Plot summary or review?

I have been told by someone on Amazon* that my reviews are plot summaries, not reviews. Having read a few of my old reviews with this comment in mind, there is some merit in this view. Therefore, from this point on, I’ll try to make my reviews less like plot summaries and more like reviews.

Yet what makes a useful review? I define “useful” here as helping the reader to determine whether to read the book. I checked the reviews of the person who made this remark, and note that his reviews are largely opinion of various aspects of the book in question. To me, this means one learns more about the reviewer than the book – I find it hard to judge whether to read a book if “random reviewer” states a view on the writing quality, the plot, etc, rather than giving the reader some degree of objective information (which I do not think is found in the official “blurb” of the book, as in crime fiction these blurbs tend to summarise key, late plot points and so remove suspense and even in some cases any point in reading the book). The person who criticised my reviewing style has a far higher ranking as an Amazon reviewer than I do, though admittedly this ranking comes from other readers checking a box to indicate that the review was helpful.

Previously, in writing a review, I have:

– provided a taste of the story, usually the start of it, so as not to give anything significant away.
– highlighted any strengths, for example in the writing style; conveying of location, emotion and atmosphere; characterisation; distinctiveness (ie lack of formula); pace
– commented on the success of the plot in the context of crime novels in general
– said if I think the author has succeeded in what he/she has set out to do, if I think I know
– compared the book to the author’s previous work, if relevant
– provided a few links to other reviews and relevant information, for example specific background about the topic of the book.

Now, I’m not sure what to do. Presumably I need to reduce the amount of time spent on the first item in my list and spend a correspondingly greater time on the other points. Based on this person’s reviews, I also need to make mine much shorter.

*Amazon UK, my review of The Lewis Man by Peter May.

45 thoughts on “Plot summary or review?

  1. It’s really difficult to write a review that makes sense if you don’t give some idea of the story. But then also not to destroy the reading experience for others. I’ve probably taken the easy way out with the format I’ve recently adopted – the publisher’s blurb together with some comments called “my take”.
    I love your reviews as they are Maxine and often think “why can’t I write one like that?”.
    I try to give readers an idea of whether they will want to read the book or not. I often think about how little my “review” covers, which is why I also provide links to reviews that others have written.

  2. I wouldn’t change anything on the strength of one person’s opinion. The criticism presupposes there is one correct way to write a book review (ie his way), but I doubt this is so: different approaches probably suit different readers.

    If people show up regularly to read your reviews and opinions on crime fiction, and give you feedback suggesting that you have influenced their intention to either read or not read a book (as I know they do), then what you are doing is clearly valuable. His approval seems unnecessary.

  3. Hmm, it’s always tricky, and really reviewing does come down to a personal style. I tend to reveal a tiny amount of what the plot of the story is, maybe two or three sentences, before discussing the other aspects of the book that you have mentioned here. But I agree with you, ultimately your review of the book should make a potential reader want to read the book, or alternatively not want to read it. So essentially it should be saying not only if you liked it, but why you think so, and it’s this ‘why’ that I guess needs the more detailed analysis of the book.
    I also find length comes into it a lot. A review of 500 words is great – any less and there’s not enough detail often, but too much more and it can become boring to read, unless one is reading it for academic purposes.
    I figure just do what feels right and natural to you. 🙂

  4. Maxine I fully agree with Kerrie when she writes I love your reviews and ofteh thinks why can’t I wrtie one like that. Also that I often think how little I cover, and that’s the reason why I provide links to other reviews.

  5. I think your reviews are great just the way they are, Maxine. I don’t think you need to change them at all. I think they are a valuable crime-fiction resource.

    My ‘reviews’ are not really reviews at all. I write about a book when I feel stirred up enough to do so – usually because I’ve loved it and want to tell the world about it, or I’ve learnt something interesting through my reading. The only rules in my mind are John Updike’s ( and if I stick to them I do so only very loosely.

  6. A thoughtful post Maxine and I have to say you take (implied) criticism much better than I would. The comment was about your Amazon review and I’m not sure what their guidelines are. But in relation to yours and other bloggers’ posts I have to say every reviewer is different and that’s what I like. I’ve re-read your Lewis Man review and there is a fair amount of plot summary but also clear are your views on it – that you think the pace needs picking up etc.
    Don’t forget many of us are reading Peter May because of your initial review of ‘The Black House’. Given that your reviews have therefore sold books (and provided us with a good read) I doubt you’ll get anyone else complaining.

