Today I welcome Susan Oleksiw, author of the Anita Ray series set in India. Susan first appeared in the mystery world in her Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988) and was known for years as a reviewer of mysteries. She talks about reviewing and what she looks for in a good review.
Some years ago while in graduate school I read a scathing review of a nonfiction book written by an academic for the general reading public, something to do with European history. The review left me feeling sorry for the author and hoping he’d be able to hold his head up during faculty meetings. A month later I read another review on a similar topic and only at the end did I realize the review was about the same book, but this reviewer liked the book. So began my education in reviewing.
Both reviewers made the same mistake, in my view. They put their opinions front and center, and discussed their feelings about the book ahead of every other consideration. Other than the little box giving the title, subtitle, author, and publication data, I wouldn’t have known what book they were talking about, nor that they were talking about the same one. I expect a lot more from a review, especially for anything I might consider buying, such as crime fiction. After reviewing for The Drood Review, where we had lots of freedom to construct our reviews as we wanted, Publishers Weekly, where we had no freedom, The Women’s Review of Books, whose requirements remained a mystery to me but whose staff were easy to work with, and a few others that wavered in their requirements, I ended up with a set of guidelines for myself.
First, it must be absolutely clear what the book is about, including all those political positions that are anathema to me but solid gold to others, presented in a way that doesn’t shout (or even whisper) my position to the reader. In a novel I want to know how the story moves and develops, not that the writer mixed up the exits on Highway 2 in Washington state.
Second, when I write the review, I don’t want to read sarcasm and meanness because the reviewer is trying not to show his or her opinion, or because the reviewer thinks he’s smarter than the writer. Even when I dislike a book, that writer is entitled to a fair presentation, and that means straightforward language and description.
Third, when it’s time for me to give my opinion, I try to step back and think about how I really feel about a book. Did it push some buttons in me and I’m reacting to those instead of the book itself? Is my reaction reasonable, or do I have a blind spot about certain topics? For some years every other book I reviewed seemed to be about child abuse, and as a former case worker in that field I found some of these books stressful because they called up children I had known and worked with, and others I found needlessly melodramatic and manipulative. I recognized these feelings in myself and learned to step back from them and evaluate the story (these were almost always mystery novels) apart from my personal reaction to it. This is not as easy as you might think, but I wanted to get it right.
Once in a while I’ve been given a book to review and known halfway through that this book should have been given to someone else. Everything about it is wrong for me, plus it has some problems all its own. In this case I focus on the aspects that are important to the success of a mystery—plot and structure, character development, and the like. The parts that would have me throwing the book across the room are my problem and I leave them out of the review.
Writing a book is work, whatever the genre, and I try to keep that in mind when I review. When I look at other reviews I expect the same standards. Is the reviewer able to remove himself or herself from the text and talk about the book? Is the evaluation even-handed? Is the reviewer caught up in minutiae to the exclusion of the larger themes and issues in the book? If there are problems are they presented in a balanced manner?
Reviewing is work and good reviewing takes time, but it’s worth it. I read a lot of mystery writers not only because I enjoy their work but also because I learn from them. Reviewing makes me read even more closely, and forces me to look for flaws but also for strengths. And it reminds me that the reader is looking for information well presented, and that’s a lesson for writing anything—fiction or nonfiction.
Susan Oleksiw is the author of two mystery series, The Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and the Anita Ray series. The second Anita Ray Mystery, The Wrath of Shiva, will be published by Five Star/Gale Cengage in June 2012. Susan’s reviews and essays on crime fiction have appeared in numerous publications, including The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999).