Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them? (‘cause if they do, teachers, here’s a suggestion…)

§   Monthly book reports were a class requirement throughout all of my elementary school years  §

I am a prolific reader. It’s nothing for me to knock back two or even three light mystery novels a week, especially as I prefer reading to watching TV.  I am also a prolific reviewer; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I style myself “The Savage Reviewer”. (Scroll to the end if you’d like to locate and read that post.)

Due to the number of books I read, though, I’m not merely a reader and reviewer; I’m also a major consumer of reviews. So I find myself constantly amazed (and irked! Decidedly irked!  Really, really, really irked!) by readers who can’t compose a helpful book review.

These are, obviously, people who enjoy reading. Since they are taking the time to write a review, one would suppose that they probably (as I do) rely heavily on these assessments before purchasing a book. Despite these obvious facts, though, instead of writing a review, they produce what is, in essence, a book report.  An elementary school book report!

Honestly, I’m not certain if today’s students are still required to write them, but composing monthly book reports was enforced throughout my school years as an additional study obligation to our classroom textbooks. These were descriptive plot summaries which proved we students had completely grasped the contents of a novel.

Each book report consisted of specific components: the names of the main characters, the location where the action took place, and a brief description of the plot. As we students grew older, our papers became more complex.  Character motives and the theme of the novel were added, and sometimes, even the reasons why we did or did not like the story.  And it is only those “grown up” categories—liked/disliked, motives, themes, and behaviors—that actually have any real place in today’s reader book review process.

The liked/disliked category, nothing more than a row of stars, should be basic enough for the most profound moron.  Nevertheless, some critics manage to botch even that, awarding only a single star to a book they genuinely liked.  From the stars, a review dives into a headline. Most reviewers seem to manage that with the requisite flair, providing quick, all encompassing phrases such as, “Loved This Book!”, or “Worst Book EVER”.  But their remarks often cascade downhill from that point.

Plot summaries and teasers were once the province of dust jackets or back covers, whereas now they generally reside in the online synopsis labeled “Product Description”. But all too often, what passes for a review is nothing more than another synopsis–unfortunately, often replete with spoilers. “After 20 years away, Emily returns home to open a bakery, and her first customer drops dead in front of the cash register!” So the reviews trumpet, one after another.  Great. Thanks. Now I don’t really need bother reading the first chapter of the book.

Skimming these reviews, I grit my teeth. I don’t want to know WHAT happens—I’ve already surmised that from reading the online synopsis. I want genuinely pertinent information that might help me decide if this is a book I want to read. Is the book riddled with typos, misspellings,  rotten sentence structure and poor grammar? Is the poor grammar limited to the characters’ slang speech, or is it part of the text itself? Are the characters three-dimensional, with clearly-defined motives? Are their actions, behavior and speech realistic? Does the book move forward briskly, or does it creep at a snail’s pace? Does it keep one’s attention, or are there long, boring digressions in the plot? Is it humorous, or witty, or even laugh-out-loud funny? Is it depressing, sad? Exciting, thrilling? Terrifying? Is the ending satisfactory, or does it leave the reader hanging, without real resolution? (Or, worse, is the reader intentionally left dangling on a hook intended to make her or him buy the next book in the series?) Can you, the reader, put your finger on just why you did/did not like the book, or are your feelings amorphous—i.e., you hated it, but you can’t quite say exactly why that should be. Do you recommend the book? Would you tell friends, “Don’t bother”?

These are the elements that need to be incorporated into a genuine book review, and rarely are.

Book critics still abound, but, more and more, most of us rely on the advice and opinions of  readers like ourselves. Bearing that in mind, teachers, here’s a recommendation: Perhaps you need no longer require your students to produce book reports.  Instead, maybe you should grade them on just how well they can write a book review.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for
“The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; or
“To Review or Not Review”, from 12/13/2017, or the upcoming “The Savage Reviewer, Part 2” , TBA.

