How To Review Books: Holly Without The Ivy

How To Review Books: Holly Without The Ivy

This is a short post by my standards, and it might seem kind of silly. It’s inspired by something Maggie Stiefvater said on Twitter the other day, but also the observation that there are some song lyrics that really don’t mean anything at all.

Disclaimer: it is TOTALLY not Christmas yet. It’s not even nearly Christmas until December 1st, and that’s still pushing it. NaNo happens first, man. But I’m a musician, so I’m in ensembles that are practicising for Christmas concerts, and one of them (the London Youth Folk Ensemble) has been working on a carol that particularly bugs me, although until I realised how silly it was, I actually kind of liked it. Therefore, I am going to talk about Christmas songs here. I’m sorry. It’s totally a metaphor though.

I don’t know if it’s a carol that’s as popular or even a thing in the US and the wide variety of other places from which my readers hail, but over here we’ve got this carol called The Holly and the Ivy. Let me tell you some facts about this song.

  • There are about ten gazillion tunes to it.
  • I know three of them and several harmonies.
  • One of these tunes works wonderfully as a round, or in canon. The others do not.
  • Whoever wrote it had a thing about holly.
  • Maybe they got attacked by poison ivy or something when they were a child and they’re scarred for life.
  • Trees are definitely equatable to childbirth. (I don’t think equatable is a word, but just go with it.)
  • It always has the same words.
  • This is a shame, because the words make no sense whatsoever.
  • They also really don’t rhyme. Like, at all. They try. They fail. It’s sometimes amusing to hear how choirs try and get around that.

What concerns me is the first two lines of the first verse.

“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full-grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.”

I get it. This is a wood, and it has both holly and ivy. And the holly is awesome. But what I really don’t understand is why, in order to make this point, we need to include the ivy at all. The song briefly mentions it and observes that the holly’s better (it wears the crown, so presumably the ivy is like a lowly servant or something. Maybe it’s actually the commander of the army. Maybe there’ll be a coup), and then moves on.

Are we just dissing it for the sake of it? Because the comparison is fairly meaningless. You go on to tell us about the holly’s various comparative points with the birth of Jesus which, again, is fairly nonsensical—but why did you have to mention the ivy?

This reminds me a lot of book reviews I’ve seen. Maggie Stiefvater had a great stream-of-consciousness Twitter thing about this the other day: negative comparisons between books to try and make one look better than the other.

We’re not talking about “If you liked Twilight, you’ll love…” (although there are reasons to dislike those, mainly because they’re usually comparisons chosen by TINY similarities and they actually don’t make a lot of sense either). It’s the whole, “This is better than Harry Potter” sort of thing.

It’s all the stuff that implies it’s better to be a fan of one book than another.

By all means, extol the virtue of a book. Tell me how it bears a lily-white blossom and a pretty damn intense prickle. Tell me how it has bark that’s basically poison and how those berries make it look like someone got murdered all over the leaves pages. TELL ME THIS STUFF.

And I’ll get to the end of your review and I’ll be like, “Yeah, man, this holly is awesome. Like, I can totally see where they’re going with that. It has a massively diverse range of strengths and could definitely be seen as a metaphor for the birth of Christ. Literary stuff like that rocks and I’ll go and buy it immediately. And put it all over my house. And give it to all my friends.”

But if you sit there and tell me that the holly’s better than the ivy, I’ll say, “Well, that’s just your opinion. I now feel the need to DEFEND the ivy. I’m going to become Team Ivy. We’ll have t-shirts and a web forum, and the media will write about our battles. You insulted it, so I’m going to take its side, because I like cheering on the underdog. You will not convert me!”

And if you briefly mention the ivy, and don’t explain why I should care about the two because as far as I’m concerned, their only similarity is that they’re in the same wood/bookstore, then I’m probably not going to bother with either of them. Evidently neither is remarkable enough to warrant a review on its own merits, and only has any significance because of its place in the larger BookWorld.*

Oh, and if you diss the ivy and it’s my favourite tree/book? That’s probably not going to encourage me to try the holly and see if I like it. In fact, I’m going to totally ignore it and your future reviews, because I don’t have any faith in your judgement in books. Plus, you just made me feel like I’m unworthy because of my love of ivy, since according to the great oracle, the holly is supreme.

