Monday, March 4, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: To review or not, by Marlyn Beebe

by Marlyn Beebe
When Istoria Books Editor Libby Sternberg asked me if I could discuss what I look for when I review a mystery, I initially thought there was no way for me to do that, because my decision depends on how I feel about a book.

So, let me try to take you through my process and see what happens.
When I receive a book (from a publisher/author/PR firm), the first thing I do is decide whether I want to read it.  If it’s a mystery, chances are good that I will. 

Of course it’s important that the book be well-written: if the book is filled with grammatical errors, I’m probably not going to get past the first chapter. 

Another thing that turns me off is a large number of characters, especially if they are similar.  Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express each have a dozen or more passengers who figure in the story, but their names and occupations vary enough that there’s minimal confusion.  If a story requires a large number of characters that could be mixed up, a cast list at the beginning or end of the book helps a lot.  I have not reviewed (and sometimes not even finished) books in which I couldn’t keep track of who was whom.

Too much technical detail is another problem.  I’m a librarian, and if I don’t know something, I know how to find out about it.  But I’m not going to enjoy a book if I have to keep looking stuff up.  Medical and legal mysteries that focus on a complex procedure rather than how they affect characters, relationships or plot don’t hold my attention.

Some reviewers love writing scathing reviews, and I must admit that constructing these can be sort of fun and cathartic.  My thinking is that I’d rather not alienate those who provide me with the material I work with.  People send me books because they believe I’m skilled at what I do, and that my opinions might be helpful, and I certainly don’t want them to stop because they’re afraid I’ll rip them to shreds.

At the same time, I’m not a sycophant.  I do try to make my reviews positive, but if there’s a little thing that bothers me, I will mention it, along with the fact that it is just my opinion.

Because, in the end, a review is nothing more than one individual’s reaction.

My thanks to Libby and Istoria Books blog for having me as their guest.

Marlyn Beebe grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies.   Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California, with her husband, Tod.  She works part-time at multiple libraries, and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games.  Marlyn reviews books for VOYA magazine ( as well as Crime Fiction Collective ( and her own blog Stuff and Nonsense (


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Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past:

Coming up: Author Joyce Yarrow talks about favorite characters and favorite character types in mystery, and lawyer and novelist Leslie Budewitz talks about getting courtroom scenes right.

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