I've written an awful lot of book reviews in my life. Nowadays I write at least five a month for the magazine, not counting all the snippets here. I often notice a strange urge to use a word I wouldn't use in any other context - reviewspeak takes a hold and I'm off, describing prose as purple or some poor sod as insightful - memoirs seem to quite often be gentle, and if I'm weary or it's late afternoon and I haven't had a cup of tea lately, I have to prevent myself from savaging people with adjectives such as "compelling". (I used "enigmatic" to describe one of my characters in a synopsis the other day. For God's sake, I muttered, there must be some other word that doesn't sound like a book blurb, but had to remind myself that it does have a meaning beyond Mr Darcy.)
Anyway, Ben McIntyre has translated some of those euphemisms used in literary reviews - and nowhere else:
Triumphant return to form actually means "I was expecting this to be as abysmal as the last one, but it was only mildly disappointing."
Imaginative Fiction reviewers use this to describe a book that they wish they had written; nonfiction reviewers use it to describe a book they do not believe.
Compelling I managed to finish it.
Painfully funny / sad / poignant / long Demonstrates the deep sensitivity of the reviewer. A health warning also attaches to any book described as achingly, eye-wateringly or heart-stoppingly anything.
Arch I’m not sure if this is funny
Detailed Has footnotes.
Richly detailed Has lots of footnotes.
Densely detailed Has footnotes, endnotes, acknowledgements, epigrams, foreword, preface, bibliography, appendices, indices, and marginalia. Translation: unreadable. qv panoramic, workmanlike, painstaking, extensively researched.
Exquisite sensibility Gay.
Veiled sensibility Closet gay.
He's had fun with this. You can read the entire list in The Times.