When I discovered that as a book reviewer I could request all the books I wanted, I knew I was going to be in trouble. At first I tried to read everything that looked interesting, but I’m learning to narrow in on a single category of books. Even within that genre (books written for and–typically–by Christian women), I’ve got more than enough reading material to keep me busy. After less than a year of reviewing books, I can see that the teacher was right to declare that “of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
In the cavalcade of books that are published every year, book reviews can help readers sort through which books are worth your time. Reviews are also important to publishers because they can increase the visibility of books sold online. Too often, though, reviews are full of unhelpful hyperbole that don’t give an accurate sense of what the book is about. Or maybe you hear the hype about a book on social media but can’t tell whether the book deserves to be this celebrated. These members of the “launch team” (usually, fans of the author who are offered free books in exchange for their willingness to hype a book and generate interest through social media posts) often agree to post about a book even before they’ve actually read it.
I’m glad that authors have so much support for their new books, but I want to write a different kind of review. I want to write reviews that will help readers discern which books are worth spending time and money on. I’m not writing my reviews to flatter the authors or to ensure that their books get sold. I write the kind of review I’m always looking for: specific, thoughtful reviews that give you a sense of what the book is about and how well the author covers the subject. I’m not beholden to any authors or any publishers, so I can feel free to write honest reviews, usually drawing attention to the best aspects of a book and subtly pointing out any limitations. (It is never my goal to dismantle a book or destroy an author.) Ultimately every book review boils down to one question: Did the book meet my expectations? So I thought it might help those who read my reviews if they know my expectations.
I mainly try to review books that are by Christian women or books that I think will appeal to Christian women. Here’s what I expect:
Originality. Specifically, a new or intriguing thesis or an approach that organizes ideas in a fresh but faithful to Scripture way. I want to read books that contribute something new to the conversation or open up a new conversation. Sometimes I actually appreciate when a new writer covers a familiar subject in order to bring old wisdom to a new audience. But for the most part, I appreciate reading books that illuminate what I had not noticed before. I expect the author to have something new to say.
Elegance. I don’t want the writing to draw attention to itself (prose that tries too hard turns me off instantly), but neither do I want prose that is simply functional and forgets the possibilities of good writing. The most beautiful books have authors with a sharp intellect that doesn’t waste words. I read enough to recognize cliche and fluff–both of which are signs the writer has little to say but wants to fill up space for reasons other than sharing ideas. In an excellent book, every word should feel necessary and cohesive. I expect the author to write well.
Necessity. Perhaps I’ve grown a bit cynical, but it seems that there are plenty of books published every year that slap a new cover on familiar advice or tread overly familiar territory. I’ve read too many books to find these very interesting, and I know I would be overly critical so I generally decline to review them. I get excited when I find a book that is addressing a significant problem or offers a helpful antidote to poor thinking that I’ve seen tossed around. I like to picture books on a continuum somewhere between necessity (someone needed to write this & we need to heed his/her wisdom!) and vanity (someone wanted to see her/his name on a book cover). Again, I prefer to highlight the books that seem necessary rather than to critique those that strike me as redundant.
Grace. God’s grace is so multifaceted and generous that I don’t think we will ever find an end of ways to talk about it. I want to read books whose ideas are rooted and grown in scripture and whose pages ring out with grace upon grace from those scriptures. I do not want a little scripture smudged on as an afterthought to make it look as if these ideas came from God’s word. I want ideas that grew slowly over time, enriched in the soil of God’s words and put into practice in the author’s own life. I hope to find personal examples from authors who have lived with the challenge of their own words. I expect the author to apply the wisdom of scripture to their subject in a way that gives me a fresh encounter with God’s grace.
The books I love the most exceed my expectations. They are as honest as they are artful, and they inspire me to worship God. I am always looking for beauty, both in the words themselves and in the subject matter. My friend Vanessa and I share similar book sensibilities, and we love to celebrate together books that don’t settle for mediocrity or pander to their audiences. I have a weakness for books that talk about art and theology or talk about theology in beautiful ways.
The books that disappoint me the most are those that were overhyped but underdeliver on my expectations. (If a book is really disappointing, I often will just not even write a review. I prefer to bring attention to deserving books rather than to tear down books I didn’t enjoy.) But most of the books I review simply lived up to my expectations: they offered sound biblical wisdom through personal compassion and offered specific applications of grace to address the topic they’ve promised to address. Sometimes I’ll offer a corrective or caution in my review, or even suggest other titles that cover this topic even better. I consider it an honor to get to read and review books, and I hope that my reviews are helpful to those who read them.