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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, August 8, 2006 2:34 pm
The Review Remains the Same
Posted by: Keir Graff

Last night I finished reading Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, and just now I drafted my review. I’m trying to work quickly, because I never know when my four-month-old will wake up.

Bleeding Hearts is not the latest Inspector Rebus novel. Like Blood Hunt (2006) and Witch Hunt (2004), it’s a first U.S. edition of a book Rankin published in the U.K. in the 1990s, writing as Jack Harvey. The three aren’t as good as the Rebus novels, but they’re too good to keep hidden from U.S. audiences.

Because I reviewed Blood Hunt so recently, I had a strong sense of deja vu as I started my review of Bleeding Hearts: I was writing the same review. The plot and character names were different, of course, but my review’s framing device was the same and my summary was essentially the same.

I’ve only been at Booklist since 2001 and yet I have had this feeling a number of times. Usually it happens when I’m reviewing the latest book in a series. Most series authors publish a new installment every year, and while they invent new plots, of course, they don’t change the concept too radically. So inevitably I’m going to feel like I’m saying some of the same things.

It’s a challenge to stay original. And I can only imagine what it would be like if I’d been here for 20 years. (Bill Ott tells a funny story about this-maybe I can encourage him to post it in comments.)

On the other hand, it could be argued that keeping things original serves my ego more than the book and the reader. I may want to look like I have something unique and interesting to say every time out, but if an author’s books or series can still be placed in a similar context, saying something truly unique might mean I’d risk looking too hard for something original to say-let’s call it “reading too hard”-and finding something that is: a) a bit of a stretch, or b) not of interest to most readers. I love feeling as if I discovered something that will enhance readers’ understanding of a book, but that same impulse can turn a reviewer into an annoying know-it-all.

Also, some readers may not have read the previous reviews, or may be coming to an author or series for the first time with the most recent book, which means they need to know the big picture, not some small detail.

Still, there is something that gravels me when I read an old review and find I’ve said the same thing before. I guess the ideal approach is to use shorthand to place the novel in context while offering some new thought that makes the review seem like the latest entry in a developing conversation.

As I’ve said, it’s tough to do that when you’re a book reviewer (writing 175-word reviews) and not a book critic (800 words and, often, many many more). But-and I suspect I speak for many of my colleagues-I do take pride in being able to say a lot with 175 words. I have definitely read longer pieces elsewhere that didn’t add much to what our reviewers have said.

Uh-oh, he’s waking up.



8 Responses to “The Review Remains the Same”
  1. Brad Hooper Says:

    Hey, I’m your editor. Let’s be honest here. Sometimes it’s taken you 180 words to say a lot.

  2. Cindy Dobrez Says:

    We’re all going to want a blog space to add an extra 500 words to our 175 word limit at this rate-as long as it doesn’t come with a wakeful newborn! Sorry, Brad, but I was really hoping that the posted comment would be Bill’s funny story that Keir hinted at…

  3. Keir Says:

    Bill’s probably thinking, What story?

    (Admit it, Brad, those 180-word reviews are 2.857% better!)

  4. Brad Hooper Says:

    Indeed. (Sorry, Cindy, for intruding again!)

  5. Bill Says:

    I guess I’ve been outed. Before I tell my purportedly funny story, let me say that Keir really nails this issue. It’s a constantly perplexing one, especially with series titles: You have an overall reading of the series, a sense of where it fits, and you feel a need to restate that so that new readers will know where you’re coming from. But, damn, there’s only so many ways to say it.

    Which is the problem I ran into with James Lee Burke, whom I’ve been reviewing for years and like very much. At some point in the 90s, I reviewed a new Burke novel and felt quite good about my review, thinking I’d really said what needed to be said about Dave Robicheaux. Well, maybe I had, but I’d said exactly the same thing in my previous review of a Robicheaux. I was in a hurry, I guess-didn’t have Booklist Online to consult quickly-and didn’t check my old reviews before writing the new one. When I did, it was almost identical, right down to the lead, something about Robicheaux fighting a losing battle agaisnt the evils of modernity. In today’s world, some Plagiarism Nazi on the Web would have convicted me in 15 minutes of stealing from myself.

    But did I? I’d completely forgotten what I’d said the first time and simply said it again, proving either that I’m not very imaginative or that I was right in the beginning. Fortunately, I think those reviews predate Booklist Online-at least I couldn’t find two in a row with the same lead-and when we add older stuff, I’ll be sure to edit.

    And frankly, Cindy, I think Brad’s comment about Keir needing 180 words to say something really good was much funnier than this long-winded ramble.

  6. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Review Templates Says:

    [...] « The Review Remains the Same Unbound Galleys Revisited » [...]

  7. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Review Templates Says:

    [...] Something I’d meant to add yesterday was that, even though every book is different, the similarities in the way I frame some of the reviews can almost make it feel like I’ve unconsciously created templates for them. There’s the First-Novelist-Shows-Promise template and its twin, Promising-Novelist-Can’t-Deliver-in-Sophomore-Effort. There’s also Usually-Good-Novelist-Isn’t-Quite-So-Good-This-Time. Then there’s Great-Novelist-Is-Great-Once-Again-Making-Us-All-Feel-Somewhat-Inferior. [...]

  8. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » The Trouble with Short Stories Says:

    [...] At any rate, Swierczynski’s third book is great. I felt a bit as if I was rewriting my review of The Wheel Man, because both books share many of the same qualities. But, as I wrote in my last post, Swierczynski does up the ante with a more inventive plot this time around. [...]

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