  7. Agree with everyone else. Remember you are a professional standard reviewer, whose work has appeared in the press. There’s no one acceptable review style or format. Don’t be overinfluenced by one opinion. I use amazon book reviews for different purposes than blog book reviews. I go to amazon AFTER reading a book, to see if my general opinion was shared by others, I go to the blogs to decide about purchasing or borrowing a book.

  8. Don’t change! You are very good at striking a balance between giving a clear indication of plot, characterisation and style, and not giving away so much information you spoil the experience for a potential reader. This is a particularly valuable approach on Amazon – much more useful than ‘opinion’, especially when the reader knows little of the person offering the opinion.

    Often, I don’t write reviews, rather reflections, but that is the purpose of my blog… and is one of many reasons why it doesn’t have the readership of Petrona!

  9. Absurd! Ridiculous! Your reviews are fine just the way they are. A reader finds out just enough about the plot to garner interest. And then you give your opinion about what the strengths are of the book — and the weaknesses, if you saw any. All of this is food for thought.
    You write some of the best reviews on the mystery blogosphere.
    I almost always know if I want to pursue getting the book or not, add it to my TBR list, try to find it at the library or go further in trying to obtain it.
    This blog, along with a few others, has caused my reading to expand globally and I appreciate it.

  10. I subscribe to your blog and love your reviews and rely on them to choose what books to read next without fail! I’ll just say don’t change, stick to your own style because it delivers and it’s not complicated to follow. Every book blog/review is different but it is good to get good/constructive feedback from other bloggers too.

  11. Maxine, I have never, EVER thought of you as a writer of plot summaries rather than reviews! Your reviews are first-class and I love reading them.

    How much to say about the plot is a question that I wrestled with when I first started my blog, and I probably say less about the plot than many other reviewers, as I like to know as little as possible about the storyline before I start reading. But this is very much a personal preference, and I’m sure that some visitors to my blog wish there were a bit more plot to whet their appetites. However, as Sarah and Laura rightly point out, there is no one review template, and the lovely thing about all the blogs that we regularly dip into is that each has their own individual style and approach, something that should be celebrated.

    While I think it’s good for all reviewers to reflect on the way they write now and then, try not to let this one comment dent your reviewing confidence. As they say in German, ‘weiter so’ – just keep doing what you’re already doing 🙂

  12. Maxine, I think everyone has their own style. I would guess that when we amateurs provide links to other more professional reviews Petrona is top of the list of those links.
    “If it ain’t broke don’t fixit”. We love your reviews as they are, but if you do make slight modifications I am sure the result will be just as good. 🙂

  13. Maxine – I think the essence of a strong review is a short summary of the plot without spoilers, so that the reader can determine what the story’s focus is, then a commentary on how successful the story is given what the author seemed to be trying to achieve. Along with that, a strong review includes a few comments on the author’s other work if it is relevant, links to other reviews, and – oh, wait. Why am I going on about this? All I need to do to describe an excellent review is guide people towards yours! You do top-notch, superb reviews, Maxine, and I agree with Kerrie that I would love to do a review as good as yours are. Seriously.

  14. Dear Maxine,
    I have been reading your blog for a while now, but I am not really the commenting on blog posts type. However, this is a good time to say how much I appreciate it. After reading one of your reviews I have never been in doubt about whether I want to read the book or not, so I agree with those who think they are great as they are. I also want to take the opportunity to thank you for alerting me to Peter May and the Lewis Trilogy. Within two minutes of reading your review of The Blackhouse I had the book on Kindle and read both it and The Lewis Man in one go over a weekend. I am avidly looking forward to the next book, and the Western Isles are high on my list of places to visit.

  15. Do NOT change a thing about your reviews! There is a vast difference between quality and quantity — I respect the former in your reviews. Who cares if someone is rated higher? We all do summaries to some extent before launching into what we think about a book; so do professional reviewers. I quit reviewing on Amazon a long time ago because of comments like the one you received that made me second guess myself. You should be yourself — which is what I like about reading your posts.

  16. Oh wow! I was offline this morning so have only just seen all these comments. Thank you so much, everyone, for your very kind words and support. I am encouraged 😉 Thanks again!