The Savage Reviewer

§   I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews.  §

The ability to read online book reviews written by everyday readers instead of some pompous newspaper critic has been, I find, a marvelous advancement of the digital age. I depend heavily on reviews when selecting the books I read, and return the favor by writing reviews of every book that I finish (as well as a few books so bad that I do not finish them!)

Recently, I scrolled through the site where I post my reviews, re-reading some I’d submitted when I first began writing them a few years ago. It occurred to me as I perused my earlier reviews that I was a lot more hesitant to criticize—much kinder, and certainly far more generous–when I was initially writing book reviews. Now, having gotten into the swing of the game, I’ve become far more critical…and a lot more honest.

All this was running through my thoughts a few months ago as I reviewed a book I’d selected due to an intriguing plot summary. The novel, the very first by brand-new author, had only 10 reviews, all of them 5-Star ratings. Not being a complete moron, I knew that meant that the book had been reviewed only by loving family and non-critical friends. Nevertheless, the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance. And at first it seemed my gamble was justified; I liked the opening paragraphs; the tale seemed to be well-written–a rarity in these days of self-publishing–and the main character was a likeable woman. (There are few things worse than slogging through an interesting novel in which the main character is an irritating, self-serving asshole.)

Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there. I finished reading the whole the novel, although I have to say in all honesty that I did so only because I need to remark upon ALL the book’s failings, not just those found at the halfway point where I really gave up. No, I tortured myself all the way through the book, feeling I should provide multiple facts to counteract all those glowing 5-star reviews. Yet even as I typed the 2-Star review that I eventually submitted, I felt a current of guilt. Although not so much savage as straightforward, my words were bound to make the inexperienced author cringe, perhaps even cry. I sighed and reminded myself that I was attempting to save other readers from wasting their hard-earned money on this schlock. And, I consoled myself, who knew? If the author took my criticisms to heart, perhaps my honest, unflattering remarks might help her get to her next, much better, book–or even a revised edition of this sad attempt. Or so I told myself.

I was far less plagued by guilt over another very unflattering review I wrote for a novel which, despite yet one more promising plot summary and multiple flattering reviews, turned out to be unreadable. Simply unreadable. And that was a tragedy, because, with appropriate assistance—and if some of those flattering reviewers could have been honest—the book might have been great.

But the novel, a mystery, had been written in English by someone for whom English was quite obviously a second language. And while, technically, the author’s grasp of the language was excellent, well, God is in the details. And the details sucked.

The story began in a snowstorm. I think I finally gave up on the book about the third time I read the repetitive sentence, “The snow was hailing…”. Hailing?  What? Was the snow calling for a taxi? As I pointed out in my review, snow can fall. Hail can fall. It can be snowing. It can be hailing. But the snow can’t hail.

Then there was the fact that the car, a Rolls Royce, was constantly referred to as a Royce. Uh, nope. The casual reference is a Rolls. This minor but irritating error continued for page after page, setting my teeth on edge.

But the crowning blow was the sentence remarking that the only thing the characters could see was a “giant pile of snow blocking the road thanks to the car’s headlights.”

Oh, dear. A host of teachers from my distant past, probably all now long dead, rose up in protest.

As written, the sentence indicated that the snow was blocking the road because of the car’s headlights. I genuinely laughed out loud (sadly) reading that fractured sentence, correcting it in my mind to, “The only thing they could see, thanks to the car’s headlights, was the giant pile of snow…” (I shall I forbear even to mention that a “giant pile of snow” would generally be referred to as a snowdrift.)

Just before writing this essay, I reread my review of that novel. It was, as the title to this post implies, savage. Then, with equal honesty, I examined my own writing in this essay.

Yep, far from perfect.

But I was saved from abject embarrassment by two facts: First, I am not writing for publication, but for my own pleasure; and, second, I am not asking anyone to PAY for what I’ve written.

