On online YA book reviews: “No puff pieces, mates’ raves or blurbs!”

Trevor Agnew is a Christchurch researcher and reviewer. He was awarded the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award in 2013 for outstanding service to children’s literature and literacy. He went in search of reviews of NZ young adult book reviews on the internet.

 

Nowadays, people happily tweet, post and blog about their favourite books. Many newspapers and magazines have their book reviews on the internet. Even New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa offers free access to its review archives.

I had wondered how young readers found their way to these reviews. Eirlys Hunter and her colleagues at New Zealand Books had obviously been wondering exactly the same thing. In October 2015, Eirlys made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Was I interested in being a researcher for Hooked on NZ Books?

Hooked on NZ Books would be (and now is) a New Zealand Books website all about books for YA (young adult) New Zealanders. Its features include a guide to the YA reviews in the New Zealand Books archive, as well as to other online reviews. My job would be to identify New Zealand books of interest to young New Zealanders and then to search the internet for any reviews they might have received, so that we could make a list of links.

Searching the internet for reviews was a steep learning curve for me. It became clear that our newspapers and magazines review only a limited number of YA books. It also became clear that, while major publishers may be retrenching, a number of small publishers and self-publishers were popping up across the nation. They certainly have an internet presence, but often their websites simply reprint their press releases. Then there are gushing websites, written by fans but lacking in any insight. Eirlys was aware of the problem: “You’ll have to make a judgement call about which reviews are worth noting”, she warned, adding firmly, “No puff pieces, mates’ raves or blurbs!”

After reading a few raves that seemed to have been written by either the writers’ mates or their stalkers, I decided to apply Henry Hitching’s rules for reviewers, “To reiterate the words of innumerable maths, teachers, ‘Show your working!'” If people couldn’t give a reason for their response to a book, it didn’t count as a review.

If you try searching “book reviews NZ”, the first site offered is New Zealand Booklovers, which is basically a book-listing and book-selling service. Second up is the New Zealand Herald’s archive with a year’s worth of reviews and book articles.

Then comes The Read, the Booksellers New Zealand blogsite, one of my favourite sites. It has good signed reviews – not blurbs – and an excellent coverage of local books, including children’s and YA titles, grouped by categories. There’s even list of upcoming books on Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Booksellers can be proud of what they have achieved.

RNZ itself is the next site, again a trove of archived reviews, discussions and readings.

New Zealand Books follows, the first site that has YA books as a separate group, as well as reviews by YA readers – good ones, probably inspired by the reviewing tips offered on the site. (And how could we not mention Hooked on NZ Books?)

Interestingly, while British and American newspapers classify their book reviews under the heading “Culture”, Australian and New Zealand papers prefer “Entertainment”, a revealing difference. Of the New Zealand newspapers, the Otago Daily Times is best, far out-stripping its rivals in both quality and quantity of reviews. Both the Stuff (Fairfax papers) and the New Zealand Herald websites have a good selection of YA reviews and author profiles in their electronic archives.

As you wade deeper, search results get messy, with hucksters’ sites offering to find “book reviews NZ” for you – but doing no such thing. Skimming past the chaff, there are still excellent sites to be found. For example, KidsBooksNZ is an interesting site with contributions by Maria Gill and Lorraine Orman, both excellent writers and reviewers.

Each individual book search becomes a challenge in its own right. A popular title – Brian Falkner’s 1917: Machines of War – is a good example of what the review quest can google up.

The first hit is one of the best New Zealand YA sites and certainly the most enthusiastic. Bob Docherty is passionate about books and about getting young people to read them. Bob’s Books Blog always gives a vivid readable summary and hammers home a novel’s positive points.  A useful feature is Bob’s “Tag Cloud”. This is a cluster of subject headings, ranging from “Action” to “World War 2″. Under H is included “High School”, “Horror”, “Horses” and “Humorous Stories”, so I try “Horses”. Sure enough, it reveals a string of reviews, including titles by Stacy Gregg, Soraya Nicholas and Susan Brocker

Next was Brian Falkner’s own site. Author’s sites generally offer only titles and blurbs. Fortunately, some – like Falkner’s – also offer links to reviews. This led me to Chris Wright’s review on Bookrapt (“After keenly anticipating this fourth book in the Kiwis at War series, I was not disappointed.”) Bookrapt is the Bay of Plenty Children’s Literature Association, which has a selection of useful reviews. It’s hard to search, but worth the trouble.

A site which appears several times is Goodreads, which I find unsatisfying, since it merely reprints the blurb, along with a few “community reviews”. Next are some booksellers’ sites, such as the Children’s Bookshop, and Wheelers, which don’t claim to be review sites, but are fine for checking details.

At last we reach Beattie’s Book Blog, the most respected New Zealand book blog, with wide-ranging perceptive comments by Graham Beattie, who is simply a national treasure.

Next is RNZ, with a podcast recording of John McIntyre’s review (neatly pairing 1917: Machines of War with David Hill’s Flight Path).

By now, the odds-and-sods sites are dominating. Some are responding legitimately to the title, such as bookshops, publishers and library catalogues, but why are such review-free websites as UNICEF, Loot and Battlenet Heroes popping up? It’s the internet’s way of telling you it’s time to search for another novel.

On the internet, change is swift. As I was writing this, word came that Barbara Murison had died. Her Around the Bookshops blogsite was always a pleasure to read. Soon afterwards came news of John McIntyre’s death. It was John who had suggested me for the Hooked on NZ Books task. Facing ill-health, John had retired from his spoken RNZ book reviews of young people’s books a month before his death. (Fortunately, his archived talks are still accessible as podcasts. Type “John McIntyre” into the search box).

A few weeks before his death, John had promised to contribute written reviews to the newest of the book-sites for the young, The Sapling which is a well-planned and executed operation by Sarah Forster and Jane Arthur to bring books, their creators and their young readers together. It deserves all our support.

Twelve of the Best:

In my search for New Zealand YA book reviews, I found that these sites do regular thoughtful reviewing:

The Read (Booksellers New Zealand blog)

Beattie’s Book Blog (Graham Beattie)

Bob’s Books Blog (Bob Docherty)

My Best Friends Are Books  (Zac Harding)

KidsBooksNZ (Maria Gill)

Goodreads (Lorraine Orman)

Otago Daily Times

Stuff

New Zealand Herald 

New Zealand Listener 

RNZ National

The Sapling

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