Monday, May 27, 2013

To Review or Not?

by Marlyn Beebe.

I've often been asked what I look for when I review a mystery. At first, I thought there was no way for me to do that, because my decision depends on how I feel about a book.

But let me try to take you through my process and see what happens.

When I receive a book (from a publisher/author/PR firm), the first thing I do is decide whether I want to read it. If it’s a mystery, chances are good that I will. Of course it’s important that the book be well-written: if the book is filled with grammatical errors, I’m probably not going to get past the first chapter.

Another thing that turns me off is a large number of characters, especially if they are similar. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express each have a dozen or more passengers who figure in the story, but their names and occupations vary enough that there’s minimal confusion.
If a story requires a large number of characters that could be mixed up, a cast list at the beginning or end of the book helps a lot. I have not reviewed (and sometimes not even finished) books in which I couldn’t keep track of who was whom.

Too much technical detail is another problem. I’m a librarian, and if I don’t know something, I know how to find out about it. But I’m not going to enjoy a book if I have to keep looking stuff up. Medical and legal mysteries that focus on a complex procedure rather than how they affect characters, relationships or plot don’t hold my attention.

Some reviewers love writing scathing reviews, and I must admit that constructing these can be sort of fun and cathartic. My thinking is that I’d rather not alienate those who provide me with the material I work with. People send me books because they believe I’m skilled at what I do, and that my opinions might be helpful, and I certainly don’t want them to stop because they’re afraid I’ll rip them to shreds.

At the same time, I’m not a sycophant. I do try to make my reviews positive, but if there’s a little thing that bothers me, I will mention it, along with the fact that it is just my opinion.

Because, in the end, a review is nothing more than one individual’s reaction.


  1. Marlyn, thanks for sharing your processs.

    As a writer, I know I sometimes have trouble simply reading for enjoyment because I'm aware of a dozen things that are at issue with craft. Do you have the same trouble as a reviewer?

  2. You're welcome, Peg.
    I sometimes do have trouble just reading for pleasure, but I'm bothered by grammatical errors and publisher errors (so tired of reading "grizzly" instead of "grisly" and "peddle" for "pedal") which may not be the same things that bother authors.

  3. Excellent post, Marlyn! Every one of your points are issues I flag for my fiction-writing clients. Too many characters cause confusion and often irritation,and too much technical detail stops the story in its tracks and just feels like a boring info dump! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    1. Thank you, Jodie. It's good to know I'm on the right track!

  4. Marlyn, this is such a timely and topical subject right now. I've been discussing reviews quite a bit with my guests on the radio. Seems there is no consensus at all. Thanks for your well done blog.
    Pam Stack

  5. Well, Marlyn, this is one writer and teacher who is also bothered by grammatical and publisher errors. Some glitches are allowable - to err is human, etc. - but when they accumulate they scream laziness, indifference, incompetence or contempt. Or some combination thereof.

    Writing an accurate, balanced review is hard. You have to give the reader a plot and character synopsis without giving anything away. You have to grade the book without puffling (I just made up the word) or deflating the author's ego. You have to have standards by which to judge the work.

    Perhaps reading and understanding Pope's Essay on Criticism should be a required starting point.

    Your point about the cast of characters is well taken, and writing primers talk about trimming them.

    Anyway, thanks very much for this post.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, David, and also for your thoughtful comments.


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