Here’s the thing. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately with the intention of reviewing them. Obviously knowing that you’re going to write about a book is going to influence the way you read it to some extent. It’s hard to avoid a little distance, the sense of a checklist (good characterisation, tick, realistic but unexpected plot turns, tick). You know you’re onto a winner when you lift your head from the book and realise you haven’t been paying attention to your checklist. That’s what makes reviewing a book you love so much harder than reviewing one you haven’t enjoyed so much.
So there you are, you sit down to write a review. You do a bit of plot summary, you talk about the characters, the style, the mesmerising parts, the shaky areas. But what you can’t talk about, not really, is the end. Spoilers are a no-no in reviews. I get that. It makes sense. If you know what happens in the end, it can colour your reading of the whole book.
But what if you need to talk about the ending? What if your opinion of the book hangs on the ending? There’s that thing, isn’t there, when someone is reading something you’ve already read and they ask you what you thought of it, and you want to say, ‘yeah, I loved it, but the ending was terrible,’ only you can’t because they haven’t finished it yet. I wonder if that’s why book clubs are so popular, because you know everyone you’re talking to has got to the end of the same book as you, so you don’t have to worry.
Many of the books I’ve read, and particularly those aimed at Young Adult readers would be fabulous reads if it were not for the ending. My pet hate is the series thing, when you approach the last pages of the book, expecting the whole thing to reach some kind of satisfying conclusion, only to end up with a cliff-hanger which won’t be picked up until the next book. Puh-lease! Have some respect for your readers, authors. OK, I get the need to tempt the reader into reading the next volume, but what I want at the end of a book is a sense that in some way the story which started on the first page has reached a conclusion, even if only partly, by the last page.
The other thing I expect from an ending – and this may sound like a contradiction – is a sense that the story goes on. For me, this is the one thing that makes a story seem true. At the end, even if the main character dies or the world is destroyed or the enemy defeated or the school year is over, there ought to be a sense that the world the author has created can exist beyond the story. We don’t need to be told any more, but it’s still there. Think of it like this: J K Rowling could have kept writing books about Hogwarts and all that forever. People would have bought them. There are plenty of stories she could have told. She stopped, but Hogwarts is so real in people’s minds that it doesn’t matter. It’s real now. It has a life beyond the books.
And I know there are people who will disagree with me, but what I expect from the ending of a children’s book or a YA book in particular is a sense of hope. (Adult books are different, but I still prefer ones that end with hope.) There’s a place for bleak in children’s fiction, but somewhere in it there needs to be something slightly uplifting. At the end of The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus is dead and Hazel is going to die, but Hazel is ready and she knows her parents are going to be OK. (Oops! But surely you’ve read it, or seen the movie …) You’ll rarely come across a sad book with a better ending than Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls. Read it, honestly. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and, at the end, you’ll get that sigh you get when something’s just perfectly right.
So what I’m wondering is when I review, should I mark a book down if the end doesn’t do it for me? But that’s not really fair, because I might have really enjoyed the rest of it and if I can't talk about the ending, the reader might think I had a problem with the whole book. Or should I ignore the ending, since I can’t actually talk about it, and mark the book based on the rest? Maybe I need a special ‘unsatisfying ending’ icon. Hmm. But that would give it away, wouldn’t it?