Seven or so years ago, I followed a link shared by a fellow sweepstaker to a Canadian website that was offering a chance to win free books. In the process of filling out the entry form, I noticed the owner was looking for book reviewers. The deal sounded simple and pretty straightforward: Fill out an application, get selected, be put on a closed listserv and whenever the list owner/webmaster had books to be reviewed, she’d post a description of each in a message. The claiming process was first come, first served. Well that sounded good to me, so I signed on.
Little did I realize where that simple application would take me. The first book I agreed to review was sent via airmail from Australia. It must have set the author back at least forty bucks to get it to Chelsea Maine where we were living at the time. I read it and realized with a sinking feeling, that it was possibly the worst book I’d ever read. Talk about a baptism of fire. I stated composing my review with more than a little trepidation. The experience was stressful, but also incredibly valuable. In the course of writing it, I struggled to find positive things to point out, and there were a few. The author wasn’t terribly pleased with what I wrote, but it was honest and as fair as I could make it, given the poor quality of the book.
I changed as well. What began as a somewhat daunting sideline, not only became fun, but offered several unexpected bonuses. I’d been an avid reader all my life and had embarked upon my own writing career a few years earlier, so going through a fresh book was not only a quick experience, but one that let me disappear from reality for several hours at a time. One of the first ah-has encountered in the course of reviewing happened while I was reading a YA fantasy by Michelle Paver. I kept trying to focus on the sentence structure and rhythm, so I could comment on them in my review, but the darn book was so smooth and the plot so immersive, I’d catch myself 20 pages further along and realize I’d completely forgotten what I was attempting to do. That became one of my benchmarks for a really good book. I soon realized there were other such things that made a book stand out. Most were positive, but a few were red flags, sure signs the author had rushed the work, or was too thin-skinned to allow someone to give it a serious edit. There was another aspect to this new awareness. My own writing improved when I started seeing some of the positive and negative hallmarks appear in my own stuff. The realization that others were having similar problems, coupled with the desire to get stuff as polished as possible, made asking for feedback or being a more critical self-editor much easier. Perhaps the biggest realization, or at least the one easiest to spot and fix was what I started calling the Curse of Proximity, a fancy term for using the same word or phrase too close together on the page. Right behind it was the tendency to start sentences with the same word. I realized that I had somehow become as ‘As’ junkie when I opened a file on day and gasped at the number of sentences on the two page display that started with those two letters.
The reviewing/writing process started to resemble a slow motion tennis match. Insights from one would fly across a metaphysical net into the other court and so forth. Something else that was unexpected and very neat started happening. I found myself engaging in dialogue with authors after my reviews were posted. For the most part, they liked what I said. In a couple instances, we developed an online friendship that continues to this day. In addition to the satisfaction of pleasing authors, I found some literary gems that I never would have encountered had I not been a reviewer. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series is the biggest example. I reviewed the first one and really liked the characters and the Bangkok setting. That led to the opportunity to review a couple more in the series. The review process led me to Travis Thrasher’s books when I got to review the first one in his Solitary Tales series. I discovered what a gem Laurel Dewey’s Jane Perry mystery series is when I got to review a couple. Her blend of mystery, recovery and mysticism make for an unusual and very satisfying series of reads. The two mysteries by Lyn Osterkamp, featuring psychic grief counselor Cleo Sims are also books I never would have found if not for TCM Reviews.
Somewhere in the process, my wife Beth and I started reviewing kids and young adult books through a program called “5 for 5” offered to librarians in the Central Maine Library District. The premise is very simple: Pick out 5 books sent to the Maine State Library by publishers seeking reviews from librarians and competent volunteers, read them, write up a simple review that goes back to the publisher and keep the books. Since we started (and both of our daughters do it as well), we have probably added three hundred titles to the Hartland Library collection. Once again, the process has helped sharpen my skills as a writer. This particular program, however, has added another dimension to the process. Since many young adult fantasy/dystopian stories share a finite number of plot elements, I’m very sensitive to the HOW of arrangement in terms of them as opposed to looking for something completely different. Understanding how a particular author took ‘same ol’, same ol” and turned it into a fresh ‘wow’ is extremely helpful to my writer side.
Last year, after losing a battle with Amazon.com to post reviews on their website by authors who had paid a fee so Tami would promote their books, she realized too much time and energy were being expended to justify the return. She closed down the website. By the time she did so, I had racked up just over 150 published reviews. It wasn’t long before the old ‘when one door closes, another opens’ axiom came into play. Someone posted on the Maine library listserv (Melibs) that School Library Journal was looking for librarians interested in reviewing non-book items. I applied, used a few reviews from TCM.com as examples of my review work and was accepted. The new gig is just as much fun, but the challenges are different. I review one or two audio books or DVDs per month. The audio books came easily, but it took a couple tries before I got the hang of video reviews. Since these reviews are limited to 250 words, max., they sometimes pose a real challenge, but I’ve encountered a few gems already. Last week, I reviewed a terrific 16 minute video called The Boy Game: a look at bullying through the lens of masculine gender norms. I was completely floored at how good it was, so I posted a message to that effect on the Melibs. At least three libraries are already in the process of buying copies. That occasional opportunity to give something terrific, but not well known, a boost is perhaps the best and most rewarding aspect of reviewing from my perspective.
I never did win the book I signed up for way back when, but in hindsight, I won a heck of a lot more and will continue to do so as time goes on.