14 February 2015

The Charmed Life of a Book Reviewer

by Steve Steinbock

When Melodie Campbell asked me to fill in , I was delighted. Earlier in the week I settled on the idea of writing a column to three men, all whom I met at my first Bouchercon in 1994, all who were greats in the Mystery world, and all who died before their time.

The article was long, serious, and three-quarters written. I still hope to use, maybe in a future visit to Sleuthsayers. But it was too somber for a fill-in for Melodie. I know can't be as funny as Melodie Campbell, but I don't want to write something that will make people (me especially) cry.

This is my son threatening me with a shovel if I don't
put away my phone. And yes, my house really is pink. 
This is my last winter in Maine. This summer I will migrate West returning to my roots. I'll miss Maine, but I won't miss it's winters. The last two have been brutal. I've only made a dent in cleaning away the snow from last storm, and another one is threatening to drop 18 to 24 more inches this weekend. I'm listening now to the plop-plop of water dripping into a bucket in my hallway from a hole in the roof. On Wednesday my son and I got up on the roof with shovels, a hatchet, and a blow-torch to try to remove enough ice to allow for the melted snow to flow down the shingles rather than be trapped beneath them. We obviously didn't do enough.

This analogy might be a stretch, but snow is a bit like books. It's lovely when it arrives. But when it piles up so high you can't see past it, it's easy to get buried under it. I do love books. Don't get me wrong. But like ice cream, more than a gallon in one sitting will give you a belly ache.

I receive about thirty books a week. That's ten dozen each month. I have a process for dealing with them, and sometimes it works. The packages arrive at my doorstep, dropped off by an annoyed postman. I bring them in and set them on the kitchen counter. I let them thaw there for a few hours before opening.

Opening packages of books can be risky. The other day my son offered to help. He picked up a padded envelope and started to open it. "Careful," I said. "That one is filled with dryer lint." He sneered at me like I was making a dumb joke. "No, really," I said. He opening it anyway, and was surprised to learn how environmentally safe packaging can be harmful to the environment. You know the kind of package I'm talking about. There's a layer of soft paper material, really the consistency of dryer lint but a lot dustier. The envelopes have a pull tab on the side, but they never work, and there is virtually no way of opening the thing without getting clumps of thick, gray dust all over your clothes, your floor, and the book itself. (I often have to take the book outside and spray the pages with canned air to get the stuff off. Environmentally friendly?)

Yesterday another of those envelopes arrived. This time, the assistant in the publisher's publicity department was thoughtful enough to cover the envelope with packaging tape, covering everything including the red pull-tab. Now it was impossible to get the damn thing open without using a hatchet and blow torch, and then a shovel to deal with all the dryer lint that eventually came out. On top of that, I got two serious paper cuts getting it open, and am now typing with two bandaged fingers.

Once the books are out of the package, I carry them to my office where, in a perfect world, I would put them on a bookcase devoted to review books. At the moment, that bookcase is full, and three teetering towers of books are lined up beside it. Before it reaches this point, I'm supposed to go through the shelves and wean out the books that I'm never likely to get to, including the dozen or so that I really wanted to read but are now over a year old. Those books go in a box that eventually I will take to a hospital or library, or hand out as party favors. I have three full boxes of these right now, which is pretty good.

When I pick the books to review, they go on a separate shelf beside my desk. I cover twelve books in my Jury Box column for each issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

There are a variety of reasons why I select the books I do. When a new title by Christopher Fowler or Alan Bradley arrives, it goes instantly on that shelf. I might choose a book because something about the title or the cover grabs my attention. Sometimes when I look at all the review books on my bookcase, a cluster of titles with a certain theme will jump out - historical mysteries, international mysteries, paranormal mysteries, etc. - and this will be the basis of a monthly column. I recently did one on mysteries featuring magicians, and each year for our February "Sherlock Holmes" issue, I collect all the titles with Sherlockian themes. Sometimes a book will come to my attention because of a note from a publicist or the author, or because I just met the author at a conference. Often, the books just jump off the shelf on their own accord and demand to be read.

I love what I do, despite the pileups, paper-cuts, and dryer lint. Without sounding too kitschy, it is a charmed life. I've been lucky every step of my career as a reviewer. The opportunities have always presented themselves at just the right moment. Maybe in some future visit to SleuthSayers, I'll tell my story of how I got into reviewing and eventually found myself as the book critic for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

But for now, I have more snow to shovel.


  1. Raised in Indiana, I thought I understood snow; after all, we got lots of it each winter, sometimes so much we could make tunnels. That’s why a long rake-like device puzzled me when I moved to Minnesota. That year, drips appeared on my ceiling. Someone asked me if I kept my roof clean.

    “What do you mean, clean?” I asked. “There’s snow on it.”

    “Yes, and if you don’t want leaks up this far nouth, you have to keep your roof clean, clear of snow. Heat from your house melts the lower later, it runs down the roof until it passes an outer wall, where it refreezes and claws its way back under the shingles. Rake the snow off if you don’t want problems.”

    Who knew?

  2. A good post- and good luck with your snow. Your roof looks just like ours at the moment!

  3. From one of the other lands (South Dakota) of brutal winters, I salute you. And don't blame you for moving.

    And yes, please, please, please tell us how you got to be reviewer for EQMM!

  4. You guys are making me cold. I start shivering when it gets below fifty.

    Great column, Steve--good to see you here! Like Eve, I would enjoy hearing (reading) about how you got started reviewing for EQ.

  5. Steve, you will no doubt be thrilled to know that yesterday in Washington it was sunny and in the high fifties. Thinking of you, pal.

    Great column. I have opened a bunch of those gray dust packages, never thought of canned air, though.

    I have to say, your column does not buck up the spirits of a guy with a novel coming out in June, though.

  6. I agree with Ms Fisher about the back story of how you came to review. My question are

    1. do you ever tire of reading now that it's your job and under pressure to read an entire book every 2 days, maybe 6 days a week?

    2. what happens when you read an absolutely awful book?

  7. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. Yes, as the fresh snow started falling, I went back outside and spent a few more hours moving snow and large chunks of ice from one place to another.

    Eve, I want to come see you in South Dakota. I've only been there in the summer and I loved it.

    I promise, if Velma allows me, I'll be back to tell my story of how I came to be a reviewer, and how I ended up with EQMM.

  8. Anonymous, those are good questions. (1) If it makes sense, being "under pressure to read" can be tiring, but not tiresome. I've had times when I've had to read five (or more) books in a single week. That is exhausting. But I still love it. (2) I don't read absolutely awful books. I hate writing negative reviews. So if I can tell I'm not going to like a book, I'll put it down after ten pages rather than plow through the whole thing.

  9. Steve, you're welcome any time. Let us know when you're coming.

  10. Steve, Maine will miss all of you! That being said this is the one winter that may chase many of us away! Great photo! I also had a recent roof shoveling - mother son moment that could easily be replaced with a mother son -wash the sand off your feet moment instead. We'll always have Infected Mushroom hahaa. Sabrina

  11. I simply have to pressure Steve into doing more guest posts in place of me (stand back everyone - he's MINE! grin)
    I guess we've all been grateful when Steve has reviewed our books on Jury Box. But I'm thinking this post has made so many of us appreciate with awe how truly lucky we've been, considering the number of books that compete for his attention each month.
    Thanks, Steve, for all you do, and yes, 'my posts dates are your post dates'. How about finishing the story in April?

  12. I must say Stevo, I do not miss the snow or the dust lint. I had no idea Velma was back or if I did I forgot. Love- The Wench


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