How To Write a Fiction Book Review

Before getting to the ‘how to’, a word about why you might want to review fiction! Here are some reasons:

  • to spread the word about books you love – it can be a way of saying ‘thank you’ to the author for a great read   
  • to hone your creative writing skills: a thorough analysis of others’ work improves our own
  • for some experience of the world of publishing and book publicity
  • to engage with communities of fellow literature lovers
  • to establish your competence in a genre or area
  • to promote the value of the arts (e.g., for their role in educating empathy, openness and cross-cultural understanding).

For me, the last of these points is really important. I’ve therefore reviewed a great deal of literature in translation for The European Literature Network, opera for Seen and Heard International and arts & culture topics for Talking Humanities and others.

So, what to consider when reviewing a work of fiction? Here are my top ten tips.

  1. Begin with a gripping line or paragraph which conveys your overall opinion. It could be phrased as (a) a statement or (b) a question. As an alternative, you could begin with (c) a quote from the book which encapsulates its themes. An example of each:
    • The title says it all: smoking kills – though in the case of this novel, the victim is not the smoker but those he kills (‘and not through passive smoking,’ he clarifies) in order to enjoy the pleasures of a cigarette. We’re firmly in humour noir territory: the book’s incisive, satirical take on modern-day life offers a succession of laugh-out-loud moments.[1]
    • What might drive a left-wing intellectual to espouse xenophobic views and defend the indefensible? How might the community around him react? How would you react if he were your father? In Autopsy of a Father, Pascale Kramer poses uncomfortable questions and tests your tolerance of disquiet.[2]
    • ‘“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.”’[3]
  2. Give us a reason why we should read the book / why it should spark our curiosity
    • E.g.: One of the most original novels I’ve read in a long time, The Core of the Sun is set in an alternative present – in the “Eusistocratic Republic of Finland”.[4]
  3. In your plot summary, tell us about the protagonist(s)’ approach to the key issue/conflict/mystery
    • E.g.: Caterina’s process of reconstruction involves acquiring that part of herself which she left to her twin. […] But as she learns to take care of their elderly mother, of Olivia’s son and of a young neighbour who has lost her little girl, she understands that it was too simple for her and others to rely on Olivia.[5]
  4. What questions does the story raise?
    • Does it interrogate and challenge any stereotypes? Or the opposite?
    • Does it prompt us to read relevant books?
    • An example of questions raised: Raimo leaves readers to judge: was there any love at all on his part, or only desire, fetishism, possession and the drive to dominate, self-justified with the word ‘love’? Can any of these ever coexist with love, or do they often taint it, but only to hardly perceptible and therefore unrecognised degrees?[6]
  5. Tell us how the book makes you feel   
    • What, if anything, will move us? Or amuse us, etc?
    • What causes that response? It could be an episode, or the language, or…
    • E.g.: It would be incorrect to infer too much neatness from the symmetries in the book’s structure. The subtle play of balance and counterbalance constantly engages the reader, while offering a reassuring framework to explore the chaos of complex issues with no easy answers.[7]
  6. What might this book add to readers’ lives?
    • E.g.: ‘A Whole Life’ attests to the enduring value of just this kind of ‘lightness’ – a lightness of touch which offsets the depth of Robert Seethaler’s themes, distilling them into thoughts and images that linger in the reader’s mind.[8]
  7. Select your quotes carefully
    • The ones you choose should illustrate your points
    • Try to find one or two that are representative of the book as a whole
    • E.g.: He possesses the ability to capture the joy of the earth warmed by the sun under his “night-damp feet”, the wood which “had stored the warmth of the last days of summer and smelled of dry moss and resin”, and the coolness of a flat rock on which he lies down.[9]
  8. Analyse the author’s (and the translator’s, if it’s a foreign work in English) treatment of the most relevant elements of writing, such as:
    • individuality of voice (style, language…)   
    • characterisation
    • sense of place
    • structure
    • E.g.:
      • The writing alternates wit and humour with darkness and melancholy, dramatic tension with aphorisms, the real with the surreal, poignant observation with optimism. The rhythm of the prose is thus pleasantly engaging, and the plot suspenseful – not least due to some ethically questionable choices on the protagonist’s part – but more compelling still is the development of the themes over the story’s arc. Antoine Laurain succeeds in creating a first-person narrator who is whimsically and yet realistically unaware of the full depth of his unhappiness until he has distanced himself from it.[10]
      • Authors of intimate stories that reflect the course of a country’s historical fortunes face a challenge: to create fictional protagonists we’ll care about without their writerly imagination being clipped by the magnitude and details of nationally significant events. Aareleid deftly overcomes that challenge, giving us believable human beings through the eyes of…[11]
  9. You can mention relevant novels or short stories by other writers   
    • E.g.: The themes may bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but it would be a disservice to both authors to insist on comparisons.[12]
  10. Ensure your review’s ending addresses your central idea  
    • E.g.: This is a book which challenges you to work hard and amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world we inhabit.[13]

