Friday, June 22, 2007

The Bad Review

The joy of completing a book. The thrill of finding an agent, and then a publisher. The ecstasy of holding the ARC for your first novel.

The bad review.

This is how it happened for me, only the review wasn't bad, it was lukewarm (which is the only thing worse than bad), and it was for May Day, the first in my Murder-by-Month series. The review was from Kirkus, one of the big dogs, and here it is:

A small-town librarian and reporter adds sleuthing to her resume after finding a corpse amid the stacks.

Thirty-ish and unlucky in love, Mira James has moved from the Twin Cities to the small Minnesota town of Battle Lake. She snags two decent part-time jobs at the public library and the weekly newspaper, and a new lover to boot. The sex with archaeologist Jeff Wilson is terrific, and the relationship is blossoming when his murder brings it to a screeching halt. Worse, it's Mira who finds the body on the floor of the library. She can't resist probing, especially since her editor at the Recall wants a story about the crime. At first, Mira thinks Jeff's death was related to his archaeological work. The designation of a historical site could derail a local land-development plan. That theory hits a dead end, but Mira finds a clutch of likely suspects in Jeff's past. A pivotal figure in a murky romantic pentagon, he was the high school's star quarterback, involved with homecoming queen Kennie (now Battle Lake's mayor), teammate Gary (chief of police), classmate Karl (prominent banker) and coach Lartel (Mira's boss at the library). Mira digs up a closetful of dirty secrets, including sex parties, cross-dressing and blackmail, on her way to exposing the killer.

Lourey's debut has a likable heroine and a surfeit of sass...

I had to look up surfeit, and it basically means "a lot." So that's good. See the ellipses above, though? You'll see those in a lot of book reviews. That's where the author or his/her publicist took out words such as, "...but I'd sooner chew my own foot off than read another one of his books." So that's fun. The last line in mine actually said, "Lourey's debut has a likable heroine and a surfeit of sass, but the projected series needs to find its mystery footing."

When you take that last part out, though, it is no longer a bad review. It is a vague review, and the longer you are in the business, the more you're able to tell a vague, frankensteined review from a legitimately good review. In the meanwhile, let's consider the possible meaning of ellipses in other's reviews. Fun game! Below I replace the ellipses of reviews taken from the back of books by some of my favorite mystery authors with italicized thoughts on what might have been there. Notice how a few words can change an entire review.

Sue Grafton, F Is for Fugitive
San Francisco Chronicle Review:

"Exceptionally entertaining except for the part where Jim is unmasked as the killer, which was just dumb. An offbeat sense of humor and a feisty sense of justice."

Carl Hiaasen, Skin Tight
The New York Times Book Review

"This novel is Carl Hiaasen's latest dangerous weapon--Uzi satire in 9-millimeter bursts aimed at those classic baddies, vanity and greed. I wish I liked funny and terrifying bad guys because if I did, I'd like this book. No one has ever designed funnier, more terrifying bad guys."

Janet Evanovich, Hot Six
Dallas Morning News Review

"An appealing detective, a love interest, a little danger, and a lot of laughs would have been great, but instead she wrote this. I would have even settled for a classic screwball detective story."

William Kent Kruger, Purgatory Ridge
Publishers Weekly Review

"Krueger's page-turner opens with a bang yet left me constantly smelling hard boiled eggs as I read. The plot comes full circle as credibly flawed central characters find resolution and that smell of eggs becomes overwhelming. Krueger prolongs suspense to the very end."

Ok, done with my augmented reviewing. On a side note, I heart most anything written by the above four authors, and my recommendation of their writing is ellipses-free. So, fellow authors, let's show our underwear, metaphorically speaking, and no longer be ashamed of our bad (or lukewarm) reviews. They happen to even the best.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

This posting really hit home, Jess. Fortunately, I've only had a couple of lukewarm reviews, but I remember one specifically that was posted by an on-line reviewer that my agent worked wonders with for publicity purposes.

What it actually said: "Weaving the complicated strands of a mystery novel is no mean task, so although Ms. Jaffarian's work exudes humor, good characterization and good writing, it simply isn't enough. Other reviewers may praise her efforts – I can't – not yet. "

What my agent gleaned: "…Ms. Jaffarian's work exudes humor, good characterization and good writing…"

It's all in the wrist ...

Nina Wright said...

You know the old saw:
"All publicity is good publicity."

If we do anything with true and consistent conviction, especially anything creative and/or political, we're sure to alienate someone. Ask Mr. Lincoln.

Jess, I'll take a "surfeit of sass" over blandness any month of the year.

Joe Moore said...

Lynn and I have yet to get one of those “I’d rather perform my own root canal than read another one of their . . .” But we’ve had a few with comments that could go either way depending on your interpretation. Here’s one by Jack Quick on a website called The Bookbitch. That name could mean trouble from the get-go. The book is THE LAST SECRET.

“Well written, but reads almost like a movie script in process.”

I have no idea if that’s good or bad. Is he saying that TLS does not read like a novel or that it should be made into a movie? You decide.

