How to write a professional book review
Posted December 28, 2013on:
How time flies! I’ve been meaning to review this book for so long that I’ve almost forgotten what the stories are about or why I thought they were so good.
I’ve had it at least a year.
And what a year it’s been! This time last year I was looking back on my career as a writer and remarking on how little I’d written.
Well, and during the Christmas holiday last year I wrote a story called Scandal! I was very proud of it and thought it was quite deep but I’d rushed it onto the page in only three days and I thought I should let it settle a bit before publishing it. In March or April I re-read it and decided it could be quite special if I was patient enough to let it germinate for a while and come to full maturity.
And it is germinating still. But let me assure you, it’s good!
Apart from that, and a fiery little outburst some months ago, I have had another fallow year and I’ve spent more time reading than writing.
I haven’t even been reviewing what I’ve been reading. Instead — and this is the point, in case you are wondering why this review is so far all about me and not at all about Remittance Girl — I have been studying how the professionals do it. I’ve discovered that book reviews should really be all about the reviewer rather than the book, as in this adorable example from Leo … someone-or-other. It’s very clear he’s a Leo, don’t you think?
In case you are thinking … Aha! She can talk! … Let me tell you at once that I’m not a Leo. Just a little crab.
And as a little crab, I often crawl sideways along the shore, staring goggle-eyed at the overwhelming tide of creativity all around me.
Remittance Girl is perfect company for me on my travels because she is a writer’s writer. She is literate, reflective and wise. She is a discriminating reader and draws upon her reading to stay fresh, inspired and quirky.
Whether she’s erotic or not, I’m not sure. She writes about erotic experiences. She is a storyteller. And she is fascinating.
The problem with reviewing collections of short stories is that there is so much to comment on that it’s hard to keep the review fairly short and still put in lots of information about me. But, as if reading my mind, Remittance Girl has solved this problem by including a story set in Limehouse, London, which I happen to pass through every day on my way to work.
In the old days, Limehouse was London’s Chinatown, full of shady warehouses, brothels and opium dens. This provides the backdrop for a rather prickly story about a profligate young man and a seductive Chinese woman called Mai.
“Mai seemed to be very much at home. She stepped delicately to a low table supporting two bronze lions in the Chinese style and put the flame from a small oil burner to three slender sticks of what Gerald learned later to be incense. Then, when the sticks were sending up hair-like tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke, she took up a small metal rod and struck it against the body of one of the lions. It chimed sweetly.”
It’s the stuff of fantasy. And yet it is very concrete and the descriptions are precise. There are sensual moments. You can see even from this very brief excerpt that Remittance Girl knows how to appeal to your senses. But at its heart the story is deeply philosophical. It is sharp and to the point. It ought to be, for it is called ‘The Pipe of Thorns.’
You must be prepared for sexually explicit passages. But, heavens above, who isn’t these days? But here, as in so many of her stories, the truly adult theme is what Remittance Girl does with this explicitly sexual encounter. She gives it a twist so brutal that young minds would instinctively shy away and shut down.
So these are adult stories, adult in the sense that they question and challenge our preconceptions and predilections. They can be delicate and they can be brutal. But they are never gratuitous, for they show all the seriousness of a writer who takes writing very seriously indeed.