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Book Reviews, Criticism, Publishing, Writings

Book Reviewing Makes Strange Bedfellows

I’ve noticed a few blogs and articles lately, such as Jacob Silverman’s in Slate and Nina Badzin’s on Huffington Post, that call the integrity of book reviews into question. They and others correctly point out that the overwhelming majority of book reviews in literary journals or online sites are positive, usually nothing but positive.

Welcome to the incestuous world of the literary book review.

As a writer, I dream of the day when a publisher calls or emails to say one of my novels has been chosen for publication. As the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, I am committed to honest evaluations of the books we choose to review. In other words I have been placed in a position of judgment over the same people I am constantly trying to impress. Can you trust what I print about them?

Most book reviewers and book review editors, especially those who write for literary journals, lie in that same bed, rubbing up against authors and publishers. Do they dare take the chance on pissing off a potential publisher, or creating a reputation as someone not supportive of the industry by writing negative reviews, even when warranted? If you read literary journals and their web sites, the answer is obviously no.

And often the authors of the books in question are brand new, or relatively new to being published. Even literary authors with six or more books are probably not in a position to quit their day jobs. Why bring them down? Reviewers may imagine a scenario where the roles are reversed—I certainly can—why would some unknown reviewer trash my book when I’m just getting a toehold in the business? And reviews are subjective. What qualifies him to do so?

As editor, I’ve recruited 15 or so volunteers to write reviews for our journal. All have excellent credentials. I’ve established some guidelines for reviews as well. One is to be honest. Another is to consult with me if they can’t find anything positive to say about the book they are reading. I then contact the publisher and let him or her know. It is a compromise, plain and simple. Perhaps you could call it a cop out. But it allows some room to maneuver, meaning we can point out weaknesses in a book, as long as we highlight the strengths. As a reviewer, I’ve learned to craft those criticisms in subtle terms, which erudite readers will identify as such.

Were literature more popular, like music or movies, performers and critics would exist in separate circles (I’m not counting the industry-backed pseudo reviewers), and reviewers would be more free to report what they believe is an honest assessment of the film or CD in question. The book world is different. There is not enough support for our industry to allow most reviewers to be just reviewers, or authors to only write. To get anywhere in writing, and to make ends meet, we must don many hats, write both creatively and critically, taking care not to antagonize the people who will someday judge us. It’s a compromise we have learned to live with.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


73 thoughts on “Book Reviewing Makes Strange Bedfellows

  1. Trust. It’s about trust.
    How can I trust a football or basketball referee when I know that they also play for an NFL or NBA team?
    I get the conflict: Reviewers write and writers review, but it seems so conflicted. Part of the problem is the population’s disinterest and disrespect of the arts, leading to the lack of a “proper” wage for artists. Until that happens and highly qualified readers who can also write reviews are compensated (and the same for writers) multi-hats will prevail. Crappy business model, no?

    Posted by Jon Zech | August 11, 2012, 3:24 PM
    • Yes, our culture fails to see the commercial value of creativity or honesty in the arts. There is an emptiness that has not yet been recognized.

      Posted by jpon | August 12, 2012, 2:24 PM
  2. I think one compromise position that would allow a reviewer to stay positive would be: only review books that you truly liked.

    Posted by arichaley | August 11, 2012, 7:59 PM
    • I’ve had a few people tell me that in the last day after this post appeared. A lot of journals follow that philosophy.

      Posted by jpon | August 12, 2012, 2:28 PM
    • That’s a good point. I, myself, have not really given much thought to putting effort into being truly critical about books I read. The ones I like, those which I’ve picked up the content well from, are the ones I feel inclined to write a review/reflection on so far.

