March 29, 2018

What I read (and what I don’t)

What I read: The SympathizerIf you dip into this blog with any frequency, or you subscribe to my weekly newsletter, you already know that I’m both selective and eclectic in choosing books to , read and review. For the record, then, I’ll sum up here what I read (and what I don’t). I’m doing this, in part, because I frequently receive requests from authors or publishers to review books I would never consider reading.

BTW, keep in mind that I only review books once I’ve read them from beginning to end. Despite the care I take to select only books I think I’ll find interesting, I start reading but never finish a significant number of books.

The topics I tend to focus on are as follows:

  • popular nonfiction, particularly books about history, science, biography, espionage, politics, and business
  • mysteries and thrillers, especially detective novels, spy stories, courtroom dramas, police procedurals, and psychological thrillers
  • science fiction, including hard SF, dystopian novels, alternate history, and space opera
  • recent bestselling novels, especially historical fiction and humor

And here are the categories of books I DO NOT read or review:

  • sports
  • poetry
  • food
  • romance
  • horror
  • fantasy
  • whodunits
  • self-help
  • art
  • literary criticism
  • graphic novels
  • essays
  • short stories

In the category of mysteries and thrillers, there are certain series of novels I’ve read in the past—in some cases, extensively—but have elected not to read anymore. These include:

  • Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta books: The characters got on my nerves.
  • Arnaldur Indridiason‘s Inspector Erlendur series: Boring.
  • Louise Penny‘s cozy mysteries set in Three Pines: How many murders can there be in a small Quebec village? And why is the same senior policeman investigating all of them?
  • The Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill: The supernatural elements are distracting and unconvincing.
  • Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum series: These are formulaic novels that put the whole concept of formula to shame. Stephanie’s car seems to explode in every novel.
  • The Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva: As a kid, I enjoyed the James Bond novels. But the same brand of over-the-top heroes and villains is simply boring to me now.
  • Cara Black‘s Aimee Leduc novels: The plots are interesting, and I enjoyed the early entries in the series, but the writing has gotten sloppy.
  • David Downing‘s Jack McColl series: Too many improbable events.
  • Donna Leon‘s Commissario Brunetti series: The first several books in the series are excellent. The later ones, not so much.

For what it’s worth, now you know what I read (and what I don’t).

For a clearer sense of the range of books I read and review, go to 160 books reviewed in 2015 on this blog or 97 books reviewed in 2014 on this blog.

Happy reading!

March 18, 2016

Wondering why nearly all my reviews are favorable?

all my reviewsIf you’ve read more than a few of my book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I rate every book on a five-@ system, and that I usually award books a rating of @@@@@, @@@@, or at least @@@. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve described a book as less than @@@ more than a couple of times since I began posting to this blog in January 2010.

This is no accident, and it’s not because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in English every year, not to mention the millions of older books that have been republished and are still in print. Well, not to put a fine edge on it, most of these books are crap.

Once upon a time, an educated person could actually read every book in print. Those were the days long before the United States had yet to be born. Most books available to Westerners were published in Latin, and every book was a rare book. That was a very long time ago. What we today call the information glut began no later than the nineteenth century. So, any conscientious reader has long had to be selective. Very selective. Which is the most important factor in explaining the question I posed in the title to this post.

My ratings run very high because:

  • I choose only books I really want to read — because I follow the author or am interested in the theme or setting or genre. For instance, I read a lot of history, current affairs, science, business, science fiction, thrillers, and historical fiction, but never romance, poetry, self-help, cookbooks, or books about sports, gardening, fashion, or art. I’m deeply interested in China, India, and Africa, and in World War II, espionage, poverty, and politics. (You get the point.) Fiction or nonfiction, it almost doesn’t matter.
  • If I find when I’ve read partway into a book that I don’t think it’s worth reading after all, I simply stop reading and turn to another book. And I only review books I’ve finished. Cover to cover. (Well, except for the notes.) This is not a rare occurrence. In other words, I’m a very picky reader.
  • Though authors now sometimes send me their books to read, I rarely accept one for review. It has to meet my standard criteria, or I won’t read it.

So, there you have it.

March 21, 2010

More FAQs you didn’t ask

FAQs you didn't ask: Books on shelves

Truth to tell, not many people pose questions on this site. But I know you’ve got questions on your mind. So, here are more FAQs you didn’t ask.

“Why do practically all your  reviews carry 4- or 5-star ratings?”

I was afraid you’d ask that. But here’s the deal. I read books very selectively, picking out only those I think I’ll find rewarding. For example, in today’s New York Times Book Review, there is a total of 110 titles listed in the paper’s several categories. Of those, I’ve read 14 (and reviewed most of them in this blog). I have three or four other listed titles on tap to read soon. If I don’t enjoy reading a book, I tend to figure that out once I’ve read a few chapters. I put it down and forget it as quickly as possible. So you can bet that I judge a book worthwhile if I’ve reviewed it at all, and outstanding if I give it five stars. (OK, so they’re not stars. They’re @-signs. But isn’t that symbol more appropriate in this age of the Internet?)