Another, more general, tip? Read the work of top professional reviewers such as Claire Armitstead, Boyd Tonkin, Fiammetta Rocco and Rosie Goldsmith to keep learning from the best!  


References:

[1] Review of Antoine Laurain’s Smoking Kills for The European Literature Network: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-smoking-kills-by-antoine-laurain/

[2] Review of Pascale Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father in The Swiss Riveter magazine: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-autopsy-of-a-father-by-pascale-kramer/ 

[3] Review of Daniel Kehlman’s F, p. 65 of The German Riveter magazine: file:///C:/Users/mvwar/AppData/Local/Temp/GermanRiveter_FINAL_pages_with-covers_SMALL-1.pdf

[4] Review of Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun in The Nordic Riveter: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/ 

[5] Review of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s Bella Mia for The European Literature Network:  https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-bella-mia-by-donatella-di-pietrantonio/

[6] Review of Veronica Raimo’s The Girl at the Door for The European Literature Network: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-girl-at-the-door-by-veronica-raimo/

[7] Review of Di Pietrantonio’s Bella Mia, op. cit.

[8] Review of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life for The European Literature Network: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-a-whole-life-by-robert-seethaler/

[9] Ibidem

[10] Review of Antoine Lauraint’s The Portrait for the European Literature Network: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-portrait-by-antoine-laurain/

[11] Review of Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities in The Baltic Riveter: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-burning-cities-by-kai-aareleid/

[12] Review of Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, op. cit.

[13] Review of Raimo’s The Girl at the Door, op. cit.

Image Credits:

Assorted Titles by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Woman Using Laptop by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels

Other images: European Literature Network, Seen and Heard International, Talking Humanities, Italian Cultural Institute

Escape To Italy With Valeria Vescina’s ‘That Summer in Puglia’ — Sarah Scribbles

It’s been such a delight to be interviewed by Sarah Tinsley: really insightful questions about sense of place in fiction, plot structure, the benefits of framed narratives, the attributes of a vivid love story… and more!

See Sarah’s post below and visit her blog for some great interviews, reviews, writing tips and links to her creative-writing workshops!

I came across this book thanks to being a member of the brilliant Women Writer’s Network. In a state of gloom thanks to the clocks going back (toddlers can’t tell the difference) and impending lockdown, I decided to escape to Italy with Valeria Vescina’s book That Summer in Puglia. I’m so glad I did. I […]

Escape To Italy With Valeria Vescina’s ‘That Summer in Puglia’ — Sarah Scribbles

Can lightness be a virtue in heavy times?

Italian Cultural Institute London on Facebook

It has been a pleasure and an honour to share some reflections with friends of the Italian Cultural Institute, London. Faced with the heaviness of our times, I find it helpful to think of the lens offered by Italo Calvino’s concept of ‘lightness of thoughtfulness’, which has little in common with the habitual definition of lightness. Calvino is speaking of its value in literature, but, as invariably happens with the best of writing, it overcomes those boundaries and spills over into life by sparking trains of thought. Isn’t the written page, after all, a response to reality? So, here is the article for ICI London’s ‘Stay Safe’, a series which has brought the light of fellow authors’ questions and reflections to my days during the COVID-19 crisis. Mine is #46, so there are many more if you’d like to take a look.

