How to write a book review

Super appealing title for this book review: Marvellous, Numinous and Strange: The Pomegranate Gate by Ariel Kaplan

This review of The Pomegranate Gate is by Liz Bourke, who is indeed gifted at writing reviews. I didn’t realize “numinous” was a word that could specifically catch my attention, but it definitely is. This row of adjectives caught me at once. I’ve never heard of this book or this author, but I’m immediately interested.

This lush, vivid and atmospheric novel draws Guy Gavriel Kay to mind.Kaplan’s world, like Kay’s, treads narrowly along the line between historical fantasy and fantastical imagination. For both, the history is recognisably ours, with the names lightly altered (if at all). But unlike most of Kay’s work, Kaplan’s includes real magic and its great and terrible effects.

Really? Now I’m even more interested, though for me the world “terrible” pushes me away a bit. I’d be fine with great and non-terrible. But let’s see where this is going …

Naftaly Cresques will never be a good tailor, for all that he’s a tailor’s son. He dreams every night of strange cities, and when waking often sees things that aren’t there. With his father’s death, he falls heir to a book that’s been in his family for ten generations, one he must never lose and never read.

Very neat!

Toba Peres is a frail young woman. She can walk but running makes her fall; speak but shouting makes her throat close and stops her breath. She can write in multiple languages with both hands at once: one for Latin, one for Arabic. She wears an amulet to protect her, one that’s been in her grandmother’s family from time out of mind: a valuable thing with a great flawed sapphire at its heart.

I’m still on board. Now we get a bit about how the plot unfolds. Then Bourke continues:

Kaplan weaves the strands of the narrative deftly together, with the solution to one mystery unfolding into the outlines of the next, each fresh revelation tightening the noose of tension around the characters and drawing the reader onwards. But tension and peril is balanced with wonder: The Pomegranate Gate is suffused with a sense of the numinous, with the marvelous and the strange.Kaplan’s prose is lively, her imagery vivid and colourful. At times her register recalls that of fable or of poetry, but without sacrificing its readable accessibility. Even her minor characters come across as real, interesting people, and the main characters are compelling indeed.

I’m leaving out anything about the plot because plot summary by itself is seldom compelling — though Bourke does this part well. The key words in this review for me: marvelous, numinous, wonder, vivid, ‘register of fable or poetry,’ compelling. The comments about the characters and plot appeal because those comments evoke a dreamlike and wonderful feel. The setting draws upon the Jewish experience of medieval Iberia, says Bourke, and that’s appealing as well.

Now, other reviews. This book was just released, so there are just a few reviews at Amazon, many more at Goodreads, where readers can leave reviews long before a book is released. Here are some words from three-star reviews at Goodreads: Slow. Slow beginning. Complicated. Lacked any sense of urgency. Feels like a prequel. I’m picking words and phrases to illustrate something we probably already know: that readers are individuals and what is a problem for one reader can be a plus for another reader. I’m not saying that really slow pacing always works for me. But, if you add good prose and a sense of the numinous, it probably will.

Let’s take a look at the beginning …

Oh, that’s a pretty table of contents! Artwork in the ToC, I’ve never seen that before, it’s very nice. There’s a map. And a poem. And a Dramatis Personae — look, with ebooks, please put that in the back; what with one thing and another we’re 30% into the sample before we hit chapter one. I do like the prettiness, but there’s no need to have the ToC take up that much space.

Here’s the beginning:

Naftaly was dreaming again, in that strange dream-landscape where the stars whirled overhead like snow on the wind and the people he met all had square-pupiled eyes.

They were all strangers to him, the square-eyed people he dreamed of — all save one: his father. In Naftaly’s dreams, is father’s eyes were odd, too, though waking they were wholly ordinary. Naftaly did not know if his own dreaming face had the square-pupiled eyes as well, never having come upon a mirror in his dreams, but he assumed so. He wondered how that looked, if it made him seem strange, or handsome, or hideous. No one ever remarked on it. His eyes, awake, were the same dark brown as his father’s, round-pupiled and not particularly interesting.

In this dream, he’d come across his father eating oranges while sitting on a bridge Naftaly did not recognize, spanning what he supposed was meant to be the Guadalraman. They sat on the wall together, watching a swath of people traveling from one side of the river to the other, across the bridge, which was lit at intervals with lights that seemed to burn without flame. It was a busy night, Naftly thought. Probably he was dreaming of the end of a market day, though the people had no goods. He thought his subconscious could have come up with more interesting details: bolts of cloth or jugs of oil, or perhaps some sweets.

I like the first sentence a lot. The next couple of paragraphs don’t stand out particularly. Nevertheless, given Liz Bourke’s review, I’m definitely interested. No idea when I’ll actually get to it! Maybe by that time it’ll be a trilogy!

If any of you have read it, which would mean you sure pounced on it fast, what did you think?

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6 thoughts on “How to write a book review”

  1. “He thought his subconscious could have come up with more interesting details: bolts of cloth or jugs of oil, or perhaps some sweets.”

    This sentence suddenly made the book even more appealing. I’m very interested in a guy who critiques his subconscious for skimping on the details in a dream!

    Adding this to my TBR list, which would be at the point of toppling over on me if it weren’t mostly electronic…

  2. I know! It reads like a Connie Willis short story, except she wouldn’t do anything as tasteless as Batman/Smaug

  3. I read this book recently, and this blog is one of my favorite sources of book recommendations, so I wanted to come back and leave a comment about it.

    Overall, I liked it a lot, but I do see where some of the negative comments are coming from.

    I didn’t think that the story was particularly slow-paced. What I noticed was that the first few chapters were faster, and then once the author got all the characters into their places, the story slowed down. Neither pace seemed unusual or bad to me, but I could see how the change might be disappointing for some readers. The pace picks up a little in the final chapters too.

    I think the comment that it feels like a prequel is because this isn’t a book where the main conflict gets resolved by the end. It has the kind of ending where I would usually expect to turn the page and see “Book 2” in the same volume. It’s clearly an intentional choice, but if I had realized that before starting the book, I would have waited to read it until the next book was at least available for pre-order.

    As far as good points go, I second everything in Bourke’s review. The prose is lovely, the world is fascinating, and the characters are compelling. I loved Naftaly and found Toba occasionally frustrating, but I could imagine someone else feeling the opposite.

    I did worry going in that the threat of the Inquisition might be so looming and oppressive that the book would be too dark for me, but it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t cozy, but it didn’t get too dark or bleak (for me). HOWEVER, there was one thing that happened near the end made me wonder if future books might be darker. This is mostly because the author is new to me – if a similar thing happened in, say, a Rachel Neumeier book, I would be pretty confident that the rest of the story would make things okay, but with an unfamiliar author, I’m a little bit worried that this might be the beginning of things taking a dark turn. So that’s another reason to wait for the series to finish before giving it a try!

  4. Thank you, Kate! It sounds VERY promising, but I do hope the author doesn’t take it in a darker and darker direction.

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