“OK, so what don’t you read?”

Hold your breath. Here goes. I don’t read books on cooking, diet, health, fitness, or sports — anything that reminds me of my deplorable physical condition. I don’t read self-help books of any description, convinced as I am that I’m beyond help. I won’t touch literary memoirs, criticism, collections of essays, or biographies of obscure literary figures. In fact, I won’t read biographies about anybody except people who are historically significant, unless I happen to know them. I avoid romance novels, chick-lit, or just about anything by women with three names. And I won’t even think about reading any book written (or more likely “authored”) by one of those Right-Wing imbeciles who is polluting the airwaves and distorting political debate in this country. Don’t get me started.

“But I thought you read just about everything!”

Guess again. In fact, guess how many books were published last year. Give up? The best number I can find is 550,000, about 290,000 of them in the United States. And even those huge numbers don’t include the fast-growing output of short-run and on-demand books, often self-published, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. (Check it out here:

What does @@@ mean?

True enough — nobody asked. Somehow, though, I feel obliged to explain the meaning of the ratings I feature on the book reviews in this blog.

First of all, I don’t recall awarding anything lower than @@@, or 3 out of 5, more than once or twice. Not that I haven’t encountered books that would deserve it — it’s just that I don’t finish reading those books. I only review books I’ve read from start to finish.

Here, then, is what I mean by the ratings:

@ = Fuhgedaboudit! This book should never have been published.

@@ = Not the worst book in the the world, but I couldn’t get through it.

@@@ = Reasonably well written, enjoyable in some ways, but not a candidate for a National Book Award.

@@@@ = I really liked this book. It may have fallen short of greatness, but it’s a great read. Definitely worth checking out.

@@@@@ = This book is either extraordinarily well conceived and well executed, or it makes an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves or the world we live in, or both. A must read.

Now you can’t say you didn’t know.

How many copies of books do authors sell?

My friend — also my editor and publisher — Steve Piersanti, who founded and runs Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has been tracking sales and other key publishing industry data for many years and frequently updating it. Here’s what he reported just a few years ago:

Average book sales are shockingly small — and falling fast. Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales, and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including, only 225 million books were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. (Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2014).

The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

So, you wanna write a book and get rich, do you?

BTW, my book with Paul Polak, The Business Solution to Poverty, sold a total of 7,000 copies in its first 11 months. I was disappointed, but I guess being an outlier in the nonfiction market should give me a little solace.

For answers to other FAQs you may or may not have had on your mind, go to “Do you really read all those books?” and other FAQs.

February 14, 2010

“Do you really read all those books?” and other FAQs


That’s me in the middle, visiting old Peace Corps friends in Salasaca, Ecuador.

OK, so nobody asked. But I’ll bet you were thinking that, right? I’m going to answer, anyway.

“Do you really read all those books?”

Yes, Virginia, I do. I review only books I’ve read. I may sometime be tempted to review some awful book I’ve thrown down in disgust after reading only a chapter or two, but that hasn’t happened yet. (Well, it did once, but my review was so intemperate that I deleted it.)

“So, how can you post a review almost every day? Don’t you work, too?”

Well, the question of whether I work is a matter of opinion. There are those who aren’t so sure, and I’m sometimes among their number. However, it is true that I read a lot — not a book every day, for sure, but an average of two or so per week.

“So, if you only read two books per week, how can you review one a day?”

There are mysteries in the universe, but this isn’t one of them. When I bought my first Kindle a couple of years ago, I found myself reading more and more, because for me reading on the Kindle is faster and easier than reading hardcopy (believe it or not). So, in about two years, I’ve accumulated nearly 200 books in e-book format and read nearly all of them. When I haven’t just finished a book, I review another one I recently read.

“Why are your  book choices all over the map? Why isn’t there any pattern?”

Didn’t someone say once upon a time something disparaging about consistency? I think so. In any case, a disregard for consistency has been one of the guiding principles of my life. However, once I’ve reviewed a whole lot more books, you may detect a pattern after all. I read both fiction and nonfiction, with a slight preference for fiction. The nonfiction is largely of recent origin and pertains to politics, history, world affairs, or, occasionally, science. The fiction tends to be recent popular but respectable fiction, historical novels, murder mysteries and other crime stories, and sometimes science fiction.

“Are you one of those self-righteous people who failed as a writer and turned to reviewing books to get even?”

Well, my success or failure is in the eye of the beholder (me), but I have written — and, yes, published — a slew of books. If you don’t believe me, go to Just don’t expect to find the Great American Novel there.

“So, what gives you the right to review all these books?”

Hey, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

For answers to other questions you may or may not have had on your mind, go to More FAQs you didn’t ask.