Below is an image of the article. You can click here to read it on the website of the Italian Cultural Institute. The article features also in the anthology Stay Safe, an e-book published by the Institute and featuring 49 Italian and British writers, including Sandro Veronesi, Paolo Nelli, Hanif Kureishi and Boyd Tonkin.

Image credits:

From Italian Cultural Institute London Facebook page and website.

Contemporary German literature – a compendium

German Riveter

Where to go for advice on some great German reads? You can turn to the excellent New Books in German if you’re looking for new titles. And now there’s also an amazing compendium: The German Riveter. It covers fiction and poetry written since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, as well as literature from the Nazi period (Heinz Rein, Hans Fallada, Timur Vermes), poetry of the Holocaust, the ‘Krimi’, children’s books, memoir ‘snapshots’ of 1989 and English-language extracts of untranslated works. Click here for FREE access to the full text, illustrated by the great Axel Scheffler.

The German Riveter was produced by the European Literature Network with support from Arts Council England, the Goethe Institut, the German Embassy in London, the British Council, Frankfurt Book Fair and the British Library. It’s the seventh edition of The Riveter, previous ones having focused on writing from Poland, Russia, the Nordic countries, the Baltics, Switzerland and queer writing from Europe. The launch took place at the British Library: EuroLitNet founder Rosie Goldsmith interviewed authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili and their translators Karen Leeder, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin, all of whom read out in German and English from their work.

It was a privilege for me to be asked to review ‘F’, a novel by Daniel Kehlmann which I can highly recommend. You can find out why on pp. 64-65 of The German Riveter.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is a subject which began interesting me years before it occurred. The potential for it was the focus of my International Relations dissertation in 1986. I first visited East Berlin in 1984. I recall especially well the visit to the Pergamon Museum, not only thanks to its astonishing contents but also because of the conversation with a museum attendant who told me how lucky I was to be there one moment, and wherever else I might wish, the next. The subsequent year, while completing my degree at POLSIS, I was fortunate to be awarded a residency at the West German foreign ministry’s Research Institute for Political Studies; it enabled me to conduct field research into the potential for German reunification, including interviews with personalities across the political spectrum. So, for me the experience of seeing the Wall coming down in 1989 was charged with layers of emotion.

By mere coincidence, the Wall plays a large role in one of my favourite reads of 2019, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything: it is integral to the plot but also serves as a metaphor, as a recurring motif… This is a novel to treasure, the kind which rewards you with fresh discoveries as you return to it.

So, no shortage of suggestions here if you’re looking for some great books! Happy reading!

 

Review of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” for EurolitNet’s #RivetingReviews

Image of review of The Girl at the Door

The July 2019 edition of the European Literature Network‘s #Riveting Reviews is out today. My review is of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” (4th Estate). Bold stylistic choices give a sharp edge to this novel. This is unsettling, thought-provoking work.

The Girl at the Door is in tune with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, but Raimo began writing the novel years before its rise. The book is relevant also to other burning issues. It highlights the question of the failure to see clearly and to seek dialogue not only at a personal level but at a societal one, especially in the age of social media, when views of history and the present seem to polarise around extremes.

This is a book which challenges you to work hard and which amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world. Highly recommended.

Click here for free access to the full review.

 

A Skype visit to a book club – top 10 tips for authors and readers

Skype visit to book club (cropped)

Since the launch of That Summer in Puglia in March 2018, my events schedule has been somewhat intense (you’ll get a sense of it if you click on the Events page, here). However, until last week I had never had the experience of a Skype chat with a reading group.* With this post, I’d like to share what made it work, trusting it may be helpful to other authors and readers. Much of what I’ve learnt from the event I owe to my friend Alice and her fabulous book club colleagues, whose preparations were impressive. The group was warm, well organised, intellectually rigorous and wise – ‘visiting’ them was an absolute joy.

