Recommended, but beware,
This review is from: The Essential Koran (Paperback)
Many years ago, this was the very first book that I read as an introduction to the Qur'an. In fact, it may have been responsible for leading me to study the Qur'an in much more detail in the following ten years, so in this sense it may have achieved its aim.
The style of language is indeed quite different from the various mainstream translations out there; the language is much more brief and terse. The style may well have been influenced by Cleary's deep interest in Taoist and Buddhist literature - or it may be a welcome attempt to reflect the brevity and terseness of the Arabic original, which can easily be lost in the more wordy English translations (especially those which ape the Elizabethan style of the KJV). The style is refreshing but in some parts the accuracy is suspect to say the least (and regrettably, I'm left wondering whether this is deliberately so).
But beware; the "selection of readings" really is only a small portion of the Qur'an. He has selected a number of verses from each Surah, and omitted some Surahs entirely. This is understandable as the book is meant to be an initial introduction to the Qur'an, but there is no doubt that the verses that have been selected are those that will sound most innocuous or agreeable to Western ears. They are in no way representative of the whole text (which you might assume like I did, if you knew no better). The selections are heavily skewed towards the early Makkan period; these verses have a very different style and impact to the majority of the Qur'anic text.
Immediately after reading Cleary's book, I went on to read two full translations of the Qur'an and I have to admit I had the feeling that I'd been "lied to" or "misled" (I hesitate to use those words, but it's the very strong feeling I got at the time). It's easy to suspect that Cleary had an agenda other than providing a balanced selection of verses that would give a flavour of the whole Qur'an. Since that time, I studied Arabic, which led me to be particularly suspicious of parts of Cleary's translations.
The lengthy introduction is useful for beginners - it will undoubtedly give you a desire to find out more. The introduction is well worth reading but should be taken with a large pinch of salt. He is clearly trying to represent the religion and its main text in the most favourable and least controversial way possible, which could be dangerous considering the typical reader will be a naive Westerner with little prior knowledge of Islam.
Overall I WOULD recommend this book to someone who currently knows little about the subject and wants a primer. But it is strongly recommended that you invest the time in reading a FULL translation of the Qur'an soon afterwards, and find out about Islam from varied sources. Be prepared that it might not be quite what you're expecting on the back of Cleary's work.