I recently received a great review for my novel The Remainders. It’s not just great because it’s a five-star review. It’s because it is beautifully written. It gives a thorough evaluation of the book, and it shows the reviewer’s skill as a writer. The reviewer is Michael Hartnett, author of The Blue Rat. His latest novel, Death Canal, comes out on February 17, 2022 and is now available for preorder.
About a quarter of the way through Matthew Arnold Stern’s penetrating and inspiring novel The Remainders, Dr. Oliver Glass explains how he is constantly confronted by past traumas, “I wished I didn’t remember so many things. Life would be easier if I didn’t.” The reconciliation with those memories for both Oliver and his son Dylan give this novel its gravity and provides the propulsive source of its intrigue.
Once Dylan is kicked out of the house of his mother and his stepdad (a Christian motivational speaker), he must find a way forward, sleeping in his car and working at the shrewdly named dollar store—the Buck & Awesome. Removed from his sheltered life of white privilege, Dylan encounters the kindness and support of immigrant community members Reza, Fatema, Magdalena, Quang, and Kishana. The novel is filled with earthy, gritty moments as Dylan must deal with physically and emotionally embarrassing experiences, those inherent in hitting rock bottom…the awkward groping toward personal self-awareness.
An extremely likable character, Dylan gives the reader an engaging and compelling first-person narrator, and Stern does a wonderful job of capturing the everyday rhythms of working-class life. Dylan’s experiences are juxtaposed in alternating chapters with those of his father Oliver, who seeks to find his own way through his work at his medical practice and his relationship with obstetrician Rachel and her two sons. Stern creates a lively dialectic between father and son (and their parallel experiences); both their present-day lives and their pasts reverberate with every decision they make. Dylan’s burgeoning romantic interest Pearl has her own set of secrets and issues that develop contrastingly rich layers of narrative.
Near the end of the novel, the sickly and wise Hannah tells Dylan, “When you are at the bottom, there’s no pretense, no mask.” The rawness of those emotions dovetailed with the clever plotting will lead to a dramatic and very satisfying climax. The Remainders manages to abound with ironies while remaining deeply faithful to the psychology and emotions of the characters. A trenchantly empathetic writer, Stern has filled this novel with rich, distinctive, and evocative life stories, ones that make a reader face his own hard truths and appreciate the encouraging journeys of growth revealed here.
Here are the reasons this is a well-written review.
1. It’s a verified purchase.
On Amazon, customers give more weight to reviews from those who bought the product. (You can post a review for a book the author gave you if you add, “A copy of the book was provided by the author.” This disclosure enables Amazon to post it.) While all reviews on Amazon help a book’s visibility, the reviews tagged “Verified purchase” are the ones potential readers look at more closely.
2. It shows he read the book.
Sometimes, you look at a review and wonder if the reviewer actually read the book. Some books get bombed with one-star and five-star reviews based on how reviewers feel about the author and subject, regardless of the quality of the content. You can tell in this review that Hartnett carefully read the book from cover to cover. He adds quotes from the book, describes the main characters in depth, and captures the nuances of the story. He does it all without giving away spoilers. (More on that later.) When you read this review, you know the reviewer understands the content, and his evaluation is sound.
3. He backs his evaluation with details in the story.
I’ve been through enough literature classes to know that we must back up our analysis with details in the story. Hartnett clearly has too because he brings the receipts with his evaluation of the book. He describes the alternating narrative paths with Dylan and Oliver and says, “Stern creates a lively dialectic between father and son…” He gives a quote from Hannah and describes the “rawness of those emotions.” This helps readers because they see what they can expect from the book and what type of emotional experience they can look forward to.
4. He describes the story without giving away spoilers.
A good review doesn’t recap the book in its entirety. It describes what the book is about and what the reviewer thought about it. That’s why you don’t have to give away spoilers. It’s sufficient to say, as Hartnett has, the book has a “dramatic and very satisfying climax.” It tells you the book has a great ending without telling you what it is. This entices you to buy the book and find out for yourself.
5. It ends with a summary.
We learn in Toastmasters that a speech has three parts: Say what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you just said. This review does the same thing. Hartnett’s final sentence summarizes what he thought of the book, “A trenchantly empathetic writer, Stern has filled this novel with rich, distinctive, and evocative life stories, ones that make a reader face his own hard truths and appreciate the encouraging journeys of growth revealed here.” It’s the type of statement authors like to put in their ads.
Hartnett’s review works well because the points he gives lead up to this summary. It holds together as great writing. He not only does a great job promoting my book, he promotes his own skill as an author. You can see this in the other reviews he posted.
Your reviews are gifts to the author and readers.
Honest, well-written reviews are valuable to customers. They may be the only way for them to know if a product or service is worth buying. When confronted with dozens of similar products and no way to examine most of them in person (and no easy way to return them if they’re unsatisfactory), those stars are the only clues a customer has to go by. I don’t buy any product or use a service without reading the reviews. (For example, I’ve been scouring Yelp the past few days to find the best Italian restaurant to take our son for his birthday.)
Reviews are beneficial to authors, and not just the five-star reviews. I got some three-star reviews with valuable feedback I’ve applied to recent books.
And one-star reviews? I believe that if you don’t have one-star reviews, you don’t have enough reviews. Your books aren’t for everybody. If you get bad reviews, don’t take them personally. Use what information makes sense. If there are serious story problems, excessive typos, or flat characters, use that feedback to improve your next book. Look at your cover, blurb, and marketing. Are you giving readers incorrect expectations or putting the book in the wrong genre? Every review helps.
Reviews close the connection between author and readers and open a connection with new readers. Your reviews are gifts. And when they are written as well as Michael Hartnett’s are, they are beautiful gifts for the author and readers—including those who read and enjoy the review itself.