Around Alice’s table in Harvard, MA, sat 14 members of a 17-strong reading group (which makes it a relatively large one). I ‘sat’ at one end of the table… on a television screen: in actual fact, I was on the other side of the Atlantic, in the mountains to which I had escaped from London to write my second novel.

Book club in Harvard, MABook club in Harvard, MA - Skype conversation

Alice and I last saw each other twenty years ago, when we completed a Master’s degree together. This past autumn she read That Summer in Puglia and proposed it to her fellow book club members, who took up her suggestion. She contacted me after that, wondering whether I might be open to a Skype chat with the group. This was nearly two months before the eventual call; a few days before it, we tested the Skype connection. We also exchanged by email some questions about the novel.

Tip 1: contact the author a couple of months (or more) in advance. This will ensure: (1) a higher likelihood of finding a date convenient for the writer and for a large number of group members; and (2) ample time for all participants to have read the book

Tip 2: test the Skype connection and your equipment in good time. I discovered that I had to use a different computer from the one I normally carry, for better network reception and microphone quality

Tip 3: (for authors) if you’ve never done an ‘author visit via Skype’, starting with a group of which you know one member will ensure it doesn’t feel daunting in the least

Tip 4: exchanging questions in advance by email is helpful to the readers and the author. On the night, only some of these questions were expressly posed, as awareness of them meant they could be addressed in the flow of conversation, out of which spontaneous ones could (and did) then emerge. This made it possible to get rapidly into deep discussion.

There were some lovely surprises:

  • the call lasted an hour, but it felt much shorter. It was a real pleasure, and we covered a lot of ground
  • the technology and the human warmth, combined, made it feel as if we were all sitting in the same room
  • although participants were nearly 4,000 miles away, and the novel is set in Southern Italy, their understanding of, and engagement with, it erased that distance.

The group’s questions were insightful, their observations thoughtful and thought-provoking, ‘spilling’ from the world of the novel into the ones we inhabit. Someone asked whether the book could have had a setting other than Puglia, and the answer to that is, in many respects, no, but from another perspective, yes. In the story, Puglia provides the ‘framework’ which shapes and tests the protagonists; the region’s simultaneous bridging and clashing of contradictions – the result of its layers of history and cultures – are integral to the conflicts within and between my fictional characters. At the same time, those conflicts, those emotions, can and do arise at all longitudes and latitudes, though their specific triggers and expression may vary.

What other aspects made the event so pleasant and – dare I say it – meaningful for all of us? Here are some more pointers from the evening.

Tip 5: let all group members introduce themselves to the author at the outset. Putting names to faces, and in some cases mentioning something relevant about people’s backgrounds, helps establish a real, personal connection

Tip 6: to get the most out of the opportunity to discuss a book with its author, it’s well worth giving it attentive reading. It’s very much a case of ‘what you put in, you get out’ – insightful questions and observations are bound to elicit thoughtful responses: trust me, the author will be as genuinely intrigued as you are by the questions you pose

Tip 7: if cuisine plays an important role in the book, consider holding the discussion over a dinner which reflects it – it’s fun, immerses you further in the world of the novel, and makes the evening more memorable. Alice went to amazing lengths to cook or buy some of the Apulian dishes which appear in That Summer in Puglia. Another wonderful reading group I visited in London in October did the same (there, I could actually taste the orecchiette and the burrata).

In the novel, Puglia’s cuisine and wines feature for several reasons: they evoke vivid memories for the narrator; they connect characters and point to their evolution; they hint at truths the protagonists cannot face head-on; they are quiet carriers of centuries of embodied culture and history. For example, cartellate, the honey-dipped rosettes served in Puglia for Christmas, are identical to Crete’s xerotigana and to the diples of other parts of Greece, revealing the region’s Ancient Greek past; originally, they were offerings to the goddess Demeter, and, centuries later, to the Virgin Mary. These and other traces of Puglia’s multi-layered past are integral to the story, whose protagonist must ‘excavate’ layers of his personal history to be able to move on. (For more on the broader subject of why history in fiction matters, see here.)