      Posted by magnuswendler | August 13, 2012, 12:48 AM
  3. Most books that are reviewed are judged worthy to start with. So it’s a closed loop. Nobody reviews poorly written books. When I read a book review, I have learned to expect a sales pitch, pointing to the book’s many charms. Once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised to see an honest critique of a book. A reasonnable compromise would be to find both negative and positive attributes and discuss them. ideally, the process should be an educational one for the average reader.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | August 11, 2012, 8:57 PM
    • I’ve noticed that most negative reviews are written about books by established authors who, in the reviewer’s opinion, have failed to maintain the literary standards they established when they started out. As I mentioned, it’s tough to hammer an author who’s being published for the first time. Unlike the movies, for example, a first-time author is not getting a huge payday from the book. It really only means s/he now has an opportunity to work even harder to sell and write the next one.

      Posted by jpon | August 12, 2012, 2:31 PM
      • I always try to keep my reviews honest so the author gets a good feedback and the readers are able to decide whether to get the book a go or not. I also try to give a more detailed feedback to the first time authors in an email, as it wouldn’t be fair to dish everything out in the review, especially when it is only my opinion and other people might not agree with me. And so far it seems to work and authors appreciate it. For me reviews aren’t only about reading the book, slap something on my blog and move one quickly on the next one, it is more about the process of discovering the book and building a relationship with the author (albeit sometimes a fleeting one).


        Posted by Renny | August 14, 2012, 4:04 PM
  4. I read this post earlier today and agreed completely. I still agree. It’s interesting bedfellows here in the book business. I don’t really review books on my blog, but I often recommend them, and I learned long ago to never ever (1) review a book I didn’t like or couldn’t finish, nor (2) link to an article on-line where I take the writer on, unless I’m looking for a fight. I so don’t have the energy for a fight, and it’s not how I want to spend my time.

    This afternoon I read a review of Rachel Cusk’s latest memoir in The New York Times. The reviewer gives it a few props, but also lays in some pretty tough criticism. Like this: “As a whole this book doesn’t work. Cusk’s biggest problem is her main character. Her self-absorption is still acute. The way she analyzes her every mood does not make her likable. Nor does it make for an interesting narrative. Frankly, the book is often tedious.”

    This may well be the toughest comment I’ve seen in a book review in years. I was kind of shocked. It’s so rare to see words this pointed in a review.

    Posted by Teri | August 11, 2012, 9:26 PM
    • Yes, established authors have a higher bar to clear. I’m looking forward to a time when I might breathe that rarified air of success in the book world, when critics feel it’s okay to trash my work. Bring it on!

      Posted by jpon | August 12, 2012, 2:35 PM
      • Ahhh yes! That does sound heavenly. Some seriously rarified air indeed. I, too, hope to breathe it one day.

        Posted by Teri | August 13, 2012, 3:28 PM
  5. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

    Posted by Emily January | August 12, 2012, 9:26 PM
    • It was quite pleasant surprise. I’ve received more hits on my blog than ever before. Hope people stick around.

      And an apology to everyone who commented, liked or subscribed. I’ve been traveling the past few days and haven’t had a chance to respond as quickly as I usually do. I will go through tonight and acknowledge as many of you as I can.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 12:49 AM
  6. I always liked Kenneth Tynan’s quote: “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”

    Posted by dellasman | August 12, 2012, 9:32 PM
    • Often true, but larger publications like The New Yorker and the NYRB often use established writers to critique books too. Some of them can drive pretty well.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 12:50 AM
  7. Well, now I know I’ll always leave my reviews to my blog, and hope that publishers don’t get pissed off enough not to accept my novel. Seems sad though; it’s almost as if big business is making us lie through our teeth so that reviewers can stay published.

    Posted by ramiungarthewriter | August 12, 2012, 9:36 PM
    • It may turn out that independent bloggers are the most honest reviewers. Of course, there’s also the question of qualifications. Most reviewers in journals are at least published authors or hold advanced degrees in writing. Perhaps a mix of the two …

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 12:52 AM
  8. I would love it if you could review my blog. I am in desperate need of feedback. Thank you. Cheers, INNA.