  17. I agree with everyone else — I think your reviews are smart and thorough and I wouldn’t change a thing!

    This discussion made me think about how I use/read different types of reviews. When I read book blogs I’m looking for longer reviews, with plot details. But when I go to Amazon, I tend to skip past the longer reviews and look for the pithier ones because I’m trying to get a sense of what a wide range of people think. I don’t necessarily trust Random User X’s judgment of whether the writing is good, but if five people on the first page say the writing is good I’m likely to believe them.

  18. To be honest I avoid your reviews occasionally – but only because I know how often they make me yearn for the book in question 🙂 Even when you criticize a thing or two, there is usually something to make me curious because you always remember to point out the strong sides as well.
    So of all the terrible temptations for crime readers, your blog is NUMBER ONE!

  19. Maxine: After 40 years as an adult reading book reviews you write reviews not summaries. I see no reason for you to change your approach. I think whether you adjust your reviews should not be influenced by a negative comment. If you feel there was some constructive criticism in the remark it is a different situation. You should not lose any sleep over the Amazon reviewer.

  20. I’ve come late to this discussion but obviously you’ve built a great brand as a reviewer, and so maybe you should think twice before changing your style? Anyway Maxine, I’d echo all the comments above about your professionalism and thoroughness.

  21. Maxine,I remember reading this comment on Amazon and raising my eyebrows.
    I have jusr re-read some reviews from my favourite reviewer –Laura Wilson.
    In her short reviews ,she always gives a brief idea of the plot (without giving
    too much away)–then makes her normally helpful comments. .I don’t see how
    a review can not mention what the book is about .(ie some idea of the plot).
    Having said this –each reviewer has their own style .On my Amazon reviews,
    for example, I try to avoid the word ‘I’ , I prefer to comment on the book –not
    on me. .
    As regards Amazon ‘helpful’ ratings. I think this favours short reviews-as many
    folk don’t seem to want to spend time reading a long detailed review.
    It is worth noting that the excellent writer and non-tabloid book reviewer,
    Amanda Craig,has not a particularly high % helpful rating on Amazon.This ,in
    my view says more about the folk rating than about the reviews.
    Far be in for me to comment on your helpful reviews—BUT –stick to
    your guns –.if that’s what you find authentic..

  22. I wouldn’t want you to change too because when you look back at a particular review you may recall what the book is all about (because you have included plot summaries) and that’s one of the main purpose why I blog about books. I think your reviews are just fine Maxine.

  23. Maxine, I concur with the previous comments you have received. The fact that so many have taken time to comment and tell you they buy books because of your reviews should tell you a lot. I have to admit that due to time constraints, I sometimes don’t read your reviews but I do log them in my memory as – over the years, and yes it is now that long – I have come to the opinion that if Maxine gives it a thumbs up, it must be a good one. I think I can also anticipate the type of novel you enjoy as we are on the same hymn sheet very many times.

    Like Simon Clarke, in general, I believe that people don’t read longer reviews in detail. I don’t think the attention span exists for this anymore due to the net, text and things like twitter. We seem to prefer our data short, sharp and with punch. I despair when I see rather long and not well written reviews eagerly RT’d on twitter and there is usually a reason:
    1. They have probably been skimmed for key words and phrases of the highly positive variety.
    2. The RTs come from mates.

    I was once stunned to observe a conversation on twitter where the merits of writing a long review for a long novel were discussed. Someone believed that if the book is long, it does indeed merit a long review if there are things to say. Honestly, I can’t imagine anything worse. People want to be interested in reading the novel in hand and not someone’s ramblings about it.

    A problem I see seeping in at the moment is the tendency to provide a plot summary in a review that gives away too much of the storyline, which has already been mentioned here. Inadvertently, this can lead to disappointment in a reader who takes on the novel as a result of such a review. They’ll find they have read it all before, with no real surprises. Some of the joy of reading the book is taken away from them.

    Routinely, I no longer post reviews on Amazon following an alert from Kimbofo that their T&Cs included that the copyright for these rests and remains with Amazon. And, whilst there are superb reviews like yours, Maxine, I also find it an uncontrolled cess pit of potential corruption. Indeed, I wonder if the comment left for you is an example of competition within the reviewers’ ranks. Hence I do take an overview from there with a pinch of salt. I have broken my rule on the odd occasion to support an author as I am aware that some publishers may use Amazon reviews as a measure of success.

