What Makes a Good Review?

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).

11 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Review?

  1. As some­one who does an occa­sional review, I really appre­ci­ate your post Susan. All very good points and hope­fully I’ll put them to good use next time I write a review. Thanks!

    Nook Con­test

  2. Thank you for the great infor­ma­tion on writ­ing a review. Have a great day and thanks again.

  3. Very good advice. It can be dif­fi­cult to read a review if it doesn’t include infor­ma­tion about the book.

    Nook Con­test

  4. Thanks so much for being my guest, Susan. For the record, my pet peeve are “book report” reviews, espe­cially the ones that give away half the plot, includ­ing crit­i­cal plot points. Noth­ing like hav­ing a reviewer “solve” the mys­tery for the readers!

    • Writ­ing reviews of mys­ter­ies is one of the more chal­leng­ing areas. Some review­ers get it just right and oth­ers seem to be writ­ing to their friends who have all read the same book in a book club.

      As always, thank you for invit­ing me to visit your site. I always enjoy writ­ing for your blog.

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