What do you expect from a book review?

Important pre-post disclaimer: I am not The Great Decider, On Whose Review Hangs the Fate of Every Book, and I realize that.

I’ve been a blogger reviewer for Tiber River for a few years now and enjoy getting to read new titles as they come out. It’s an opportunity to read books I may not have heard about otherwise and to think about what audiences would best appreciate a given book.

How I put together a review

Here’s my basic approach.

I’m a pretty snobby reader. There are going to be a few books I absolutely love and think should be force-fed to everyone, perhaps while they’re waiting on oil changes at car dealerships.

Then there a lot of books that are well-written, enjoyable, but not necessarily my “thing.” With these, I try to ask “who would really like this book?” and craft my review accordingly.

On the rare occasion that I can’t really recommend a book, I…feel real bad and do nothing. I generally avoid this scenario by requesting review copies of books by authors I’m familiar with and can be fairly confident I’m going to enjoy.

Procrastination and the glass case of emotion

I'm living in a glass case of emotion

Right now, I’m so behind on book reviews that I imagine my picture on the bulletin boards of several publishers, with an “IF YOU SEE THIS PERSON, ASK FOR OUR REVIEW COPIES BACK” advisory. And it really has nothing to do with the caliber of the various books in the “to-review” basket. In fact, I’ve already read some of them – most notably, the works of both Hallie and Dan Lord – and am eager to recommend them. But this is what happens:

1. I read the book, or look at the author’s name and think, “hey! I sort of know this person on the Internet! This is going to be great! I’ll write the most thorough and insightful review of all time!”

2. I lapse into Project Amnesia, a condition which also explains why my kitchen window has a random piece of fabric clipped to it for a curtain and why my sons’ pants will never be patched at the knees. I completely forget that I want to write a review of said book.

3. I see the book again. Now, I imagine the author, fretfully clicking over to my site every few weeks, cursing the day that a copy went out to me in the mail when I so clearly don’t appreciate the time and effort—the blood, sweat, tears, and soul—that went into the writing of the book.

4. I feel bad. Real bad.

5. I decide I’m going to write an even better review and I absolutely cannot start on it until I have time to really peer into the heart of the work, transcending space and time to distill the work into its purest essence through my words which will then launch an avalanche of purchasing that will let the writer take early retirement.

Meanwhile, my other reviews are read by, on average, 15 people per annum, half of whom are Ukranian spambots.

6. I feel more bad – so bad that I deliberately squint so as to not see the Book Review Basket as I sprint past it on my way to the computer.

Do you read reviews? How do they affect your purchasing decisions?

So – here’s my question. What to do when it’s a book that I can’t recommend, for whatever reason?

To whom is my obligation, as a Two Bit Reviewer? Am I here to promote all of the great new works by Catholic writers and help them find audiences? Or am I writing reviews so that readers can make good decisions about what books to buy?

I saw this on Twitter the other day and I hadn’t really thought about taking this approach to reviews:

I’d like to know, if you’re out there:

  • what you hope for when you read a book review
  • how the review colors your own experience of the book (or other media)
  • how often you choose to buy a book based on a review

And I’d also like to know what you consider to be the ethical obligations of a reviewer, to get all high-and-mighty about it.

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  1. says

    I’m looking for a) a general idea of what the book is about — broad concepts or at least a decent sketch of the thesis, b) a few of the strengths and weaknesses of the book, with any attendant caveats, and c) a general statement about who (if anyone) should read the book.

    I don’t often buy books based on reviews; I will almost always put a book on my “too read” list if it’s recommended by someone I trust.

  2. says

    I expect the review to contain truth as reviewer sees it. The reviewer must speak the truth but always in love. When he or she doesn’t get the book him or her and humility requires reviewer to admit maybe the book is meant for others to enjoy. When I read a book and mark passages to quote in my review I often file these quotes in my blog Idea folder just as I do favorite scriptures. So I keep what impresses me after the book is passed along to someone else.

    • BettyDuffy says

      Hey Priestswife! (this comment is not related to reviewing)–I met your sister the other day, or rather awhile ago, but just found out she was your sister the other day. Small world!

      Anyway, on book reviewing:
      1. In a book review, I look for a brief synopsis, a few thematic notes, at least one sample of the writing style (so that I can tell if I’ll be able to spend time with that writer over several days), and then finally the reviewer’s opinion.
      2. The reviewer’s opinion matters to me enough that I will choose to buy a book based on it a.) if she is writing for the NYT Review of Books, or b) if I know her and trust her judgement.
      3. I almost never buy newly released books. Unless they are given to me, written by a friend, or are an established classic.

  3. says

    Almost all the books I buy these days I buy because I saw a review somewhere from a blogger I trust. So what kind of review makes me want to get a book? I like a review to give me an idea of what to expect. but not to give everything away. A summary is good or a few highlights, memorable moments. Pull quotes can be real magnets. I read an excerpt and think: I’ve got to get my hands on that book. Tell me what you liked about the book, what little detail caught your eye, what was it about the author’s voice or style that had you at hello? I think even if you don’t like a book because it’s not really your thing you can put in a good word for it if it made you think or you know someone out there will definitely like it. But I have a hard time writing about books I don’t like especially if the author is alive. I worry about them stumbling upon my review. But you know I actually tend to avoid getting review copies unless I’m pretty sure I’m going to like the book. I hate the pressure that a review copy creates. You describe the process of guilt quite accurately.

  4. says

    I’m a reviewer (the only one dedicated to book reviews) at Austin CNM, so I know where you’re coming from. I have only recently started to get review copies, though, so the existential angst is a new element. If I really hated a review copy, I would probably ask the publisher what to do. I didn’t like Flight of the Earls, but I tried to find some positive things to say about in. In the future, I hope to be far enough ahead of my deadline (every other Tuesday) to ask the publisher. I’m not opposed to declining to review if I didn’t like it, though. The publishers can see all my reviews, so they don’t have to give me a review copy if they don’t want to.

    Of course, I may have been doing it all totally wrong so far, so there’s that.