By Jane Manaster

Before I start to review a book, whether a chosen or designated one, I study the outside of it. I inspect the cover, the blurbs, the font and, lately, the trendy color of paper as it’s sometimes so muddy I can’t read the text.

The dust cover is actually a sub-division of all I check, just one of several almost irrelevant and irrational features that rouse a negative attitude before reading the book’s first paragraph.

If the dust cover shows a male author with an air-brushed photo looking 45-ish and tall and lithe, I immediately imagine him to be years older, 5’5” with a toupee borrowed from the photographer and a big butt. When the guys sport newly-planted hair, like little nail brushes, I’m far too preoccupied with their vanity and simply return the book to sender.

I target women authors, too. When the teeth sparkle after a $10,000 job and they’re 60-ish, ash blonde, and their books don’t bring in mega-bucks, reviewing is a no-go. I could name one outstanding exception, but I won’t do so all can keep hoping; actually, she probably does make mega-bucks by now. Worse, I’m turned off by those with earnest expressions who teach ‘creative writing’. I find all too often (apologies to those who deserve to be excluded from this judgment) that their books tend to be uncreative, rather formulaic. It doesn’t matter if they teach at one of the Top 10 or a remote New England women’s college, I’m not thrilled at the prospect of reading, never mind reviewing.

Frequently, the cover blurbs get to me when authors’ friends write ecstatic words of loving it. That’s what friends are for. When youngsters who have cornered jobs with major publishers gush, I neither believe nor trust what they say. How do they know that the pages will introduce me to something brilliant, provocative, inspirational, devastating, etc.?

OK. That’s the outside taken care of. Now on to the next set of irrelevancies. If I don’t like the characters’ names, I take an immediate dislike to the characters, whether heroes or villains. This applies to very foreign names, e.g. Russian or Polish. If they speak in a dialect which I have trouble following, I won’t follow. Any book longer than 300 pages is beyond me. I’m sure Abraham Verghese’s 800-page paperback edition of Cutting the Stone will be acceptable; he’s a very cool writer, but I haven’t managed to tackle it yet.

I find reviewing fiction is much harder than non-fiction and I rarely try. I’m amazed how people enjoy reviewing novels, whether mystery, romance, sci-fi or general. I can read one, then stumble over the second and have to take a break before tackling another. I always opt for biography, the great outdoors, travel, current events though not U.S. politics. And I blame no one for avoiding self-help, religion, philosophy, and business/finance.

After more years of reviewing than I’ll ‘fess up to, here in the US, in the UK, and Portugal, I do award maximum stars to a handful of novels. Personally, every time I pick up a copy of Nevil Shute’s The Pied Piper or Round the Bend, or The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell), I reread them, even when standing at garage sales. Non-fiction? The list is long and catholic, with a small ‘c.’

I criticize, I judge, but having written books myself I know it’s a tough job and often I give a little more praise than I think is due.