Tip 8: arrange for the reading group to be assembled 15-30 minutes before the Skype call, so that everyone may be settled before you connect with the author. This ensures: (1) that all participants (the writer included) can relax and concentrate on the conversation; and (2) that the time available for asking questions is used to the fullest

Tip 9: continue the conversation among reading group members after the Skype call is over. What did you appreciate most about it? Which of the author’s answers or other participants’ comments added a fresh perspective of particular value to you?

Tip 10: thank each other by email the next day (if you can, provide feedback). The Harvard group sent me emails and photos overnight, expressing their enjoyment and warm appreciation of the event – and all their reasons why. I enjoyed and appreciated our encounter no less than they did, and wrote back to say so.

My first experience of a ‘Skype visit’ to a book club has been tremendous, and one I’ll gladly repeat. I hope this post will be helpful to you – whether you’re a fellow author or a reader – and encourage you to give the experience a try.

 

* I’m here using the expressions ‘reading group’ and ‘book club’ interchangeably, reflecting their common usage. Neither is to be confused with a ‘book sales club’. 

Image credits:

That Summer in Puglia cover photo: © Salvo d’Avila; all rights reserved; reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Book cover graphic design: Edwin Smet.

Skype Chat Call video calls. Reproduced under free licence from Pixabay.

Photos of book club evening: courtesy of Alice and Mary Ann.

Orecchiette al pomodoro: photo by P. Turo, retouched by Al Mare, in Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

Burrata di Andria: photo by FM433, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

 

The #SwissRiveter: Literature from Switzerland

Recently the European Literature Network published The Swiss Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction, poetry and memoir from Switzerland. It contains essays on Swiss literature’s richness and diversity, as well as reviews and extracts, including an exclusive English excerpt of Peter Stamm’s The Gentle Indifference of the World (to be published this year in Michael Hoffman’s translation) and an essay by Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton.

My review of Pascale Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017) appears on pp. 56-57. Kramer won the Grand Prix Suisse de Littérature in 2017 for her oeuvre. Autopsy of a Father is a powerful novel for our times: it tackles xenophobia, racism and nationalism. You can access the review here.

The European Literature Network promotes literature in translation. The Swiss Riveter was produced with support from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK, Arts Council England and ELit Literature House Europe. Sections of it are now available also in digital form here.

This is the fifth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The fourth covered the Baltics, the focus of the 2018 London Book Fair.

Image credits:

Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.

Women Writers Network Favourite Reads of 2018

It’s a pleasure to reblog, below, the Women Writers Network’s Favourite Reads of 2018. They’re recommendations of books authored by women, chosen by WWN founder members among the ones read in 2018. They’ve been collated and beautifully put together by our fellow network member Helen Taylor, author of “The Backstreets of Purgatory”. Thank you, Helen!

Helen M Taylor

For those of you who may not know, I’m part of the Women Writers Network. We are a group of volunteers who run a Twitter account dedicated to supporting and promoting women writers. It is a brilliant place to discover new writers or to be reminded of old favourites, to share blog posts, writing tips, and get support on those days when you might be flagging.

Here, some of our founder members give their recommendations of their books of the year. Unlike most end of year lists, the books didn’t have to have been published in 2018. It means that some old favourites or the new discoveries that may have been published several years ago can get a mention too. Here are our recommendations (in alphabetical order by contributor).

Gail Aldwin, poet, short fiction writer and novelist

Cover of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutI loved reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stroud this…

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NIAF review of That Summer in Puglia

 

NIAF Ambassador Magazine WINTER 2018 p. 64

A review of That Summer in Puglia has just been published in the Winter 2018 edition of Ambassador Magazine, NIAF’s beautiful semi-annual publication. Washington-based NIAF – the National Italian American Foundation – is a key resource for the Italian American Community. It aims to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Italian Americans, and to strengthen ties between the United States and Italy.

My thanks to NIAF and to Ambassador Magazine reviewer Kirsten Keppel for her fabulous piece on That Summer in Puglia.

Credits:

Article reproduced with kind permission of NIAF / Ambassador Magazine.