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Critics and Reviews and Reviewers

In today's  Telegraph, the review of Max Hastings' book on Churchill attracted me  enough to decide to buy it - despite the price - gulp.

Do many of us actually read reviews? Enough to take note and buy?

Are there reviewers  whose columns you favour?

And what of talented critics? Is there a GB Shaw in the reading world whose opinion is a work of art?- I mean apart from members of this site, of course!

Regards, P.

I read reviews, P, but I think they are mainly NZ reviewers of NZ books.  I seem to be reasonably aware of new NZ books, but my main source of information of other books is via this site.   I don't have favourite reviewers but do know one or two personally so always read those with interest.  (Though one of those, a member of my local historical society, has just died, so no more from him.)

I don't usually buy books, but keep an eye out for some in our library.  Usually non-fiction ones, though.  The fiction ones come to my attention somehow - via competitions like the Booker or in NZ Montana Book Awards or by being on display at the library or through our book club choices.  Or just because some books are well publicised and you just know about them somehow.  

Coincidentally I have just this last five minutes finished reading an article about a reissue of Martin Gilbert's The Second World War: A complete history.  The article in the NZ Listener is actually written by Martin Gilbert and is about Churchill and his strengths and weaknesses.  

Cheers, Caro.

I usually read the critic in The Independent (a national paper over here) and then get the books he hates!   I have learnt that his taste is totally opposite to mine!    Laughing

I read the Sunday Times reviews, or at least the ones that look remotely interesting. This is only really because my father-in-law gets the Sunday Times, and we're generally over there for Sunday Roast most weeks. The Sunday Times Books Section used to be much better, before it was swallowed by the 'Culture' section.

I sometimes read the Guardian reviews (which I think are also the Observer reviews) online, and occasionally the Independent too.

Radio 4's Front Row is also a useful source of leads as to which books I might find interesting.

I have been thinking about this recently. I'm thinking about subscribing to either The London Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement, and wondering if it's worth it. I would actually like to keep up with what's being published. Does anyone read either and have any thoughts? I get TLS emails and read those, but mostly the only reviews I read are in the Big Issue.  Embarassed In terms of newspapers, I think the Guardian's book features are often strong.

Critics wise I have much more definite opinion. Christopher Ricks and Geoffrey Hill I would say are the two best working today - The Force of Poetry is an amazing book. For me, my lecturers are a major source of reading recommendations. There are no compulsory lectures in the English course at Cambridge, either for students or lecturers, which makes things much more interesting.

I get both the TLS and the LRB every week. I find the LRB is, effectively, a political journal. TLS is politically conservative, but their content isnít as politically oriented as is the LRB. Generally, I prefer the TLS: in most issues, there are at least a few features one can sink oneís teeth into.

(And as for political matters, I prefer reading stuff by people on the other side of the fence. I would class my own politics as being broadly on the Left, but generally, when I read stuff by others on the Left, I find myself infuriated by certain things I find. At least when I read right-wing commentators, Iím not expected to agree with them!)

I tend not to read broadsheet reviews, since they rarely write about the books that interest me most; and when they do, their treatment often seems to me superficial. I still remember the days when I used eagerly to await the Observer every Sunday when their literary editor used to be Terence Kilmartin, and their literary section was full of interesting reviews and articles. There are still good literary journalists around (e.g. people like Nicholas Lezard, literary editor of the Guardian), but I donít know how much editorial freedom they enjoy: not a lot, Iíd guess.

I still like the Guardian Review section on Saturdays, which is largely about books and often has a thoughtful long article by a writer or critic in it. The Observer books section has got much smaller and less good than some years ago. TLS seldom reviews the sort of books which most interest me. I don't have particular critics whom I attend to, though Hilary Mantel is, I think, very perceptive and has a nice turn of phrase.  In fact, I'm not sure I often notice who writes them unless there is a particular angle - the Guardian often chooses a reviewer who has previously written on that subject.

One thing I notice about Nicholas Lezard's "paperback of the week" slot is that it is never a book by a woman - after noticing this I kept looking out for it to see if my assumption was correct, and I think I can remember only two in all the time I've been looking, which is probably a couple of years now. And one of those was a woman editor compiling a book about some very male subject like war.

I listen to Front Row and the similar programme on a Saturday evening, but all too often they review exactly the same books, films and dramas, which must mean that they leave a lot out.

I do make a note of fiction and non-fiction books I find interesting, and sometimes of ones that would make good presents for family members (not footballers' biographies!). When I feel my reading matter has got a bit limited I have often found reviews the best way to open it up a bit and introduce new authors I wouldn't have come across otherwise. And it has certainly led me into non-fiction I would not have discovered for myself, as given a choice I always opt for a good story. I really appreciate the debut fiction columns for spotting new voices. And the crime ones, though I seldom make a note of these and go blank when in a bookshop or library, so I don't have much knowledge of the crime writing scene and don't want to dip my toe in too far, as there are some subjects and treatments I really don't fancy.

What disappoints me most is that many reviews of fiction these days are a lengthy round-up of the plot followed by a paragraph - if that - of comment. I don't want to know what happened, I want to know how the author deals with their subject and characters, what the quality of their wordsmithing is. Please don't give a way the ending, or almost all of it. This seems lazy reviewing, to my mind.
Green Jay

Freyda wrote:
What disappoints me most is that many reviews of fiction these days are a lengthy round-up of the plot

I hate this too. I just read a review of a children's book which gives away just about the whole plot. Maybe that is because the reviewer assumes the reader is possiby going to  buy the book for a child, and not read it themselves, but even so. I don't know how any book these days can contain a major surprise in its set-up, or early plot twist, as so much is told before the reader gets to open it. The cover blurb always goes "When X finds out that Y is not really his father, he leaves his longed-for new job in a racehorse stud and takes off to search..." I know we have to have a hook to get us to decide to read it - and pay money too, in many cases, but I can barely imagine what it is to open a book without some detailed foreknowledge of the plot.

I wonder if in the past, when eager readers got books out of the fantastically successful circulating libraries, they knew all this or whether it was just "Mr Forster's latest", or the librarian said "You'll like this one", and more was left for them to genuinely discover?
Green Jay

Maybe reviewers should have spoiler alert like we do.

I know I worked out the plot ending for The Secret Scripture before I read the novel, just on the set-up that was described in all the reviews and comments I read about it beforehand, as I didn't get round to the book itself until well after it had finally won a first prize.

Thoughtful posts, thank you all. I have just glanced at the latest London Review that bears out your 'spilling all' remarks. All the 'best bits' are carefully picked out so that it is hardly worth buying the book - though I found the Lockebie investigation most interesting, I must admit - no need to buy the book after the detail given there.

Probably the radio/ Sky Arts reviewers have an idea of how to do it - I note that style is rarely mentioned anywhere. Content/plot and startling material seem to matter most - and much is taken from the blurb in short 'reviews.'  This is possibly a dead or at least dying art form - on the other hand,  there are occasionally some telling insights by readers on this site that put the paid ones to shame.

Regards, P.

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