    Posted by innamazing | August 12, 2012, 9:45 PM
    • Hi Inna. Although the LA Review and I only review books and not blogs, I did click over and take a look. You’re doing a great job. The writing is good and the format and images are very nice too. I encourage readers visiting here to take a look for themselves. Inna is a 19-year-old student who started a blog about her two passions, writing and Russia. It’s definitely worth a look. http://innamazing.wordpress.com

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 12:57 AM
  9. As a reviewer myself, I try to avoid discussing books in terms of good and bad. Rather, I do my best to describe what the author has set out to accomplish and discuss the ways in the book realizes that goal. On occasion, I also try to make helpful comparisons between the books I’m reviewing and those by authors with more established followings. I take this approach largely because I know that taste is entirely subjective, and I imagine that readers come to my blog with a sense of what they like and are looking for books that are in line with their existing tastes. I do, however, worry at times that my blog comes off as overly positive or that I come off as someone who likes everything I read, but in the end I’d rather give that impression than shoot down emerging authors just because we don’t enjoy the same cup of tea.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | August 12, 2012, 10:07 PM
    • Well said, Marc. Subjectivity makes it difficult to brand a book as good or bad, and why hurt a new novelist’s career because the reviewer’s taste doesn’t jive with what’s written? Your approach is the best–be as objective as possible and let the reader draw conclusions.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:00 AM
  10. Reblogged this on hiddenbehindsecretwalls and commented:
    Ha Ha Ha…

    Posted by hiddenbehindsecretwalls | August 12, 2012, 10:11 PM
  11. As a first time author, I’ll admit that I’m terrified of reviews. I’m self publishing with Amazon, and my book comes out at the end of this month. I’ve been stressing myself to exhaustion for the past few months, worrying over potential mistakes in my manuscript that could give someone a reason to tear apart my novel. Or I over analyze my writing style, wondering if people will find it interesting. I look at some of the reviews of other books that are considered popular and cringe when I see reviews that say things like “The author writes like a twelve year old.” or “This author needs to learn to write”. I feel like with social media on the rise, it’s easier for someone to write a cruel review.

    When I do review books, I tend to do what has been discussed by the others who have commented already. I don’t review books that I can’t finish or didn’t enjoy, and I highlight the good points in the books that I loved. If the book was mediocre, then I try to point out the parts of the book that were well done. But I will admit that I spend more of my time writing, than I do reading/reviewing.

    I enjoyed your blog! I’m making an effort to educate myself in the different aspects of the writing world instead of just clacking away at my manuscript all day.

    Posted by lenorahoward | August 12, 2012, 10:30 PM
    • Thanks, Lenora. People who read reviews should not just take the reviewer’s word about whether the book deserves to be purchased–they should also consider whether the reviewer has experience and education, and understands the genre under consideration. It’s interesting because I, and several writer friends, just had our novel opening chapters critiqued at a workshop, and with disastrous results. But…there were several mitigating circumstances. I’ll blog about what happened on Saturday.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:07 AM
      • Thanks for the reply! Very good points that I should try and remember. You’re right. Anyone can write a review. I’m sorry you got bad results at the workshop, but I look forward to reading more of your blog and maybe learning something new.

        Posted by lenorahoward | August 14, 2012, 1:36 AM
  12. Thank you. A reviewer who is not willing to point out weaknesses does not belong in the trade. Any true author wants to hear the good AND the bad. If not, they are a coward. And cowards have no place among those bare their souls through the written word.