    Sorry to come late to this post, but I remained under a stone today, determined to finish reading a novel, thankfully achieved.

  24. I probably don’t need to chime in since I am going to agree with the others before me, but I have always thought of your blog as being the place to go for reviews and information on crime novels. I think everyone who writes about books wonders if they are doing it the right way, but I don’t think there really is a right way. If you follow a blogger long enough you get a sense of their tastes and their reading and writing style and that is in part why I follow certain bloggers (though of late I’ve not had as much time to click out of google reader to comment). I’m very surprised anyone would criticize the way you write your reviews, though somehow I am not surprised that this happened on Amazon (which is why I have all but stopped reading reviews there). I want to know something of the plot to know whether or not I want to read a book, but I think you do a great job of also writing about why something does or does not work in a book and then being able to compare with other books by the author. I’ve always enjoyed your style and have kept your reviews in mind when talking about books I read–so if you’re doing it wrong, then so am I! 🙂 Unless you want to try some different style for a reason of your own–I don’t think I’d change on the whim of someone else!

  25. What an interesting topic! As an avid crime fiction reader, I check many newspaper reviews and many blogs. I am always searching for reviewers who I will be generally in sync with, but not always of course, and someone who will make me aware of writers and books I may not have otherwise noticed. I have been following your reviews for less than a year, but there is no one else whose opinion I value more. And you have introduced me to so many wonderful books I otherwise would not have read. Yours is the first source I turn to in the morning and yours is the only blog that I have “wired” directly into my email. But I continue to surf all over the place looking for reviews comparable to yours.

    But, as long as we’re on this subject, let me add a few comments about what I consider to be some of the worst offenses by reviewers generally, this from a readers’ perspective. First, too often there is way too much detail about the story line in a review.. This takes away from the readers’ own pleasure in discovering all the turns and twists in a story. I think most story descriptions should run no more than two paragraphs in any review.

    Secondly, I can’t believe the number of reviews I have read and have come away with absolutely no sense on whether or not the reviewer enjoyed the book and would the reviewer recommend it to a friend. “I liked it” isn’t enough – too reminiscent of American Bandstand (“I liked the beat, I gave it a 7”). We all have to much to read and not enough time; we have to prioritize and reviewers should help as much as possible.

    Thirdly, bloggers are not critical enough. It is too rare that a mediocre or even poor effort is labeled as such – especially the “sacred cows”, a new book by an author with a big rep. I think bloggers are considerably more timid in this arena than are newspaper reviewers.

    Finally while I appreciate the “sentiment of “you’re perfect, don’t change” I think all of us recognize the need to always strive for improvement. And so, I salute you for presenting this topic in the first place. And let me conclude with a real Americanism, generally applied to the sports world but apropos here: “You’re number 1 ” !


  26. Well, thank you again, everyone, I am totally overwhelmed. There are some very good points being made by you all about Amazon reviews and how short reviews fit that format better, and I agree. As a reader I do tend to skim the longer ones but read all of the shorter ones, if I’m thinking of reading a book.
    I also agree that blog reviews can be insufficiently critical, but also they can be too vitriolic. I think the standard of writing is sometimes not high enough, because we don’t have editors. When I write a review I don’t publish it right away but set it on timer so I can go through it again for “sense” before it goes live. I have come across, and subsequently avoided, various blogs where the author is not thinking before publishing!
    Anyway, thanks again to all here for your wonderful and kind comments, which I very much appreciate. I’ll take the constructive criticism on board. I do agree with Simon that Laura Wilson’s brief reviews are a paradigm.

  27. I’m late but I wouldn’t make any changes Maxine. You’ve given me some good reads and I have faith that whatever modifications you see fit will be even better. Whenever I am in the mood to try something different or am looking for a good read, I always come to your blog and go through the archives. I think your review style is fine and I’m always aspiring to write like you (one of these days if ever!)

