DISCUSSION // How to write a book review

Today on the blog, I thought I’d talk about how to write a book review. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal reviewing process, which you can check out if you’d like to see a detailed explanation of how I approach reviews. But no two review writers or bloggers or critics are the same, so this is more about tips on review writing – and how to develop your OWN reviewing process (or just get through a homework assignment).

1. Ask yourself questions

Asking yourself questions about the books you’ve read is something you’re probably already doing – now you just need to know how to get them on paper (or keyboard, as the case may be). They can be simple: What did I like about this story? What didn’t I like? Who were the heroes? What were the big themes? Or they can be more complex: What was the writing style like? What were the character arcs? Why was this book written or published at this moment in time?

Try to figure out the difference between subjective (“what did I think of this book”) and objective (“what is actually going on in the pages of this book”) questions and responses. Think about the book from the perspective of the target audience. Maybe you thought the plot of this picture book was too simple, but would the three-year-old who just wants to look at animals?

The answers to these questions and more will form the substance of your review. You may find that certain elements  naturally go together, like linking heroes and character arcs, or big themes and topical relevance. Once you start reading in a way that prompts questions of it and yourself –  bam, that’s critical reading.

326020092. If you’re stuck, make things as straightforward as possible

Whether you’re experienced or just starting out, you’re going to get stuck sometimes. You’ll struggle to put into words why you loved a book so much, or how uncomfortable it made you feel, or struggle to explain the exact vibe a story gave you. You may not capture that feeling entirely – and that’s fine! Reading is an individual experience. But if it’s just a case of writer’s block (critic’s block?), writing a really straightforward sentence is one of the best ways to get started. You might cut it out at the end when you’ve said in more detail what you want to say, but there’s no harm in just explaining to yourself: “I picked this book off the shelf because…” or “I love this series because…”

The opening line of my review of Lisa Lueddecke’s first book is “A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages.” Early on in my review of Night Owls by Jenn Bennett is simply the line: “I was surprised by how much I liked this.”  Sometimes the only way to get to expressing more complicated ideas is start with simple ones. It’s also one of the best ways of keeping yourself honest.

3. Be conscious of developing your own style

If you plan to write more than one review, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own style. This can take a long time, but there are ways you can consciously aid the process. Figure out what kind of reviews you like to read (What kind of language do they use? Is it short and chatty, is it funny and clever, is it serious and sophisticated?). Look back over your own reviews a few weeks or months after you’ve written them and see what you would change. Experiment with new styles and see what you think of them.

9781471406829Everyone has hallmarks. I finish all my reviews with a short in-brief paragraph, string multiple adjectives together at the start or end of sentences, have a terrible propensity for alliteration, and find comp titles (specific ‘for fans of’ descriptions) very useful (“For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure”). I like a challenge, so recently I tasked myself with developing a more concise review style. I still occasionally write long reviews (check out this one for Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This or this one for Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain). My shorter reviews are still content-heavy (check out this jam-packed review for Morgan Matson’s Save the Date), but you’ll also find me writing reviews like this one for Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang). 

4. Practice

Again, this is mainly if you’d like to consistently write reviews (if you’re just here trying to figure out how to do your homework, you probably stopped reading at point #2), but there really is only one way to develop a style or a process – practice! You won’t feel perfect at it straight away, but you can have fun getting there!

Do you have any tips on writing book reviews? Are there any reviews you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

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The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho // rich, inventive historical fantasy

What’s this? Adult fiction? ON MY BLOG?!

26833370Author(s): Zen Cho
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: October 1st 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. In a Regency London where magic is an everyday reality, he must juggle conflicting demands and malicious rumours. There’s the wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, where a faction schemes to remove him from his position by fair means or foul. The Fairy Court is withholding magical resources and the British government is baying to deploy increasingly scarce magic in its war with France. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy.

Prunella Gentleman is an orphan desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life. A visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it… 

I picked up Sorcerer to the Crown in an effort to find more adult fiction that suits my YA-honed tastes. It has so many things that I like: a richly constructed magic system, a detailed historical backdrop, an inventive story full of intrigue and memorable plot devices. Cho injects the grand architecture and glamourous parties of Regency London with a fitting and vibrant strain of magic. She also packs the novel with plenty of unfurling secrets and social questions, from themes of class and race to community and culture.

Overworked sorcerer royal Zacharias is trying to investigate a scarcity of magic in England, but he’s being hindered by a hostile magical aristocracy and hounded by rumours that he played a role in the death of his adoptive father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the plot is twisty and Sir Stephen is still around as a ghost. Prunella is young, reckless and ambitious, making for solid contrast between the leads. Zacharias is African and Prunella is biracial, bringing some welcome characters of colour to a historical period too often generalised as white. Supporting characters include Zacharias’ high-born, society-fluent adoptive mother; subplots include a conflict between a sultan and some very powerful witches.