    Posted by 1 Story A Week | August 12, 2012, 10:43 PM
    • No doubt a writer needs to have the courage to put a book out there for the world to judge. And as long as the criticism is valid (because sometimes it’s not) the writer should be able to take it. A big ego helps. (I ought to know.) Some of the most famous writers considered criticism of their work not worth the time to read.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:09 AM
  13. My position as a reviewer of books with an academic literary background rather than an editorial background is that the quality of the product i discuss is in some ways taken for granted. I do mention from time to time things in the writings of others that keep the pieces from their utmost effectiveness for me, but by and large, I am making technical comparisons between or amongst different novels and stories, or focusing on style, figurative language, action, and the bits and pieces that make up the book(s). Still, to be fair, I have more enthusiasm (and time) for works I have enjoyed. My work is made a bit easier because some of the texts I write on are by writers now deceased who belong to the traditional canon, or to the writers of the revised canon of contemporary times (i.e., the writers, perhaps still living, whom teachers and other writers find good enough to want to teach). Nevertheless, at least up until now, the day I had the highest stats was the day when I reviewed Richard Ford’s recent novel “Canada,” which may be partly because of the book’s recent publication and partly because of its author’s popularity with other works.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 12, 2012, 11:02 PM
    • Interesting comment. I admit I’m not familiar with the academic aspect of book reviewing. Sounds like your work is a valuable resource for writers and students.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:12 AM
  14. I’m a book reviewer and a librarian. There are sources, such as Library Journal and the Canadian Book Review Annual, that include both negative and positive reviews because their purpose is to inform someone responsible for institutional purchasing about the quality of any given book. If I were looking to build a Canadian literary collection in a public library, for instance, and I had the budget to purchase a limited number of newly published novels, I’d read these sources to determine which titles were best. But if I’m sipping my coffee on a Sunday morning at home and am reading reviews to add to the list of books I want to read, I’d skip over the negative ones and focus on the positive ones. If the book isn’t very good, then that’s enough information for me to refrain from adding it to my list. If the book is good, though, I want to know what makes it interesting and why I should consider reading it.

    Posted by Naomi | August 13, 2012, 1:03 AM
  15. Book review are like post mortems. They generally come to late to help the patient. But while we are taking an introspective, how about editors–of which I have had some misgivings.

    Posted by Gerry B. | August 13, 2012, 1:34 AM
    • Tune in next Saturday, Gerry. I may have an interesting blog about certain editors–namely book doctors.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:17 AM
  16. A long time ago, I used to write some of the short reviews that once ran in the back of the NYT Book Review. I gave negative reviews — even in the 300 words allotted — to a few people, two of them (gulp) who were Big Name Writers. One of them, Michael Dorris, took such exception to it he wrote to me personally. That was a very odd moment.

    It is intimidating indeed to step on Famous Toes as so many of us write as well as occasionally review. And, of course, our books also need blurbs…

    Posted by broadsideblog | August 13, 2012, 1:40 AM
    • And these days, many authors now charge for those blurbs. I wonder if a negative review pushes the price up, or makes it unavailable. Must have been an interesting situation with Mr. Dorris. Most authors don’t go so far as to respond to reviews, even when negative. But others have thinner skins.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:21 AM
  17. To be nice, as a reviewer, for every negative point you make, it might be helpful to try and find at least 2 or more positive points about the book being reviewed. This would demonstrate criticism but also that you can look within and find the good regardless of how hidden it might be.

    Posted by magnuswendler | August 13, 2012, 1:45 AM
    • One of the guidelines I give my staff is to consider not the reviewer’s personal taste, but to try to discern the author’s intent and comment on whether s/he was effective in achieving it. I believe this makes the reviews more fair.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:23 AM
      • That’s wise to do. Putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak, and seeing how effective they are at getting what they aim to get through their writing. I like that idea.

        Posted by magnuswendler | August 21, 2012, 3:23 PM
  18. Congratulations on making it to ‘Freshly Pressed’!

    I am not a writer. Just a reader with a blog which has a rather limited audience. I like sharing my honest views and that’s all I want to do. That’s why I am not really afraid to speak my mind while reviewing books.

    Posted by WutheringWillow | August 13, 2012, 2:07 AM
    • Thanks! Reader or writer, it’s great that you’re adding your voice to the book review conversation.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:24 AM
  19. I love to read too. I see your job is to read. If only I can read all day long.

    You have a happy life. I hope to be a book reviewer too.

    Posted by GG | August 13, 2012, 2:46 AM
  20. I’m so happy to see your guideline regarding honesty. All books have strengths as well as weaknesses, and depending on the work, the scales may tip quite far in one direction or the other. Reviewers need to persevere with identifying what was executed well in the work and was not in order to produce commentary that readers can trust and look toward when a new release hits the shelves.