So as long as authors continue with those two objectives, well, I’ll just continue to style myself  The Savage Reviewer.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “To Review or Not Review”,
which you may find in the archives on 12/13/2017.  You might also like the upcoming post, “Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them?”, to be published soon.)

To Review or Not Review

I do a great deal of light reading, preferring “cozy” mysteries – insubstantial stories, usually with a female sleuth or protagonist, often involving pets or animals, and in which the only people who die are generally characters I didn’t really like very well, anyway. It’s escapism, enjoyable escapism, and most of the time I find it much more entertaining than television.

For decades most of my novels were paperbacks bought at resale shops. When e-books were introduced I declared that I absolutely wouldn’t be taken in by the lure of them.  I liked the sensory experience of a book within my hands, the tactile sensations: the powdery touch of the paper, the colors in the cover art, even the papery smell of a “real” book.  But my daughter asked for a Kindle one Christmas, and it intrigued me.  Before long, I’d gotten one of my own.

And it absolutely drove me nuts. Not being to the tech generation born, it took me months to learn the right touch to swipe the pages across the screen without using a stylus. The first time I punched out to the dictionary I couldn’t figure out how the devil to get back to my page.  I lost my place so constantly that for awhile I bookmarked every single page (and quickly learned there was no easy way to remove all the bookmarks as a group, something which I’m still waiting for Amazon to fix.)

But slowly I became a devotee of the e-book format. Having figured out how to get back from the dictionary to my novel, I loved the ease of being able to look up an unknown word.  The ability to move straight from the pages of my novel out to the Net in order to look up a book’s unfamiliar reference (When was the Taj Mahal built?  Who was Hans Van Meergen?) was a gift.

But I began to think the best thing about buying e-books was the ability to either download sample pages and chapters or to read the reviews of those who’d already read a book. Buying paper books by authors with whom I was unfamiliar had always been a bit of gamble.  Glancing through some pages in the center of the book, choosing a book by the title…sometimes it worked well, other times, well, not so much. But samples and reviews  gave me a much clearer idea of how well I might enjoy a book.

E-book samples still sometimes misled me, though. I’d downloaded a number of first chapters, found them intriguing, ordered the book…only to find that, a chapter or two further in, my interest fizzled and died.  The story just hadn’t gone in the direction I’d expected or hoped, or the writer had been too inept to bring a promising idea to fruition.

But the reviews were a different story. I quickly learned to read both the best review, and the worst.  If the worst review mentioned the words “poorly written”, “badly edited”, or anything similar, then it was best to give even the most intriguing-sounding story a pass. Unfortunately, the ease of e-book publishing meant that there were a great many books with those damning review phrases.

In time, I began writing my own reviews. It was harder than I’d believed it would be, too.  I hadn’t anticipated feeling guilty when I wrote a less-than-stellar review.  How did I explain that there were no real faults with a book I just failed to enjoy?  How did I justify my criticism of an author who obviously had a great story idea, but a total inability to write?  What words could I use to express my disapproval of an author who wrote a witty story, but mocked a whole category of people while doing so?  And what on earth  to write when the author had added a begging note to the afterword of their novel, saying that they preferred that readers who had nothing good to say about their book just say nothing at all?!

Eventually I realized that an honest review might be just as important to a potential reader as were the reviews that had guided me. I praised books that I found well-written and plotted.  I was truthful when I reviewed a book that just had failed to catch my fancy, saying simply that, although it wasn’t my cup of Earl Grey, it might be perfect for another customer.  And I pilloried authors who either couldn’t spell or weren’t competent enough to challenge the spell checker, who couldn’t construct a complete sentence to save their own lives, who regarded punctuation as decoration for the page rather than a method of delineating stops and continuances, and whose understanding of grammar had failed sometime around the third grade.

I’m sure there are any numbers of authors out there who are consigning me to the lower levels of Dante’s hell for what I’ve said about the books that they had such fun writing. But there are almost certainly an equal number of writers who are thinking to themselves, “Hey, she liked my book!”