Interpreting Book Review Terminology

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Have you ever read a book review and been baffled by the jargon the reviewer uses? Like any profession, book reviewers have their own jargon that is meaningless and annoying to anyone not steeped in the mire of that profession. Since I’m a scientist and science communicator, I’m very familiar with how terrible the media are at explaining science. I’m also familiar with interpreting jargon for an audience. So allow me to elucidate.
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Page-turner: Meets the bare minimum standards for a book.
Gripping: I got this from a library where kids are allowed to play.
Poignant: Something sad happened in this book, most likely a character gets cancer.
Compelling: I spent so much time reading this book I had to finish it despite wanting to hurt myself after every sentence.
Nuanced: I have no idea what this book was about but I liked it.
Lyrical: Should be a poem instead so that it isn’t as long and self-involved.
Tour de force: The book is too long and waffly.
Readable: Boring but better than watching TV.
Haunting: Either used to describe a book that made the reviewer actually think, or, more likely, is meant to make you think but is just pretentious.
Deceptively simple: Could have been written by a 10 year old.
Rollicking: Something actually happens in this book.
Fully realised: The book has a beginning, middle and end.
Timely: Makes passing reference to something that happened 2 years ago.
X meets Y meets Z: The reviewer hasn’t read the book so is quoting the sales blurb.
Sweeping: Long.
That said: I’ve just insulted this entire book but it is popular for some unknown reason (e.g. Twilight).
Riveting: Was able to finish reading it.
Unflinching: Unpleasant.
Powerful: I read the hardcover.
Unputdownable: Reviewer is unfamiliar with English.
Masterfully or Masterful: The author is familiar with English.
Beautifully written: A lot of long words were used.
Startling: Reviewer was surprised the book was published.
Bold: Controversial.
Accessible: Written for kids.
Memorable: Reviewer didn’t have to look up the author or title to write the review.
Epic: Really, really, long.
A tale of loss and redemption: Someone dies, the protagonist gets over it, the end.
Sensuously, seductively, and/or lushly described: Painstakingly boring descriptions of mundane details.
Must read: Bestseller.
What it is to be human: Someone falls in love or someone dies.
Luminous: Has a pretty cover.
Evocative: Not boring or pedantic.
Poetic: Wordy.
Thought provoking: Reviewer is sure the book is cultural or intellectual but didn’t quite get it.
Rollicking roller-coaster: Kids book, or should be.
Provocative: Annoying.
Lends itself to X: Reading the book X was better.
Opinionated: The reviewer disagrees with everything the author has ever written.
Emotional roller-coaster: Nominated for some literary award.
Only minor quibbles: The book sucked.
Stays in your mind long after the last page is turned: Had a bad ending.
Writing at the peak of his/her powers: Much better than the author’s other books.
At once: The reviewer is about to use more than one of these terms in a sentence.
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Also, lets not forget the various terms that are used to tell you what the genre of the book is, rather than just say what the genre is:
Explicit, steamy, romp, raunchy: Erotica or has sex in it.
Charged, taut, woven, layered: Political thriller.
Heart-warming, life-affirming: Romantic drama.
Seamy, gritty, underworld: Crime.
Taut, fast-paced, dynamic: Thriller.
Epic: Fantasy.
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Hope this clears things up a bit.

 

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Getting your terminology right

Sometimes I cringe, sometimes I laugh, because sometimes writers just haven’t done their homework. Speaking as an avid reader (check my Goodreads stats), it often disappoints me when I see mistakes in a book, TV show or movie. In a movie it isn’t really acceptable, they have consultants whose job it is to make sure they don’t mess up. A TV show might have a consultant who will get a call during their lunch break at their real job to confirm details, the consultant isn’t really listening because they know the scene has already been filmed and the writer has just been told to check to get them out of the director’s hair. In the book there is only the author to blame – editors could care less.

Lets not delve into those little facts and descriptions that always garner criticism, lets talk terminology. Is it too much to ask to have writers use the correct terminology for things? Unless your character is meant to be ignorant, a minute on Google (or one of the competitors) should be able to tell you that a passant is the strap on the shoulder of shirts or jackets that epaulettes are attached to and that a chevron is a ‘V’ shaped insignia that is often used to signify rank and may or may not be on the epaulette or the sleeve. This is just to cite one annoying example I have recently run across. Don’t get me started on CSI – the katana is only one of many swords made of folded steel!!

Anyway, I ran across an interesting list that shows how terminology is often misapplied just to cheer everyone up: mostly me.

1. A firefly is not a fly – it is a beetle

2. A prairie dog is not a dog – it is a rodent

Dogs and rodents are slightly different

3. India ink is not from India – it is from China and Egypt

4. A horned toad is not a toad – it is a lizard

5. A lead pencil does not contain lead – it contains graphite

6. A douglas fir is not a fir – it is a pine

7. A silkworm is not a worm – it is a caterpillar

8. A peanut is not a nut – it is a legume

9. A koala bear is not a bear – it is a marsupial

10. An English horn is not English and it isn’t a horn – it is a French alto oboe

11. A guinea pig is not from guinea and it is not a pig – it is a rodent from South America

12. Shortbread is not a bread – it is a thick cookie

13. Dresden China is not from Dresden – it is from Meissen

14. A shooting star is not a star – it is a meteorite

15. A funny bone is not a bone – it is the spot where the ulnar nerve touches the humerus

16. Chop suey is not a native Chinese dish – it was invented by Chinese immigrants in California

17. A bald eagle is not bald – it has flat white feathers on its head and neck when mature, and dark feathers when young

18. A banana tree is not a tree – it is a herb

19. A cucumber is not a vegetable – it is a fruit

20. A jackrabbit is not a rabbit – it is a hare

21. A piece of catgut is not from a cat – it is usually made from sheep intestines

22. A Mexican jumping bean is not a bean – it is a seed with a larva inside

23. A Turkish bath is not Turkish – it is Roman

24. A sweetbread is not a bread – it is the pancreas or thymus gland from a calf or lamb

Science writing explained

Language is very important for scientists, as they are often authors as well. Their medium is the communication of data and knowledge to further understanding. The problem with science is that a lot of scientists prefer to make their statements as vague and non-committal as possible. In keeping with my previous explanations of music reviews and book reviews I have found a few science terms explained. This list has helped me, I hope it helps you.