The art of book reviewing

I’ve been reading on the job this week–not current fiction of my choice, alas, but dozens and dozens of book reviews.  Distilling a useful critique into a brief paragraph represents such an admirable skill set; I rarely tire of scanning those little gems.  Some phrases seem particularly useful for conveying literary merit.

Lengthy novels, for example, are frequently promoted as “a sweeping tale of…”  I like a good sweeper as much as the next reader but have learned to note who makes that assertion.  When a reviewer elects the description, it generally signifies an ambitious but ultimately satisfying scope.  The identical claim from a publisher may indicate that the writer’s reach has exceeded his/her grasp.

Some books “take you into the world of…”  This verbiage prompts me to examine the review more closely: is that setting/premise unique or revelatory–or just obscure?

When a review charitably observes that “the author does manage to….” I anticipate a “but” or “however” a few lines further down the page.

And then there’s “unrelentingly”, a term that bodes more favorably for comic book heroes than for novelists.  If I ever create a work of fiction, it will likely be deemed “a sweeping tale of unrelentingly inept literary ambition that takes you into the world of first-time publication (in which the author does manage to…”)

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