Mark Combes said...

I got a review that said, "shows promise." I still don't know how to interprete that one. "Don't read this one, 'cause the next one will be better." Is that what it means?

Anyway, you put it out there and you hope someone likes it because in the end, we are all just storytellers trying to entertain. As Jimmy Buffett once said of himself, "I'm more court jester than poet laureate."

Mark Terry said...

My reviews have all been positive except the one in Kirkus for The Devil's Pitchfork, which, and I'm paraphrasing, more or less said: it's a good story, but it's too bad somebody else didn't write it.

Just to make y'all feel better, I have a friend who used to write reviews for Kirkus (otherwise known as the Mikey of the reviewing world: give it to Mikey, he hates everything). He said Kirkus pretty much has a policy of "love it or hate it" and he had actually had editors return his reviews saying, "either make it more positive or make it more negative. And we've already got too many positive reviews in the upcoming issue, so..."

Welcome to the politics of book reviewing, boys and girls.

jbstanley said...

Boy, I've got a really BAD review to print here - it'll make everyone else feel better. This is from a reviewer (just a regular reader) on amazon. She gave my book one star (everyone else gave it four or five) and said this:
This is the only book in this series I've read (thank heaven!), but I could not believe the author was serious with all her trite adjectives and cliches. Suits are "neatly tailored." People "peer intently" and "collapse in a heap." She is particularly found of well-worn similes: "Her heart thudded like a drum in her chest." "He gripped his pencil like a vice." "...thought that buzzed through her head like a fly caught between a window screen and the glass." And the most irritating of all, this book could have been subtitled "Antiques Author in Heat." I've never read a mystery that sounded so much like a bad romance novel. "He exuded a powerful aura of sexual intensity and electricity that seemed to surge through his hand." That was her second conquest -- the first "longed to kiss her full, pouty lips." Not bad for a writer "with thick legs." I laughed, but the sad part is I was predisposed to like a good mystery about antiques, but whatever plusses the plot had got buried in the horrible writing.

See? OUCH! When I read this woman's other reviews, they were ALL negative. She hates every book she reviews and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I hate that her review is posted for millions of people to see and I'd love to write and say, "Hey, where's YOUR book?" but we can't do immature things like that, can we? We're professionals. Still, it was pretty mean and I can't believe she dragged my thick legs into it...:)

Mark Combes said...


As philosophical as we'd liked to be about this writing gig - "Some are going to love my work; some aren't" - the mean ones still stings.

The worst review I got was from my mother. She said, "It was okay." You don't want to get just an "okay" from your mom....What saved me was that my dad loved it - and he doesn't toss out complements very often.

jbstanley said...


Your mom and my mom should get together for a bourbon sometime. The day my mom says I did something great I will need a fainting couch...


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Reading these posts reminds me of my first agent's reaction to "Too Big To Miss," my first Odelia Grey novel. She had already represented me for three years on 2 other general fiction novels and had not sold them though she claimed she loved them. Then she read "Too Big To Miss" and after much derogatory verbiage summed it up with: "No wants to read this crap."

Fortunately, my rhinoceros hided brain didn’t listen to her and the book went on to get published and is doing well. In September, a book called “How I Got Published” will be released by Writers Digest. It’s a collection of stories from authors about getting published. One chapter is called “No One Wants To Read This Crap.” Guess who wrote that chapter? :) (BTW, Keith Raffel is also featured in this book.)

Jess Lourey said...

Ha! You're all wonderful sports, and clearly mentally healthy in that you can laugh at the stuff you can't control. My favorite bad review was one Tess Gerritsen wrote about on her blog. I believe it was from Publishers Weekly, who wrote of her first mystery, "This will only appeal to readers who move their lips." She showed them, eh?

p.s. Sue Ann, I LOVE what your agent did with that review. It's magic.

Jess Lourey said...

I'm in that book too, Sue Ann! Fun. :)

Bill Cameron said...

So far, all my reviews (about five of them) have featured qualifiers, as if they were written by a Bond girl named Ms. Goodbutt. Can there be a Bond boy named Mr. Goodbutt? Sure, I declare it so.

Anyway, they're all included "but" statements, and all I can say is, "Well, um. . . Mommy? You said I was the handsomest boy in school!"

In the end, I'm just happy someone bothered to give it a read and print something about it.

For myself, I was much more alarmed by the reviewer (a fellow named Mr. Goodbutt) who thought Lost Dog was self-published. So I got a "good but" review, and I also got a "good for a self-published" review in one. Yay!

Julia Buckley said...

Wow. This makes me feel better. I did get a thumbs-up from Kirkus, but Publisher's Weekly is the bully on my playground. They referred to Madeline as my "awkward second novel." I almost fainted when I read that introductory line. "Awkward?" They also said it read like "a throwback to the 1950s" and I don't even know what that means.

Anyone want to go to the drive-in and listen to Buddy Holly?

Bill Cameron said...

I want to hop around in my socks.