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by Peta Jinnath Andersen

17 Jun 2010

Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review—whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.

Recently I wrote about the Internet killing professional book reviews, ending with my hope that pro reviews stick around. In my book (pun gleefully intended), the difference between a pro reviewer and a casual reviewer (“amateur” is unfair—how can you be an amateur at deciding if you like/love/hate a book?) is the amount of time spent thinking about the volume in question.

Casual reviewers read a book, write up a hundred words in the space of half an hour, and move on. Pro reviewers make notes, flag pages, talk to authors, find connections, and consider the bigger picture (how the book fits into a certain genre, if it makes any particular leaps or bounds etc.). Both kinds of review are valuable—few people have time to read a pro review every time they’re on the lookout for something new to read, and short, casual reviews are handy for readers trying to avoid spoilers.

But how does a book review work? What is it that makes a book review useful? Why care what reviewers think? Who cares what reviewers think?

by Peta Jinnath Andersen

15 Jun 2010

Book reviewing is big business—at least, it used to be. Publishers clamored to get their authors reviewed in big name papers (New York Times, anyone? Chicago Tribune?). Authors crowed over a spot in the now defunct Kirkus. Yet new book review blogs pop up every day, and several niche review sites, such as Bookslut and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have a large core of dedicated readers.

Book reviews have been around as long as, well, books. Back when Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians were first scratching out letters, people talked about what they’d read recently:

—Did you read Ahmose’s scribing of the Pharoah’s proclamation?
—Ugh, it’s so wordy! Mkhai’s is much better.

Until recent years, reading, and therefore reviewing, was limited to the upper and religious classes. Amongst these folk, books were the order of the day, dissected and discussed in minute detail. By the time the literary salons of the 17th century rolled around, book reviews had grown much more formal. Authors, critics, patrons, and other literary figures debated context, allegory, intent, and more, forming the basis of modern literary criticism. Some even published pamphlets, arguably the earliest printed form of book reviews. Others wrote responses in magazines. Not all of it was pretty.

by Vince Carducci

18 Mar 2010

I just finished Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, and I’d like to offer an alternative to PopMatters’ so-so review of it published not long after the book first came out. Writer Zachary Houle calls Chronic City “meandering and fairly plotless”, a narrative “bewildering as it is baffling”.

What some see as ‘meandering’ I see as representing the Situationist concept of derive (French, literally meaning ‘drift’), which Guy Debord defines as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”. It’s a conscious mode of attention attuned to both aesthetic and cultural detail, and it’s especially useful according to Debord in exploring urban environments of which New York, the setting of Chronic City, is obviously a quintessential example.

What’s more, Chronic City assuredly isn’t plotless—it has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s rising action, a dénouement, and a conclusion. Nor is it particularly bewildering or even baffling, at least not to me. The death of one character and the revelations regarding several others are in essence cathartic moments straight out of Aristotle’s Poetics, all the more so for their subjects being of high station (literally in the case of one ensconced in a space capsule above the planet’s surface).

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