  28. While I don’t read Laura Wilson’s book reviews, as I don’t read The Guardian on a regular basis, I do read the biweekly Crime column written by the wonderful reviewer, Marilyn Stasio. She combines basic plot lines with a twist of humor and her opinions. Her reviews are just sublime, in my opinion — and I guess in the view of many readers, or she wouldn’t have been writing this column for so long. She does reveal some of the basic plot points and in what direction the book is going, but she never gives away spoilers.
    Your reviews don’t give away spoilers either and combine some plot basics with critiques, with a good balance.
    No need to worry about this or change anything.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I agree about Marilyn Stasio, she’s very good. As is Sarah Weinmann, and probably others whose names escape me for the moment.

  29. Maxine — I don’t often comment on the blogs I read, but I must say I visit your’s everyday and please don’t change a thing! You are the person most responsible for my ever-increasing library and introduction to many new authors. Keep up the great work.

  30. I am a long time reader but first time poster. Your reviews are great just the way they are – please don’t amend. Utterly wonderful blog.

  31. I’m a bit late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I agree with others. There isn’t a right way to do it and you should stick to the style you like. No one can even agree what is a spoiler these days. Don’t change anything 🙂

  32. Ditto. These reviews and lists of good writers, for example, Scancinavians have caused quite a dent in the old credit card bill. I have to hide it at a neighbor’s when there is a plethora of good reviews at yours and a few other choice sites. No changes needed. My only suggestions would be to have perhaps a monthly post of a quarterly post of say, favorite or best books from Latin America or Africa or Australia or Asia, or by country if there are an adequate number.

  33. Don’t change a thing, Maxine. I don’t always comment but I do read all your reviews and I’ve often bought books or bumped them higher up my TBR on the strength of what you write.

    PS> This is one reason why I deleted all my reviews on Amazon; I couldn’t stand the uninformed, often snide and nasty comments underneath my reviews.

    • Thanks, Kim. Don’t look at US Amazon, then! The quality of the reviews (and comments) there is vastly inferior to UK Amazon, or at least so my scannings have bought home to me. So much ignorance and bad grammar!

  34. I’m late in responding, but I just want to echo the posts above: your reviews are very useful and well-written. I like plot summary so I have a sense of whether I’d be interested in the characters, the setting, etc., and, of course, I like to know what worked and didn’t work in each book.

    I’m not sure why someone spends time criticizing your reviews instead of just finding reviews he/she does like. Life is too short.

  35. Well I am very very late to this party but I felt I had to have a say too. Even if it is “ditto” to what the others have all said. I like your mixture of plot teasers and strengths (and weaknesses too) and placing the book in context of the author’s other work where you can and obviously all these people who got here before me do too so I think you should virtually (and perhaps clandestinely) poke your tongue out at the Amazon commenter (and have to agree with others here, Amazon reviews leave me entirely cold these days – it all seems to be a popularity contest or full of nonsense such as 1 star reviews because the shipment was late and other things totally irrelevant to the item being reviewed).

    To me the whole point of the explosion of ‘amateur’ reviewing of books, movies etc that the internet has enabled is that it provides a variety of voices and styles of review and we all get to choose the ones that suit us – that speak to us if you like – and it’s surely possible for everyone to find reviewers whose style suits them.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. Some Amazon reviews are useful, and good, but if I go to a book that has more than 10 reviews I don’t bother to read them, it is too overwhelming. Like you I prefer to get my reading recommendations by reviewers I trust, some in the newspapers but mostly via blogs and websites such as Euro Crime.

  36. A fascinating discussion, and I think that you should write reviews the way you want to. In fact, they are so good and detailed, that I have subscribed to your blog so that I can read them! As an author, I would much prefer to see a review of a decent length – because it at least indicates that the reviewer has actually read the book! In these days of people buying reviews (both good and bad) and the potential for all kinds of fake reviews, I would much rather read yours because of the amount of detail and thought that has gone into it.

    I have been reviewing books for the Kindle Book Review for some time, and I always write between 300 and 400 words, giving an idea of the main plot (but not a copy of the blurb) and then saying what the strengths are. If necessary I will talk about weaknesses, but I always make it clear that this is my view and I don’t expect it to be shared by everybody.

    I say keep it up!

    • Thank you, Rachel, much appreciated. I think blurbs can make it pointless reading a book such as a crime novel – I read them after I’ve read the book and 9 times out of 10 I think the book would not have been so enjoyable to read had I read the blurb first.

  37. ‘If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.’ – Mary Beard (professor in classics at Cambridge).

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