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LEISURE & ARTS

A Novel Heroine
Meet Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com's most prolific reviewer.

BY JOANNE KAUFMAN
Tuesday, March 29, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Harriet Klausner read four books yesterday. Frankly, this was no big whoop for Ms. Klausner. The only days she doesn't read four books are the days she reads five. Her peregrinations through the printed word are charted in the critiques she posts on Amazon.com--she's been voted its No. 1 reviewer--and other online book sites.

Reviewing on Amazon isn't a singular achievement. The site welcomes all those eager to tap into their inner Orville Prescott, often posting multiple reviews of a single book. All that's required is literacy, a point of view--and, of course, adherence to the Amazon's stern fiats about profanity, spiteful remarks, and injudicious blabbing about crucial plot points.

Still, in terms of productivity (8,649 reviews as of mid-March) and the ability to turn out what the site calls helpful information, Ms. Klausner is in a league of her own.

More than 53,000 Amazon visitors have given a thumbs up to commentary like "the fast-paced story line contains intriguing heroes battling with one another as much as with their common foes." That was Ms. Klausner on the thriller "No Man's Dog" by Jon A. Jackson. "Exhilarating British police procedural" was her word on "Flesh Wounds" by John Lawton. "Daniel's Veil" by R.H. Stavis, meanwhile, was deemed "a fascinating and enthralling paranormal tale."

It would be overstating things to suggest that Ms. Klausner, 53, has never met a book she didn't like. It would be more on the money to say she's of the "if you don't have anything nice to write, don't write anything at all" school of literary criticism. "If a book doesn't hold my interest by page 50 I'll stop reading, which is one of the reasons I give a lot of good ratings," says Ms. Klausner, whose voice suggests she's taken more than a few nips of helium. "And why review a book to give it a low rating or to tear it apart? Nothing in that."

But rest assured she can cut the motor on her enthusiasm when necessary. "I give Ralph McInerny, the author of the 'Father Dowling' mysteries, a low rating and tell why I can't stand the books," says Ms. Klausner, who's contributed reviews to Amazon since 2000. "It's basically the same story over and over."

She has the same "been there, read that" problem with Cassie Edwards, a scribe of Native American romances. "It's either a half-breed Indian male or a full-breed Indian male and a white virgin," sighs Ms. Klausner, running down the essential plot of titles like "Savage Joy," "Savage Devotion," "Savage innocence," "Savage Hope," "Savage Courage" and "Savage Torment." "She gets kidnapped, returns to white society, then comes back to Native American society to be with her lover, who ends up as her husband.

"Her books individually are good," adds Ms. Klausner. "If she wrote five of them they would be great, but if you write 75 or 80, which she's written . . . enough is enough.

"I have one basic criterion: A book should entertain me and take me away from the rest of the world."

A recent day's entertainment comprised "The Hidden Quest," a fantasy by New Zealand-born author Alma Alexander; a novel Ms. Klausner describes as "a Christian legal thriller" by Randy Alexander ("I forget the title, but the book was very good"); "Hitler's Peace," a thriller by Phillip Kerr about Germany trying to negotiate a peace in 1943, and a mystery by Nevada Barr. "I can't remember that title either. Just look it up on Amazon." Aha: "Hard Truth."

As may be clear by now, Ms. Klausner's taste runs to fantasy, chick-lit romance--particularly the paranormal and supernatural variety--horror and science fiction. Pet authors include Laurell K. Hamilton, Jan Burke, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and particularly Patricia Cornwell. "I need a lot of variety. There's never enough for me to read," says Ms. Klausner, who has zero truck with poetry, westerns ("You put on a cowboy hat, place the story in the wild west and you have a police procedural") or nonfiction ("unless it's a subject I'm really into. Otherwise it's too time-consuming.")

While Amazon declined to comment specifically on Ms. Klausner to avoid the appearance of showcasing one particular reviewer, others in publishing were less demure. "I'm sure there are people who go online and think, 'I wonder what Harriet has to say about this book,' " notes Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer. He sends Ms. Klausner every fiction title his house publishes "because I'd like her to weigh in. There are authors she covers that don't get covered by a lot of major review outlets because of space limitations. Harriet's their champion."

It's not that Ms. Klausner is immune to the charms--and plot turns--of marquee names like Ms. Roberts and Ms. Cornwell, but "you'll see that I often review lesser-known names. Some of those authors are just as good as John Grisham," she says. "It's just that they don't have a publicity machine behind them. That's the whole purpose of my doing this on Amazon. It's a way of bringing writers to the attention of audiences who wouldn't otherwise buy their books. That's the whole purpose of my doing this on Amazon," continues Ms. Klausner, whose sole remuneration is the thanks of newly enlightened readers (they sometimes send appreciative e-mails) and grateful authors (they sometimes send promotional bookmarks).

More tangible compensation comes from Ms. Klausner's book reviews for periodicals like Affaire de Coeur and I Love a Mystery, the online 'zine Baryon, and from her work as an advance reader for the Doubleday Book Club. "It's like magic when you find that gem of a great new author," says Ms. Klausner, who claims she saw gold in a then-unknown Tess Gerritsen, now a perennial on bestseller lists. "People say I have influence over book sales, but I don't see it. If I thought about it, I would get nervous."

The elder of two children, Ms. Klausner grew up in the Bronx. Her father worked for the publisher McGraw-Hill, a bonanza posting for a young bookworm. "I got a lot of free books. I was very lucky," says Ms. Klausner, who worked her way through series like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames with dispatch.

A master's degree in library science seemed like nothing short of manifest destiny. Subsequent gigs in bookstores catering to fans of horror and science fiction, and stewardship of various library newsletters, were good prep work for Amazon, a connection Ms. Klausner made simply because "it seemed like a good idea. I need to review."

On more than one occasion, she says, publishers have approached her to push the envelope--to write a novel of her own. "I think it's sweet as can be that they ask. It's just not something I could do."

Daily, books come by the cartload to Ms. Klausner's Atlanta home, putting her at odds with the mailman, the UPS delivery guy and her husband, Stan, a business analyst for the Army. "He says we have to get rid of some," says Ms. Klausner, who stacks the overflow on the kitchen table and in a shed out back--and makes covert online purchases of new favorites like legal-thriller author Christine McGuire. "But don't tell my husband."

Friends encourage her to get a hobby, to develop some new interests. One pal recently gave her a combination VCR-DVD player with the directive to "go to a new venue." "It was a great present," says Ms. Klausner. "It's still in the box."

Ms. Kaufman covers arts and entertainment for The Wall Street Journal.

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