The writing style takes some getting used to, but it absolutely suits the genre and even has occasional moments of knowing humour. There’s a subtle element of romance I would have liked to have seen more of. My major issue with the book is that it’s quite slow. You can practically feel the pace dragging. If it were shorter, tighter, less agonisingly slow-moving, it would actually make for a cracking bridge between YA and adult SFF. There is supposedly a sequel in the works (it’s currently slated for March 2019), but after the initial publication date of 2017 sailed by and barely a peep about the book since, the wait for The True Queen has been as slow as reading Sorcerer to the Crown can sometimes feel. Still, if we can wait for the next series installment in A Game of Thrones or Outlander, I’m sure I’ll pick up this book’s sequel eventually.

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Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is a slow but rich and unusual take on historical fantasy. For fans of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. 

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The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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Into The Jungle: Stories for Mowgli by Katherine Rundell // an immersive re-imagining

Spoiler: this almost-reboot wins over a cynic (though to be fair it is written by one of my favourite children’s writers of all).

38812918Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Everyone knows the story of Mowgli, the wild boy who leaps from the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic The Jungle Book. But what about the stories of those around him?

What of the mother-wolf who raised Mowgli as her own? What of Bagheera, the elegant and mysterious black panther, or Baloo, the good-natured bear with a fondness for honey? What of the elephants and the shrewmice and all the creatures in between?

Mowgli is hungry for their stories, but as he listens, he learns that there has, perhaps, only been one constant in the life of the jungle: danger. There have always been animals like Shere Khan, and the great ape with red eyes who lives on the mountain…

Katherine Rundell is no stranger to the wild. She braved the Amazon rainforest to rapturous applause with Costa-winning 2017 children’s novel The Explorer. Here Rundell turns her attention to another vivid and intrepid adventure, this time set in India among some very familiar names indeed. It’s certainly a handy commission between original creations, a useful siphon for a little excess exuberance. It seems Rundell wasn’t quite done with the jungle after finishing The Explorer. 

Or perhaps the jungle simply wasn’t done with Rundell.

For the world of Into The Jungle is intoxicating and fiercely alive. In its stretch of wonder you can almost hear the rustling undergrowth, the bristling insects, the argumentative birds. There are landscapes conjured here from the rough Seoni hills to the open plains where the snake stream meets the elephant pool.

The book is framed as a series of stories being told to Mowgli. We hear that before she was wolf-mother, Raksha was a courageous pup. We meet a young Bagheera and a young Baloo. Kaa gets a human-centric escapade and even a jerboa named Jolt makes the overmighty aware of the creatures at their feet. Rather cleverly, these stories are then tied up in an overarching adventure which gives the novel a little more punch.

Into The Jungle has more time for female characters than its forebear, though it leaves any explicit criticism or acknowledgement of Kipling’s complex post-colonial reputation firmly in the author’s note. After all, this is a project set to coincide with further pop cultural versions of the 1894 original, including Disney’s live-action Jungle Book sequel and Netflix’s Mowgli. This is not a radical reinterpretation of a Victorian monument, but it is not saccharine, and it is very well-written. I am continually astonished by Rundell’s ability to immerse the reader. Her prose is expressive (“his spine rose and fell like a mountain range”; “the jungle at night shone gold and silver and deep-water blue”), and effective even in moments where you barely notice it. It’s a rare writer who can make you forget you’re only reading.

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Acclaimed children’s writer Katherine Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling in the vivid, immersive and energetic Into The Jungle. 

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Save The Date by Morgan Matson // Matson delivers with multifaceted rom-com YA

Today on the blog, it’s my time for my now-biennial Morgan Matson contemporary YA review…

34839193Author(s): Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 14th June 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home. For the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof, and Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes. Making decisions about things like what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush – all that can wait. 

The only problem? The weekend is shaping up to be an absolute disaster.

There’s a dog with a penchant for howling, a house alarm that won’t stop going off, and a papergirl with a grudge. A storm seems bent on drenching everything. The justice of the peace is missing. The band will only play covers. The guests are all crazy. And the wedding planner’s nephew is surprisingly, distractingly cute.

Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart.

Morgan Matson is one of the most consistent names in that particular style of big-hearted, aspirational contemporary USYA which includes the likes of Sarah Dessen’s Lock and Key and Stephanie Perkins’ Lola and the Boy Next Door. Big houses, chunky sunglasses, handy hobbies, memorable grand gestures – it is the subgenre in which YA is at its glossy, irresistible peak. I liked Matson’s The Unexpected Everything – about a teenager whose summer plans are derailed by her politician father’s career, complete with dog-walking, scavenger hunts and a fictional fantasy book-within-a-book – but when I heard about Save The Date, it immediately became one of my most anticipated reads of 2018. I’ve been waiting for a romantic comedy premise like this in YA.

