Last night I finished reading Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, and just now I drafted my review. I’m trying to work quickly, because I never know when my four-month-old will wake up.
Bleeding Hearts is not the latest Inspector Rebus novel. Like Blood Hunt (2006) and Witch Hunt (2004), it’s a first U.S. edition of a book Rankin published in the U.K. in the 1990s, writing as Jack Harvey. The three aren’t as good as the Rebus novels, but they’re too good to keep hidden from U.S. audiences.
Because I reviewed Blood Hunt so recently, I had a strong sense of deja vu as I started my review of Bleeding Hearts: I was writing the same review. The plot and character names were different, of course, but my review’s framing device was the same and my summary was essentially the same.
I’ve only been at Booklist since 2001 and yet I have had this feeling a number of times. Usually it happens when I’m reviewing the latest book in a series. Most series authors publish a new installment every year, and while they invent new plots, of course, they don’t change the concept too radically. So inevitably I’m going to feel like I’m saying some of the same things.
It’s a challenge to stay original. And I can only imagine what it would be like if I’d been here for 20 years. (Bill Ott tells a funny story about this-maybe I can encourage him to post it in comments.)
On the other hand, it could be argued that keeping things original serves my ego more than the book and the reader. I may want to look like I have something unique and interesting to say every time out, but if an author’s books or series can still be placed in a similar context, saying something truly unique might mean I’d risk looking too hard for something original to say-let’s call it “reading too hard”-and finding something that is: a) a bit of a stretch, or b) not of interest to most readers. I love feeling as if I discovered something that will enhance readers’ understanding of a book, but that same impulse can turn a reviewer into an annoying know-it-all.
Also, some readers may not have read the previous reviews, or may be coming to an author or series for the first time with the most recent book, which means they need to know the big picture, not some small detail.
Still, there is something that gravels me when I read an old review and find I’ve said the same thing before. I guess the ideal approach is to use shorthand to place the novel in context while offering some new thought that makes the review seem like the latest entry in a developing conversation.
As I’ve said, it’s tough to do that when you’re a book reviewer (writing 175-word reviews) and not a book critic (800 words and, often, many many more). But-and I suspect I speak for many of my colleagues-I do take pride in being able to say a lot with 175 words. I have definitely read longer pieces elsewhere that didn’t add much to what our reviewers have said.
Uh-oh, he’s waking up.