David J. Montgomery is a freelance book reviewer who has written for several of the nation’s largest newspapers. He also edits Mystery Ink and blogs at the Crime Fiction Dossier.
Deciding which book to review, or even which book to read next, is one of the hardest parts of a critic’s job. I receive somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 books every month. I try to read 12-15 and review 6 or 7.
On rare occasions, the selection is made for me, as when I’m reviewing something on assignment or writing a piece on someone and need to read their book first. Usually, though, the decision is up to me, and it’s a tough one to make. I want to read as many different types of books (all within the crime fiction genre) as I can, and don’t want to miss anything important, but I also want to be entertained.
The choice can be daunting, given the sheer numbers involved. Due to the constant inundation of books, I often feel overwhelmed with the possibilities. (I have read that many shoppers feel the same way when walking into bookstores. I sympathize.) Forget reading for pleasure; I’m just trying to make a small dent in the huge stacks that line the walls of my office.
On a good day, the choice is obvious. If a new book by someone whose work I love (like Laura Lippman, Barry Eisler or Robert Ferrigno, for example) comes in, I will usually read it as soon as I can. I’m not very good at delaying gratification. (Christmas mornings were always a bitch for me.)
Most of the time, though, it’s harder than that.
On the shelves next to my desk, I currently have 55 advanced copies of books that aren’t out yet, and another 30 finished books that have just come out. And those are just the ones that passed my initial sort. Other shelves are filled with hundreds more that didn’t make the cut, just from the last few months.
When I receive books, usually a few packages a day, I immediately sort them into two categories: “might read” and “won’t read.” And, yes, I realize that this is the scariest part for authors – basically, your book has one chance to make the cut and, after that, probably won’t be considered again. I know it sounds harsh, but, considering the huge volume of submissions I receive, there’s really no way around it.
Even once a book makes it into the “might read” piles, its fate is hardly guaranteed. A lot of them never make it off the shelf to actually be read. I try my best to read as many as I can, but things like my day job, my half-finished novel and my beautiful wife keep getting in the way.
So how do I make the decision?
I try to read new writers whenever possible, especially debut novels. There’s nothing as exciting as discovering a fresh new voice, so I’m always on the hunt. I’m also drawn to books that seem to be trying something new or different.
So many of the books that get published are simply variations on a theme (alcoholic PI battles his demons while doggedly solving a case; idealistic young lawyer takes on the system to prove his client’s innocence; etc.). If an author is trying to do something fresh, I like to give them a chance.
I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the mystery community over the past few years, including reviewers, writers, publicists, bloggers and fans, and I get recommendations from them. A lot of what I read is influenced by what they say. After all, there’s no better endorsement than the word of someone whose opinion you trust. (This is something I can’t stress enough to new or aspiring mystery writers: word of mouth is crucial in this business.)
Similarly, if I’ve heard an author give a talk or participate on a panel, or even just spoke with them at a conference, I’ll try to read their book when I get a copy. (Assuming, of course, that they made a favorable impression, which is why you don’t want to get too drunk at conventions.)
As much as anything else, I think, it depends on mood. What kind of book do I feel like reading? Thriller or mystery? Detective or assassin? Funny or serious? Domestic or international? The great thing about the crime fiction genre is that it encompasses such a wide and rich variety of stories, so there really is something for everyone.
Making the selection is hardly a scientific process, or even a particularly structured one. Ultimately, it comes down to what catches my eye. Maybe I’ve already heard good things about the author or the book. Maybe it’s the summary of the plot, or the setting. Maybe it’s an interesting description of the protagonist, or a blurb from someone I respect. Hell, maybe it’s a cool title or interesting book design.
The nice thing about books is, if you don’t like the one you’re reading, there’s always a dozen more waiting in the wings. Remember Montgomery’s First Law: Life is too short to read bad books!