Charlie Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and as the only one still living at home, she can’t wait to finally have her brothers and sister back under one roof, even if only for a weekend. I loved that the most prominent relationships in the book were those of Charlie and her siblings. Danny, the oldest, has always been Charlie’s favourite brother; he can do no wrong in her eyes. Linnie, with whom Charlie once shared so much of her life, is about to get married in the backyard (though her fiancé, Rodney, has been around so long he’s already an honourary member of the household). JJ, the irresponsible middle brother. And then there’s Mike, closest in age to Charlie, who hasn’t spoken to her for almost a year.

Charlie was collateral damage in Mike’s colossal fall-out with their parents (a college professor and a comic strip creator respectively), and when he unexpectedly turns up for the wedding, she is forced to confront the rupture of her beloved family head-on. There are other disasters plaguing the wedding preparations, too. To name just a few: the power’s out, the groom’s tuxedo is missing, the wrong band has turned up, and the wedding planner has done a runner. The only upside: her last-minute replacement has brought along his teenage nephew, the cute but ever-so-slightly awkward Bill (when was the last time you heard of a YA love interest named Bill?!).

In between all this, there’s the frankly inspired inclusion of illustrated extracts from Grant Central Station, the comic strip Charlie’s mother loosely bases on the family’s life. There are a few missteps – the narrative can by turns feel slow, repetitive and overly long, the themes can get a bit clouded amidst some increasingly eyebrow-raising chaos, and I would’ve liked a little more cathartic payoff – but what sets Save The Date apart is its lived-in feel. From the family home for which Charlie has tangible affection to the bouncy, back-and-forth dialogue, Save The Date offers a satisfying taste of what the thinking teen’s romantic comedy-drama can do.

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Sarah Dessen’s Once and For All meets Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door in Morgan Matson’s warm, intelligent contemporary standalone about a chaotic wedding and a complicated, close-knit family. 

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My Heart Goes Bang by Keris Stainton // confident, chaotic contemporary UKYA

Today on the blog, it’s time for more summer contemporary…

9781471406829Author(s): Keris Stainton
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 28th June 2018
Category:
YA
Source: Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lou, Issey, Liane, Ella and Paige are determined to make the most of their second year at uni. They want to have fun, but will have to focus on work. They have no time for relationships. Except with each other. And even then, there’s tension between Issey and Liane, and none of them know Paige that well.

When they find a magazine article with a list of men they should date before they’re 21 (Someone who’s been on telly? Check. Someone who’s got tattoos? Check) they vow to complete the list by the end of the year. In fact, some of them set about it with a lot more enthusiasm than they do their studies … but will any of them end up with a full house? And as secrets spiral out of control, will their friendship survive intact?

If you’ve ever asked for more female friendship in YA, or more YA with multiple LGBT characters, or more frank treatment of sex in YA, or more YA set during university, then Keris Stainton (professional 1D fan by day, fiction author by night) may be writing the books for you. In fact, she may have written the book for you, since My Heart Goes Bang contains all of those things – and more. I picked up my copy at YALC this year (in fact it was the first book I bought at the entire convention) and read it within days (it became my go-to reading on the tube).

My Heart Goes Bang is the busy, messy story of five close-knit housemates, including overworked Paige (who’s trying to hide the fact that she’s behind on her bills), straight-laced Ella (who’s trying to hide that her beloved brother is in a world-famous band), and middle-class Liane (who’s trying to hide from her overbearing gallery-owning mother). Theirs is a year of intense friendship and casual flings, but among the more memorable moments are a sweet romance between Ella and Nick and the characters’ exploration of orientation (the girls open up the magazine list to include LGBTQ+ relationships). The writing style, meanwhile, is lightning fast and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Stainton’s prolific backlist stretches from teen fiction (like Emma Hearts LA) to adult women’s fiction (like If You Could See Me Now), with My Heart Goes Bang slotting, in terms of content and style, between last year’s upper YA One Italian Summer (you can read my review here) and 2015’s new adult contemporary Counting Stars. There’s plenty of sex, swearing and drinking, very much drawing on stereotypes of the uni experience. With all the drama Stainton throws at them, it’s little wonder lectures are the last of these girls’ worries. The book isn’t perfect and with so many characters I find I remember more of what happened than who it happened to, but other elements, like the group chats and nods to boyband lit, help make this exuberant contemporary UKYA.

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For fans of Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare, Sarah Mlynowski’s Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) and Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s Freshers, Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang is messy, character-driven UKYA. Short, sharp and fizzy with female friendship. 

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