    Posted by yourbrainonbooks | August 13, 2012, 3:48 AM
    • We do what we can to be as honest as possible under the circumstances. But changing the industry practices will take the efforts or many, many people. And I’m not really talking about reviewers, but readers. If more people read books, the industry would be in a better financial position to promote separation of writers and reviewers. Don’t hold your breath, though.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:29 AM
  21. I understand your conflict. I still don’t understand why you can’t trash a book that you think is rubbish. It’s only one opinion of many. And it may even increase the sales if there is some contention about a book.

    Posted by Andreas Moser | August 13, 2012, 7:36 AM
    • A good point. But most likely a book would only benefit from a negative review if the author is fairly well established, because readers would want to see where s/he went wrong. For an unknown author a negative review is usually the book’s death sentence.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:32 AM
  22. So far I’ve only reviewed books that I enjoyed reading. I have yet to find anything that I haven’t liked, if I have perused a book at Waterstones or their retail equivalent and it doesn’t appeal to me, I don’t read it. I won’t waste my time on a book that kills my interest on the first sentence of chapter one. Nice article though on remembering to be honest.

    Posted by MikesFilmTalk | August 13, 2012, 8:30 AM
  23. Thank you for this very informative blog, I have been looking to get into the writing industry myself and it somewhat saddens me to hear that there seems to be as much support or interest in it, so that such politics is necessary!

    Posted by HummingsOfTheMind | August 13, 2012, 9:20 AM
    • Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately any field, popular or not, has to deal with politics. I guess it’s human nature to be somewhat duplicitous.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:26 AM
  24. I’ve been reading (and posting about) quite a few of these articles recently. I agree that it’s important that people recognise the ‘small’ nature of the book industry and that it’s difficult to put forward a scathing review to the hand that may potentially feed you. The tricky thing, is that if you want to select a book to read based on a review, it’s becoming more and more difficult to know who to trust. In recent years, I find i’m increasingly disappointed with the books I have read on the basis of a published favourable review. It seems that the reviewing process has become an extension of the publishing houses’ marketing programs. I’m not sure we are doing anyone any favours. Does all this pandering result in better books? Isn’t a ‘better’ book ultimately going to sell more?

    These days, I rely on word of mouth (still by far the most effective selling tool in books) or the little placards written by staff in the bookstore. They are far more reliable – sure they never put up a big sign that says “Do Not Read This”, and they tend to display stock to take advantage of whatever marketing push is going on, but they never recommend a book they don’t like.

    Posted by Kate | August 13, 2012, 9:50 AM
    • Really the best advice on books is from people who are knowledgeable, experienced and especially, understand your taste. Word of mouth will always be one of the best ways to find out about good books. Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:34 AM
  25. i have always been curious about a reviewer’s world…all the pressure…some people might not know anything about the author or the book..but an ‘excellent’ from you can easily turn into a sale…however, you are safe until you have to give a review for twilight..lol..great post

    Posted by foreigninput | August 13, 2012, 11:11 AM
  26. I’m dedicated to writing honest reviews with good and bad – I don’t see why reviews don’t go deeper into a text rather than surface remarks such as ‘the characters are well developed’. Why can’t close reading or detailed literary analysis have a place in book reviews?

    Posted by veryinterestingideas | August 13, 2012, 12:42 PM
    • If a reviewer on my staff turns in a piece with comments like ‘the characters are well developed’ I can assure you it will be edited. That being said, yes, it’s extremely difficult to go into detail when reviews are limited to 200 or 400 words. But the solution is to make our reviews as informative and well written as possible, so that readers ask for more and longer reviews. Anyone up for starting a campaign to convince my publishers about that?

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:38 AM
  27. As a writer with three books under my belt, I can say that, yes, literary circles are small, but not that small that I’m being reviewed by people I know personally, or people who necessarily want to be novelists themselves. I’ve had mostly good reviews, but a few bad ones as well, which is the standard experience for any writer.

    As someone who used to review, I was honest about the merits of any book assigned to me. Once it was assigned, there was no choice in whether I wanted to review it, whether I liked it or not. There was no point in being vicious, but nor was there a need to pull my punches about something that I found lacking. I don’t agree that for every negative comment there should be a few good ones: this is not creative writing class, but a system of judging the worth of what has been produced so people can decide whether they want to put down some cash for it. It’s a public service. The best reviews spell out why something works or doesn’t, and then provide some evidence. From an excerpt, and a bit of summary, a reader can decide if the book/writing is to their liking.

