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Getting It Right

A while back, I wrote about C. J. Box’s new book In Plain Sight. I liked the book a lot, though not quite as much as last year’s, Out of Range (which, by the way, made the list of The Year’s Best Crime Novels, which will be published in a few days). But even when Box isn’t quite at his best, he’s still one of the best. So I had a dilemma: should I star the review or not?

Such a decision is deceptively difficult. While it would be nice if there was some kind of objective formula to ensure that I get it “right,” obviously the entire enterprise of reviewing books is a subjective experience. Give two reviewers the same book and you’re likely to have two different opinions – sometimes as different as love and hate. Even the same reviewer can have a different reaction based on the weather outside or the amount of sleep he got last night. I always try to take these factors into account, but sometimes it’s hard to look at the book with a fresh eye. Even my alleged qualifications – the fact that I read a lot and have a strong sense of the genre – may be hindrances. Sometimes I’m afraid that I judge good books too harshly just because I read so many good books.

(I think this phenomemon is similar to wine tasting: wine tasters often give the highest marks not to wines that have the broadest appeal, but to those that have the boldest flavors and are therefore most memorable from a marathon of sipping.)

I really enjoyed In Plain Sight but I didn’t feel exhilarated, as I did with Out of Range. So it didn’t feel like a starred review. But was I holding Box to an unfair standard? Surely a writer can’t improve with every book. And In Plain Sight is still better than most of the competition.

The official Booklist selection policy declares: “A star indicates a work judged by a reviewer to be outstanding in its genre.” That means that we don’t hold a romance to the same standards as a literary novel, which makes sense. I’ve always interpreted that, in a way, as saying we judge a novelist against what he’s trying to do: if someone is trying to write a juicy page-turner, we don’t criticize them for not being Philip Roth. After all, we’re trying to get the right books to the right people, not demonstrate our highfalutin sense of literary worth.

But where the one sentence of official guidance falls short is in judging an author’s work against his previous work – especially when he works to a high standard – and, of course, in determining what makes a work outstanding in the first place.

At a long-ago meeting of our advisory board, one new member innocently asked the question, “How do you decide whether a book deserves a starred review?”

Another board member, a grizzled veteran, replied, “We could tell you, but we’d have to kill you.”

That’s very funny and speaks to the larger truth. Not to be glib, but a starred review is often just something you feel. Every reviewer has their own criteria, in a way, but for all of us I suspect a starred review indicates a book that we couldn’t wait to get back to – which, when you read as part of your job, happens less often than you might think – a book that we can recommend without reservation.

While writing my review I thought I would star In Plain Sight because it had many of the strengths that make Box’s other books so good. I thought that my quibbles weren’t big enough to be worth penalizing the author. But when I showed the review to Bill Ott, he helped me see the obvious truth: I hadn’t written a starred review.

It’s ironic, but it may work against Box once in a while that he’s so good. Each new book is judged against the highest standard – standards he’s set himself. But no matter how good In Plain Sight is, if I felt a tiny bit of letdown, I have to assume other readers may feel the same way. So, high praise but no star. He’s still batting four for six on starred reviews – which definitely makes him a first-round pick for any mystery fan’s fantasy team – and he’s batting a thousand on books you won’t regret reading.

(The subtext of all this, of course, is that while it’s nice to have a convenient way to call out books we want to make sure you don’t miss, there are plenty of worthwhile reads that don’t get stars. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Anyway, here’s an early look at the review. I sure hope I got it right.

Box, C. J. In Plain Sight. May 2006. 336p. Putnam, $24.95 (0-399-15360-8).

Keeping any series balanced between familiar and fresh is tricky. An excellent series is like a tightrope act. With the author pushing himself to daring new heights, we just know he’s bound to fall. In the sixth installment of Box’s Joe Pickett series, the Wyoming game warden is back home in Saddlestring, happy to be with his family, when he finds himself in the crosshairs of an ex-con intent on righting a perceived wrong (from Winterkill, 2003) and drawn into an epic family feud. Out of Range (2005) was so remarkable that asking Box to top it seems unfair. Indeed, though Joe is again tested, In Plain Sight lacks the intensity and inventiveness of the previous books. Box always works in an issue-here it’s the “curse of the third generation,” or inheritance troubles-and while it’s a nice update on the western gothic, it doesn’t have the same burning relevance as ecoterrorism or natural gas drilling. Even a family-in-jeopardy device feels slightly rote. But a high-wire artist can’t go up indefinitely, and even performing closer to the ground, Box puts on a hell of a show. –Keir Graff

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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