And you know what? Making people feel bad about what they love is not cool, man. Not cool.

I love reading book reviews, so when you write them, by all means tell me what’s wonderful about it. Man, that prickle is SHARP! It’s like a freaking thorn! I am super cool with hearing what you loved about a book or a film.

But don’t, please, make meaningless negative comparisons to other literature, because it won’t encourage people to read the books or respect your opinion. And by people I mean me. And by not respecting your opinion I mean writing CHRISTMAS CAROL REVIEW in green and red crayon across any future reviews you write until you apologies and admit that the ivy’s pretty cool too in front of thousands of people.

Don’t be a Christmas Carol. They make zero sense and are super inconsistent with their melodies anyway.

Also, it’s November. Like, dude.

*Not the Jasper Fforde one. The general world of books. The book hierarchy. The bibliarchy.

15 thoughts on “How To Review Books: Holly Without The Ivy

  1. Musicians definitely get the short end of the stick when it comes to Christmas Carols. Practising them, like, months in advance sucks enough…BUT the actual music itself leaves a lot to be desired. Plus half the time, they’re wrong. Talking about snow and baby Jesus? I’m pretty sure it never snows in Israel. But I digress. ;)
    I totally agree with the my-fandom-is-better-then-your-fandom. I’m never going to say The Hunger Games fandom is better then Divergent. Or whatever. It seems ridiculous to compare books like that, since every book and every author are always different.

    1. Also, he was actually probably born in like September, so the whole “On Christmas day in the morn” thing is stupid. It’s only then because of Yule…!

      Ugh, tell me about it with the music. They’re so REPETITIVE. “While shepherds watched” is one of the worst because it goes on forever…

      1. I think that’s why so many of them have interesting harmonies and descants and twiddly bits. The people writing them got bored.

        Also, I am SO with you on that last line. In my house, Christmas starts on December 16th, and not a day sooner. Of course, that may have something to do with my brother’s birthday being the 15th…

  2. Excellent post, and I love how you took the metaphor (or whatever that was with the Holly and the Ivy) to such heights. I’m definitely guilty of this on occasion, but you make a good point. I shall try to stick to this in my book reviews.

  3. I agree. I think. Maybe.
    What if I’m reviewing a book and I didn’t think it was good? Do you think it would be OK to say “Hey, I thought ____ was good but this other part, ____ wasn’t so great and I’ve seen it done better in [insert book]. <strike No no I totally don't have a scheduled post that does just that

    1. I think negative reviews are fine if they’re not directly attacking the author or whatever and I’ve written a couple myself. But I think using comparisons to promote something by shaming something else isn’t on, and I think usually it’s unnecessary. An example of one narrative technique that’s done well elsewhere isn’t too grave a crime but do consider how necessary it is.

  4. I kind of followed you here from Chuck Wendig’s post about equality, and I know this is completely off topic, but I couldn’t think of another way to ask: Could you talk a little more about what you were saying about Loki being genderqueer and his costume in Thor 2?

    Sorry to bother you, but this basically combines three things I am interested in (gender, Marvel, and mythology) and I would love to hear what you had to say because it sounds fascinating.

  5. I kind of followed you here from Chuck Wendig’s post about equality, and I know this is completely off topic, but I couldn’t think of another way to ask: Could you talk a little more about what you were saying about Loki being genderqueer and his costume in Thor 2?

    Sorry to bother you, but this basically combines three things I am interested in (gender, Marvel, and mythology) and I would love to hear what you had to say because it sounds fascinating.

    1. I’ve been thinking about writing a post like that, actually! I’m really not an expert because I haven’t read the comics but straight after I get the chance to see Thor 2 again (I need to check a couple of things) I’m going to write that post. I’m studying gender in myth and history as part of an extended project I’m doing at the moment, so it’s also technically work.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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