Monday, September 21, 2009

Reviewing books that just don't grab you...

I am fortunate enough to review crime and thriller fiction for a number of fantastic publications (newspapers, magazines, and websites) in several countries (see sidebar). It's a pretty cool gig - and it allows me to keep up with the recent and upcoming books and authors in the 'genre', discovering new voices as well as the latest instalments from old favourites. It's also been a door into meeting and interviewing some fascinating authors.

One of the toughest things, for me, in being a reviewer is how to deal with books that just don't stack up in some way. Should I only review books I like, and just not publish a review of ones I don't think are very good? How honest/blunt/harsh should I be in any criticism?

Personally, I dislike reviewers who seem to have a thick veneer of ego and pretentiousness in their reviews - where it is more about them, and what type of 'creative' scathing (what they probably consider 'clever') comments they can come up with to smash something - you see this in book reviews, film reviews, restaurant reviews etc. Where it's more about the reviewer, than what's being reviewed.

I do think reviewers play an important part in the overall 'worlds' of any of these things (in my case books, though I do occasionally review other things), in terms of informing the potential audience of what is out there, offering some comparative comment, and bringing to light quality that may otherwise be overlooked. So that's why I sometimes struggle with how to address books I feel fall a little short.

One of my recent reviews was posted by Karen Meek of Eurocrime today - it's a review of Chris Carter's debut THE CRUCIFIX KILLER, and this book provided me with some of those problems and challenges - there were some good things, but plenty that bothered me about the book as well.

Please read the review, and let me know what you think. Was I fair? Have you read the book - what do you think? Should reviewers only bother publishing reviews of the good books, the books they like? How scathing should a reviewer be of (what they see as) flaws?


  1. You've raised a very good question, Craig! As a reviewer, I've found that even if a book doesn't measure up, there is usually something positive one can say about the book. One can mention those things and still mention things that need work. I think there is a way to be honest without being scathing.

    As a writer, I want reviewers to do just that. I want them to say nice things, of course (I wouldn't be human, otherwise), but it's also important to hear what needs work. As long as the criticism is a) respectful; b) constructive (i.e. don't just say you hate the book; tell me specificaly what needs work); and c) not personal, I think most of us authors want to learn from it.

    As a reader of reviews, I want to read reviews that pan books just as much as I want to read raves. The reason is that I sometimes base my decision on whether to read a book on reviews. If there are no reviews of books the reviewer dislikes, the overall picture of books is skewed.

    One final note: the best reviews make a distinction between books that are not written well, and books that are not to the reviewer's taste.

    Just me sticking my nose in..... Cheers -

  2. I don't trust reviewers who have never published a negative review. I know it's not possible they enjoy everything they read so I know they're not being entirely truthful with readers, even if it is simply by omission, and find it difficult to trust what they do write. Perhaps I'm being unfair but that's how I see it. I find it odd that book reviewers as a group seem to grapple with this more than other reviewing categories (e.g. movie reviewers or technology reviewers - both categories which I also read/see a lot of). As long as it's done without spite and, as you say, without the so-called cleverness that says more about the reviewer than the book I'm happy for a less than glowing review to be written (although I'm a reader not a writer but surely a reviewer's audience is readers not writers). Your example is a good one - you've picked out the things that were good about Carter's book and you've said what wasn't - all without being personal or unnecessarily mean. The alternative presumably would be to leave out anything negative which would annoy me if I were to go on and read the book (I'd be thinking "that useless Craig, he never mentioned the clunky dialogue...I won't bother reading his reviews again"). As it is I might read the book anyway, knowing what I'm in for.

  3. Thanks for the comment Margot. That's the kind of balance I go for too - trying to say what is good about the book, as well as what needs work. And I try to distinguish between what is just not my style, and what is not good writing. I hope that I struck that balance with THE CRUCIFIX KILLER review

  4. thanks for the comment Bernadette - i think that's a good way to look at it and sum it up - "without being personal or unnecessarily mean". The reviewers I dislike are the ones who seem to be trying to 'score points' or get attention for themselves by being personal or unnecessarily mean. Someone smack me if any of my reviews ever read like that.

  5. Craig I think a reviewer has above everything else to be honest with the readership. I don't often write a negative review but when this does arise I try to give my reasons. This might come over as trying to score points but how else do you justify the tone of the review. You have to point out the faults in order to give the potential reader an idea of what to expect in a particular book.
    You did that very well in The Crucifix Killer review and got your message across without seeming too scathing.
    If a reviewer knows a lot about a particular subject, more than the author, surely he or she is justified in pointing out errors or anachronisms in the book. This may become a danger point where criticism of the book can slip over into personal comment about the author's lack of respect for his or her readers. On one occasion I got very close to this situation and the author was not happy.
    Perhaps this is why the mainstream media very rarely produce anything but bland reviews. Like Margot I want to read reviews that pan books that deserve to be panned, and praise books that deserve to be praised.

  6. Since I began blogging, 90 % of the books I have bought have been based on other bloggers´ reviews, and I am so pleased when my readers buy a book or add it to their list because I wrote a tempting review. So we ought to be as honest as possible.
    I think Margot puts it very well, and I certainly try to distinguish between really bad books and books I just don´t like for some reason. It seems that my readers are able to do the same as some of them actually want to try out books I wasn´t enthusiastic about :D

  7. I think everyone else has hit the nail on the head. Nobody is going to trust a review who never has anything negative to say. It's human nature to not like some books. But your review was perfectly balanced and got your point across. The most important thing a review must do is to not ever let it become a personal attack against the author. A review is always about the book and nothing more. As long as a reviewer sticks to how they felt about the book and provides support for why they didn't like it, they have every right to voice their opinion about a book. If a writer can't deal with negative reviews, they had better find a new profession because EVERY book gets them.