Friday, December 11, 2009


Last December Barbara of Scandinavian Crime Fiction was kind enough to give me an award for 'critical perspicacity'.
The definition of perspicacious is 'having a ready insight into and understanding of things'.
I wasn't sure I qualified then and a year later I am even less sure, but it did give me an opportunity to post about five vital ingredients and one pleasurable extra I would like to find in a crime fiction book.

1. A decent plot, and some interesting sub plots.
2. Entertainment and some humour amongst the horror of the crimes.
3. Memorable characters that I wanted to follow in future books.
4. To be educated and learn something.
5. To be made to think about society, and the world's problems.
6. Photographs of attractive female authors.

I would try in any review to point out whether or not the book in question meets those exacting standards. But there is also that quality of writing that makes a book a good read and draws the reader easily into the world the author has created. Some writers just have that ability, and some writers learn it over a period of time.

What makes a book a 'page turner' and therefore an enjoyable read, and what on the other hand makes a book seem forced, staged and unnatural and makes reading it hard work?
I have just started reading Black Out by John Lawton and the quality of the writing, the convincing dialogue and the evocative portrait of wartime London he creates are quite brilliant.

How should a book reviewer go about the task of reviewing a book:

A] Firstly read the book, because some reviewers apparently avoid this basic task, and just skim the book.

B] Give a brief plot summary without giving away to much to the reader.

I have read reviews [not by any of our gang on Friend Feed] that make it hardly worth while bothering to read the book. I have even read book covers and blurbs that tell you so much about the plot that reading the book is a bit of an anti-climax.

C] Say whether you liked reading the book or not.

Some people only review books they like, but I want to read critical reviews especially written by people whose opinions I value. A critical review is a public service to other readers and perhaps even to the book's author, who might take the criticism to heart and write a much better book next time round.

D] Give the reasons why you like, or dislike the book?

I like X's books because the publisher sends me free books, or I met X at Crime Fest and he or she treated me a steak dinner with three bottles of wine. That is at least an honest approach and possibly a bit of wishful thinking.
But I think that pointing out that the book has an inspirational character, such as Mr Geung in Colin Cotterill's books, or the wonderful humour in the books might be more convincing reasons for a potential reader.

Or for instance I dislike book Y because by inferring that the Gestapo are just like a normal police force, but with smarter leather coats, the author has created entirely the wrong atmosphere for a serious book.

E] I also like to include a quote from the book in order to give the reader a taste of the type of humour or style of narrative, but that can be tricky if the review is negative owing to copyright restrictions.

D] Give some information about the author especially if they are interesting, or look like Liza Marklund.

With struggling newspapers abandoning book reviews or relying on the five line synopsis, the blogosphere is filling the gap and providing people with the information and opinions they need to decide what to read.


Blogger Philip Amos said...

I think I am safe in saying, Norman, that what you say here is personally descriptive rather than generally prescriptive, but it would serve, mutatis mutandis, as a sound guide for any prospective reviewer, and it reflects truly the quality of your own reviews. I think this all the more so because there was some months back a discussion of reviewing crime fiction that took place on blogs passim, and much of that had me boggling. What you offer here is sound common sense that issues in sound, honest and helpful reviews, which is why I read 'em. Well done you.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I agree with you on five of your six points. Now it is up to you to guess which point we do not see eye to eye ;O

12:51 PM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Very good post, Norman, I shall try to remember your tips, especially the one about the Gestapo which I shall treasure.
I thought of you when I wrote my "J is for Jungstedt" post, in that I put up a picture of the author of which I felt sure you would approve ;-)

One piece of advice I'd give to people who write reviews on their blogs (i.e. are not edited) is to make sure the spellings (and ideally, grammar) are correct before posting. I often find myself put off by a review by the poor style in which it is written (does not apply to any of the Friend Feed reviewers of course, whose articles are of a uniformly high standard).

12:51 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Dorte, Maxine and Philip for your comments.
Dorte I won't have to rack my brain too much to decide which one of my six points does not meet the approval of the Viggo Mortensen fan club. ;o)

Philip, I think people try to overcomplicate everything today, and apart from Jo Nesbo plots I am in favour of simplicity. The recent UK PBR delivered by Alistair Darling in his usual deadpan style was complex but I and most people were able to deconstruct it to three words " we are broke".

Maxine, my excuse for my spelling mistakes and poor grammar is that the last time I sat an English exam was in 19**[ a few years before the Beatles] , and I sat History A level in 19**. My dental exams taken between 19** and 19** did not require good grammar, only facts and more facts to churned out on the exam paper.
These dates ** have been removed for security reasons and because they make me seem ancient.
Before I retired in 2003 I was on a course, when two young dentists were discussing with astonishment the fact that they had actually met a dentist who had worked in the 1970s, as if those years were practically the stone age.
I slunk off not wishing them to discover I had worked in the 1960s !

3:43 PM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

Excellent post Norman. I try to follow similar rules, with varying degrees of success depending on my mood, amount of sleep obtained recently and whether or not I am gruntled or disgruntled at the time of writing. They are certainly the kinds of things I look for when I am reading reviews and I agree that too much plot description is a big no-no.

5:04 PM  

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