Sunday, August 23, 2009

I read A LOT of book reviews. As a librarian, I burrow my way through Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly (I admit it) , VOYA, and, of course, the behemoth of online review sites, It doesn't take a "professional," though, to soon realize that a lot of reviews go light on criticism and have an agenda, either to sell books or to simply not offend an author/publisher/agent.

In this economy though, no one wants to spend money on a book that she will hate. As a public librarian, I don't have the budget to purchase marginal books, and as a mystery lover it infuriates me to spend my Borders Rewards on a book that I will soon send flying across the room. On Amazon, I pore over reviews, even tracking down reviewers who are five-star sluts to see if they are laudatory over everything from the new Scarpetta novel to the Footspa Footscrubber. Publisher's Weekly, which sells ads to publishers, will deliver a scathing review but conclude, "despite the lack of a coherent plot, likable characters, or pages that don't disintegrate on contact, fans will continue to clamor for more entries in this series." Huh?
So how can one interpret reviews and determine whether or not the book is truly for him?

Now, I have a confession. I write reviews. I don't consider myself a "real" reviewer (ie, one who gets paid), but I have reviewed books for online magazines, review sites, journals, and yes, Amazon. I have been made giddy at the sight of my blurb on a book flap (Mom was proud too).

There is nothing that brings dread to me more than having to review a book I absolutely hate. Now, I would prefer the Harriet Klausner method of not reviewing anything I dislike, but often the editor, website creator, PR representative, publisher, or the author specifically requests the review. Not a problem, normally. But there's nothing that creates traumatic flashbacks to English 101 than reading the first chapter of a book and realizing, "I'm going to hate this book." It may not even be poor writing, unrealistic characters, clunky dialogue. It might simply be the tone that ensures that finishing this book will be the waterboarding of reading.

Despite what some writers might think, I don't believe any reviewer enjoys writing a bad review (except maybe a few restaurant and theatre critics). I have nothing but respect for those who have the discipline and dedication to write an entire book, and I'm fully aware that giving a bad review is akin to telling new parents that their baby looks like Gollum.

However, having some sense of integrity and not wanting to mislead readers who do not want so spend up to $25 on a book that was reviewed as being "A fun, rollicking good read" but turns out to make the dialogue in a James Patterson book look elaborate (snap), I have managed to uncover - and only infrequently utilize, honest - euphemisms that are easily decipherable yet prevent the criticized from feeling as though their baby has been brutally assaulted.

For those wading through reviews wanting to get a better clue to see whether the book is for you, here are a few interpretations I've developed as a reviewer and a librarian who reads an insurmountable number of reviews:
"This is a character-driven novel" = The plot sucks.
"This is a plot-driven novel" = You'll hate the characters.
"The characters are quirky" = The characters are unrealistic and weird.
"The tone is dark" = The detective is an alcoholic and the body count will be high.
"The scientific details are complex" = Only PhD's need apply.
"The dialogue is lively" = The characters swear like they're in a Judd Apatow movie.
"The plot moves swiftly" = Who were the characters again?
"There's a strong romantic element" = The detective has the hots for the person he/she believes is a murderer.
"If you can suspend your disbelief" = The cat solves the murder.
"The mystery takes a backseat" = This was a mystery?
"The mystery isn't the focus" = You'll identify the murderer by the second chapter.
"There's a surprise ending" = The ending is improbable.
"The ending is shocking" = The author kills the love interest.
"The end is left open" = The author is making you buy the next book to learn if the love interest lives.
"Nice font" = I got nothing.

Now, of course, sometimes the reviewers really mean what they say. Honest.
Cindy Chow
Young Adult Librarian
Kaneohe Public Library


Vicki Delany said...

And sometimes it just seems as if the reviewer read a different book than you did! Thanks, Cindy, I'll take your list to the bookstore to help me interpret.

Leann Sweeney said...

Great blog, Cindy. And I especially liked your hints. There are little stock statements like this when you get a rejection letter, too. Like: Not for our list. That means: Didn't read this and not a chance a hell I ever will.

But I particularly liked what you said about knowing whether you will like a book right off the bat. A reader knows when they are in the hands of a competent narrator--and they know when they are not!

Thanks for this post,

Neil Plakcy said...

These are great suggestions to use the next time I have to review or blurb a book I don't like.

Thanks, Cindy!

twist said...

Aloha Cindy! Great blog. I am still laughing over "nice font."

Suzanne Adair said...

"Nice font." What a hoot, Cindy! My hat's off to book reviewers, who have to finish reading so many mediocre books. I also know quickly whether I'm going to like a book, but these past few years, I've quit trying to finish books I don't like.

Thanks for your favorable review of my third book, Camp Follower, at No Name Cafe last fall. Er, at least, I think it was favorable. :-)

Suzanne Adair

NL Gassert said...

I'm with Twist. I'm still laughing over "nice font." Thanks, Cindy. I needed a good laugh.

Today's word verification: ingedsms.

Ingedsm, noun. The bad feeling in the pit of your stomach after having spent $25 on a hardcover you hate.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Cindy, and your interpretations gave me a great laugh! I still remember the wonderful review you wrote for my debut novel, A REAL BASKET CASE, in 2007, and I'm happy to say that I didn't find any of your 'pat phrases' in that review. ;-)

cynthia said...

I didn't mention the other fun response, "I loved the cover." Followed by a long pause.

And thank you all for not writing the kiss-of-death comment, "Interesting blog."



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