I Wanted To Like the Book But Didn't

Recently, I received a novel to review for a national newspaper. I was thrilled! The book in question was to be one of the 13 literary highlights of 2013, according to the National Post. It was also set in Montreal's Mile End, an area where I  lived for nine years--another reason to love the book. The young Montreal-based author had also written a beautiful collection of short stories that I enjoyed. It would seem that I had every reason to like the book.

But I could only read a few pages at a time before I put it down. It was spring, the March break, daylight savings time, a change in seasons...I had plenty of reasons to be tired. But that had never stopped me from reading before. I always have at least one book on the go.

No, I was convinced that I just needed a longer stretch of reading time so that I could really get into the book, enjoy it. But I kept putting it down, and when I didn't put it down I grew frustrated with the author's often circuitous way of getting to the point. I started to look more closely at my source of frustration--too many heavy adjectives, long sentences, metaphors that left me dumbfounded. The story had plenty of tragedy, but it didn't feel dramatic.

First and foremost, I'm a reader, and four years ago when I learned that publishers and online magazines would send me books to review on my blog for free, I was ecstatic. But before I agreed to read anything, I researched the books and authors for some assurance that I was going to like what I read. (After all, I wasn't getting paid for this.) It was a wonderful world. I could choose almost anything that sparked an interest, and my research almost always paid off. In the vast majority of cases, I liked the books and wrote positive reviews.

I quickly discovered that when I read a book for review, I read differently. I followed every narrative thread, reread parts I liked, and took notes when the story slowed. When I finished a book, I mentally went through the story. If any doubt or questions arose, I re-read the book to make sure that I hadn't missed anything. In other words, I am fully aware that every novel is someone's labour of love and try to give the writer every benefit of the doubt.

I know a second read sounds arduous and work intensive, but this is my idea of fun. The second read allows you to see how the book is put together and gives you a much greater appreciation of the craft behind it. I almost always like a book more my second time through.

Rereading this particular novel for review was a slog for a number of reasons. For starters, it was easy to get bogged down in all the details that didn't advance the plot. In addition, I wanted to like the story but didn't. Finally, in all honesty, writing a negative review is a lot more work. You have to continually examine what is confusing and frustrating. Then, of course, you have to read passages yet again to make sure you got it right.

In my second read, I underlined everything I liked and disliked, and although I ended up writing an equal number of positive and negative remarks in the margins, I didn't change my mind. A book has to be exceptional to come across as "good," especially to a reader who will only read it once. I came away with a few strengths I hadn't previously considered, but my original criticisms were confirmed.

As I was preparing to write the review two weeks ago, the media hype for the book began. Then I started to fret and swear a lot. Not only was I going to write my first highly critical review, I was going to do it in a national newspaper. To make matters worse, in the tiny enclave of  English-speaking writers in Montreal, there's only about two degrees of separation.

Fortunately, a fellow reviewer and writer urged me to be honest and give constructive criticism with proof to back up my opinions.

Well, I wrote it and submitted it two weeks ago. In the meantime, the Montreal Gazette, the Toronto Star and the National Post have all published favourable critiques. My review will be appearing soon. I promise to post it. After of course, I wash the eggs off the front of my house.

Other reviews

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Fanny & Romeo by Yves Pelletier and Pascal Girard
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
The World is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière
The Return by Dany Laferrière
5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis



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