    Of course, I would love all my reviews to be glowing, but reading is subjective, writing is subjective, and if you want your work out there with a life of its own, you better be ready to deal with all the personalities, tastes, agendas of the various reviewers, whether you’re new or seasoned. The trick is knowing who the reviewers are, what they’ve liked and not liked in the past and comparing it to your own tastes. No doubt this is tougher now than it used to be with the explosion of blogs and self-styled experts online, and the shrinking of review sections in papers and magazines. In fact, my first WordPress piece was exactly on that issue: http://wp.me/p2qfgr-19

    Posted by Tess Fragoulis Books | August 13, 2012, 3:27 PM
    • Of course you’re exactly right in your approach to book reviews. You, and your publisher, made a rare commitment to the reading public. Now readers need to be more careful about what information they take from a review.

      By the way, I checked out the blog you linked above. A great post. I encourage my other readers to take a look.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:46 AM
  28. I don’t think it’s a good situation when the customer reviews on Amazon are more trustworthy than in an acclaimed journal or magazine publication.

    Like many readers, I know that there is too much to choose from for me to be able to read it all in my lifetime, so I’ll check out the reviews on a book that might be interesting before I decide to buy and read.

    Hence, the reason honest reviews has saved me from bothering with 50 Shades of Gray, etc.

    If all of the reviews are positive, the reviewers aren’t really doing much to help a reader make his or her selections.

    Posted by MegansBeadedDesigns | August 13, 2012, 5:35 PM
    • Having read a few reviews on Amazon, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re more trustworthy. They may be more honest, but regular reviewers (I can only speak for my staff of course) are far more experienced and knowledgeable about writing craft. Check out what Marc Schuster has to say in a comment above. That’s what reviewers should do.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2012, 1:40 AM
  29. What a conflict! There seems to be a story there, even. The life of a writer/reviewer.

    Posted by righterskramp | August 13, 2012, 7:30 PM
  30. You’d imagine that literary pursuits would be a little less cheesy. But I guess not. Thanks for the peep inside.

    Posted by shovonc | August 14, 2012, 1:05 PM
  31. Nice Article

    Posted by Remaja | August 14, 2012, 5:54 PM
  32. What a fascinating subject! I’m so glad you were freshly pressed purely because I got to read the post/see the comments and discussions.

    I recently started a book blog and was worried about my reviews being too positive. However the books I’ve reviewed are all my own choice and I’m certainly not, as a reader, going to finish a book I’m not liking especially when there are so many good books out there. I’m also a bookseller and in the bookstore it’s pretty silly to talk about books you don’t like (not just for sales sake but for the simple point of me wanting customers to buy a book they’ll enjoy).

    I do think there is some room for negativity in discussing trends in books because they pose questions not just for authors and publishers but for the readers who are encouraging such books.

    Posted by The Freckled Reader | August 16, 2012, 2:40 AM
    • You make a great point, and one that I should have thought of long before this. At the LA Review, when I start to plan reviews for our next issue or our online section (http://redhen.org/losangelesreview/book-reviews/), I choose books that I research and think would be interesting to readers. Many are books I would like to read myself. When my review staff goes through the list, they pick books they would like to read. So we’re starting our reviews with a heavy dose of “like.” It’s fairly natural for the reviewers to then actually like what they’ve read–the chances the book will be bad are rather low. No wonder reviews in major magazines like The New Yorker and NYRB are more often negative. They are reviewing books chosen not because the editors and reviewers might like them, but because they are major releases by well known authors, and are heavily promoted by their publishing companies. That doesn’t explain everything, but I believe it adds a lot to the conversation. Great observation, FR, and thanks so much for commenting.

      Posted by jpon | August 16, 2012, 9:53 AM
  33. Interesting!

    Posted by Rakhi Kankane | August 18, 2012, 6:29 AM

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