On Reviewing Books

Right now I am working on an essay review, discussing five recent books on the history of New Orleans. The books themselves vary in their approaches but all are interesting (in some ways they overlap, as several of the authors have used the same sources). What, dear reader of academic journals, do you want most from a review? The reviews are the first thing I turn to when my copy of the American Historical Review arrives, and through those pages I have come to hear of new books to read. But are reviews to announce the existence of a book, or to allow scholars to survey the variety of opinions on a particular new work (which would be slow going, as reviews trickle out in journals over the next couple of years).
    I admit to reading (aloud, to friends) one particularly harsh (and hilarious) review by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto some time ago in the AHR. Part of what made it so entertaining was its rarity: strongly opinionated fileting of a book is more often found in the New York Review of Books, while scholarly reviews tend towards the bland. Mine among them, I’m afraid. When I worked as a film reviewer, and when I have written book reviews for non-academic publications, I have taken a more jocular approach, and more freedom in my writing. But with academic works I feel more constrained. Of course the position of the junior academic means it would be unwise to unleash a hatchet job on any book (although fortunately I have yet to review a book that sucked). In a film review, I could be highly critical of the work of James Cameron or the Cohen brothers: none of them will be on a committee some day deciding whether to give me a job or a grant (or reviewing my book!). Heck, they’re not even going to see the review I wrote. But academia is a small world, and reviews of academic books so few, that authors keep track of them (even listing the journals which reviewed a work on their CV).
    What I see in the books I review are the hours spent in archives, the years learning languages, the careful analysis of spreadsheets or ledgers – work I cannot but admire. With a novel, I form a strong opinion based on how much the plot resonated with me, how much I liked the author’s use of language, how much I was engaged by the setting, the characters, the style. In history books, there is less latitude in the monographic format most common in academic publishing. I try my best when I review a book to explain what kind of sources have been used, how it reflects research in that field, and for which readers it might be most useful. But what would you like to see in academic reviews?