discussed them and laughed together at her humor. After that, she fell off my radar, though I still reread Bird by Bird (her book on writing) periodically. (I own two copies. Yeah, I misplaced my first one and couldn’t live without it, so I had to buy another.)

A few months ago, Lamott made an appearance at a nearby arts center, and my friend Linda emailed the critique group and suggested we go. So, Judy and Linda and I got to see her in person for the very first time. And I bought Almost Everything, her latest book.

Linda, Judy, and me

Authors Linda Carlblom, Judy Robertson, and me

The appearance was a week after Lamott’s 65th birthday and a week before her wedding (her first wedding!), a time of great transition for her. She whined a little and philosophized a lot. She told stories about her recent life and also recapped her whole life story. We left there feeling thoroughly entertained.

A few weeks later I settled in to read Almost Everything. After not reading any of her books written since 2005, I expected to be wowed. It’s her eighteenth book, consisting of twelve chapters on different topics. (She’s also written seven novels.)

Almost Everything

But by the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book, I was getting nervous. I expected great wisdom, but what I found was familiar stories from her old books. And you know what? This is a skinny book, only 198 pages. (Plan B, which came out in 2005, was 320.)

Thankfully, I found some of what I was looking for in the final two chapters.

Chapter 11 is about food. Here are a couple of paragraphs that resonated with me:

There is the $66 billion American diet industry whispering sweet nothings everywhere you turn. There is your family’s jealousy or mortification about your body. There is our own dispirited stance toward ourselves, designed to protect us and advance our potential. There are also the convincing voices of mindfulness, coaching us to eat slowly and to savor taste and texture bite by bite; but to be blunt, this isn’t going to happen. While I am not advocating for the school of Shovel and Stuff, to sit chewing so methodically starts to argue a wasted life.

Maybe some of us can try to eat a bit more healthfully, and walk a bit more, or wheelchair dance, and make sure to wear pants that do not hurt our stomachs or our feelings. Drinking more water is the solution to many problems. Doing a three-minute meditation every day may change your life: It is the gateway drug to slowing down. Naps are nice, too.

Chapter 12 is titled “Famblies.” Here is the opening:

If the earth is forgiveness school, family is your postdoctoral fellowship. Family is hard hard hard, a crucible. Think Salem witch trials, or Senator Joseph McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee, great pain from which great transformation arises. The family is the crucible in which these strange entities called identities are formed, who we are and aren’t but agreed to be. Even in what might pass as a good family, every member is consigned a number of roles intended to keep the boat of the family afloat, which because of the ship’s rats—genetics, bad behavior, and mental illness—is not as easy as it sounds. It’s the hardest work we do, forgiving our circumstances, our families, and ourselves. Parenting is hard, and so is old age. And every single teenager is hard—even twelve-year-old Jesus drove his folks crazy. (And no word at all on the high school years; like Obama.) Babies are hard. In-laws are hard. And forgiveness is hardest of all.

I was given the role of perfect child at an early age. . .

And she goes on to describe her childhood, and how it shaped the woman she became.

If you’ve never read any of Anne Lamott’s nonfiction, you could read this one book, and it would be representative of her entire body of work. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is not a bad book, but it recycles a lot of old material.

On the basis of my disappointment with this book, I decided that from now on I’ll borrow Lamott’s books from the library.

Then a supermarket in my neighborhood held a going-out-of-business sale, and I scored a copy of her previous book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy for $1.50. (Isn’t that a great title, by the way?)

 

Review of Animals I Have Killed by Lauren K Carlson

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Review of Animals I Have Killed by Lauren K Carlson

Some poets write for themselves. Others long to share their verses. I fall in the second group.

When I started writing poetry a few years ago, the poems were often responses to online challenges, so I posted them on my blog, where they would be available to the online poetry challenge community. I was thrilled when I was selected as a featured poet for NaPoWriMo, because visits to my blog spiked. It’s gratifying when people want to read what you’ve written.

Submitting single poems or groups of poems to various publications is a tedious undertaking, which I have tried on numerous occasions with no success as of yet.

I follow the contest listings in Poets and Writers magazine, and when I realized I have enough decent poems to put together a chapbook (a small collection of poems by a single poet), I began entering chapbook contests. So far I’ve lost four. Shortly after I entered the fifth, Animals I Have Killed arrived at my house. I’d forgotten that the entry fee for the Comstock Review chapbook contest included a copy of the winning book.

 

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I read Animals I Have Killed with great interest. This is the work that beat me out, that the judges deemed better than all the rest of the entries.

Lauren K Carlson is a poet, teaching artist, and spiritual director in rural Minnesota. Nature and hunting and farm life and the sacred run through her poems. The title poem is a litany of animals that were killed on purpose, or by accident, or slaughtered for food. One line asks, “do the goats we take to the butcher count,” and the cover art is a silhouette of a goat with the cuts of meat mapped out. I was delighted to discover that one of the poems in the chapbook was her response to a prompt in The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward, which I am currently working through.

Carlson’s poems are unrhymed and utilize various forms. One is formatted unusually, and I wasn’t quite sure how to read it, due to how the lines were broken and staggered. Maybe that’s what she intended—having readers read snippets in different orders and get more than one meaning from the poem.

Two poems especially resonated with me. “The Week Before,” about a visit to a friend with terminal cancer, made me cry. And “The Lesson” is about a woman observing her son with his grandfather. They are carving together, and the lesson the grandfather teaches the little boy is internalized by the mother on a metaphysical level.

I enjoyed this chapbook. It’s a good read and I look forward to reading more of Carlson’s poetry in the future. The book also gives me hope that maybe my poems will be published one day.

 

Review of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

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Review of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

I bought this book because writing instructor extraordinaire Margie Lawson recommended it.

My edition was printed in 1985, and the book examples used in 100 Ways are old. (Fortunately, so am I, and I remember the buzz those books earned at the time.) It was also in the baby days of personal computers, when very few writers owned one, and most everyone wrote their rough drafts by hand and their better drafts on a typewriter.

Gary Provost wrote articles for Writers Digest and 22 books, fiction and nonfiction. He passed away in 1995.

100 Ways is divided into nine chapters which are further divided into 5 to 12 short topics. For example, Chapter 7, “11 Ways to Make People Like What You Write,” is broken into these topics:

  1. Make Yourself Likeable100 ways to improve your writing
  2. Write About People
  3. Show Your Opinion
  4. Obey Your Own Rules
  5. Use Anecdotes
  6. Use Examples
  7. Name Your Sources
  8. Provide Useful Information
  9. Use Quotations
  10. Use Quotes
  11. Create a Strong Title

The entire book is 158 pages long.

Although most of the information in this book is pretty basic, veterans could benefit from reviewing some of the material, such as common errors to avoid, cutting unnecessary words, and a self-editing checklist. Or how about this advice:

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if you cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence you must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

If you’re a beginning writer and you’re looking for a book that covers the basics, this is a good choice. I have over 40 books on writing, and 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing does not spark joy for me. I would give it to you, but my dog chewed the corners. (He liked it just fine.)