Book review? Where do I start?

After writing my first few book review posts herehere and here, I realized I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I started this book blog for a few reasons: to bring myself back to reading, to kick-start my dormant writing, and to keep a link with education by promoting lesson plan ideas for various texts.

So…what the heck am I doing? Well, aside from the educational components, I don’t really know. So I needed to go looking for some help. In college I had to write some analysis of different works – books, movies, poems, plays. After reading some good articles about Book Review Guidelines and a How To, I got some great insight and ideas as to what I’m doing. Or trying to do, at least.

First, I realized my book reviews may be too long. That’s always been my problem as a writer – too much. I really gotta work on being more concise, because in not doing so I feel as if I’m mysteriously giving away parts of the book. I also feel like I’m glazing over the style, characters and affects. See what I mean below.

What exactly is a book review?

“A book review is a description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book. It is a reaction paper in which strengths and weaknesses of the material are analyzed. It should include a statement of what the author has tried to do, evaluates how well (in the opinion of the reviewer) the author has succeeded, and presents evidence to support this evaluation.”

Here are some general tips about writing reviews I gleaned from these two sources. Think of it as your handy dandy cheat sheet.

  • Be cautious about submitting reviews of popular books which have been reviewed extensively in mainstream media.
  • Take notes on the book you’re dissecting, and decide how you want to approach your review.
  • For any book, make a point of explaining why you’re reviewing it, your background in the topic or genre, and where else people might want to look if they are interested in the basic area the book addresses.
  • Write conversationally but seriously, as you might in a topical letter to an acquaintance who’s asked you to send your impressions of a book.
  • Remember: the whole point of a review is to offer insight on a book’s worth, not just whether it has a chapter on XYZ.
  • Compare it to other books, explain whether this one met your expectations, criticize, parse.
  • But don’t feel obligated to defend a poor book for its faultless page numbering and clean, unobstructed margins, or stretch to play up faults in a book you think is excellent in order to appear objective.
  • Write in complete sentences, and use logically connected paragraphs.
  • Check with a style guide, such as Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style.
  • Try not to sound like a marketing campaign: avoid cliches, go easy on the exclamation marks,  be cautious in general about superlatives and strong adjectives (provide concrete examples from the text that demonstrate qualities), avoid using too many adjectives in each sentence.
  • Try to find further information about the author – reputation, qualifications, influences, biographical, etc. – any information that is relevant to the book being reviewed and that would help to establish the author’s authority.

Some questions to ask yourself to include (or not) in your review:

  • Did someone recommend the book to you?
  • What’s the author’s purpose?
  • Where and when does the story take place? (Does it cover an alternative universe, the present day, a span of thousands of years, a single day?)
  • Is this book part of a series or otherwise tied to an existing fictional universe?
  • Did you like previous works from the same author, publisher, or series?
  • Is there an identifiable central conflict, or a complex set of conflicts?
  • What is the tone and style of the narrative? (Is it frightening? Clinical? Amusing? Scattered?)
  • Can you identify the theme?
  • Do you like the characters? (What about them makes them believable or phoney, dynamic or static? Does character development occur?)
  • From whose viewpoint is the story told, and how does that affect the narrative?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the pace satisfying? (Did you have to slog through any portion of the story?)
  • Do any twists particularly inspire? Are there major gaps in the plot or storyline? How satisfying is the ending? (Don’t give away too much!)Does the book remind you (or remind you too much) of others by the same other, or within the same genre?
  • How did the book affect you? (Were any previous ideas you had on the subject changed, abandoned, or reinforced due to this book? What personal experiences you’ve had relate to the subject?)
  • How well has the book (and author) achieved its goal?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why?

*For a more complete understanding of things to think about and include in your review, look further at the How To‘s for more in-depth information for fiction books, questions for biographies, poetry and other genres.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets – Book #2

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Press, 1998)

Genre: Fiction, young adult (YA), fantasy, supernatural

Curriculum Building Ideas:

  • Language Arts: Reader’s Notebook, Literary Circles, Guided Reading Groups, Writer’s Workshop, Sequencing, Plot, Character Map/Analysis, Inferences/Predictions, Connections (Text to Self, Text to Text, Text to World), Graphic Organizers, Book vs. Movie (i.e. Venn Diagram, Persuasive Essay), Reader’s Theatre
  • Social Studies: Scale Diagram of Hogwarts, Map of Hogwarts, Timeline of Hogwarts vs. Real World…
  • Math: “Design Hogwarts” – based on information provided from the book, students create floor plans, diagrams or models of what they think Hogwarts looks like; “Potions” – students measure and record ingredients for the science part of this lesson (below)…
  • Science: “Potions” – students use correct measurements of ingredients to predict reactions between chemicals, create a set number of reactions, and record the reaction and observations in their science journals…

*Author’s Note: There have been numerous reviews of Harry Potter to date, and  Rowling has racked up many awards for her books.  I’m going to try and stay away from writing things that can be easily found in other reviews from years past. Note that I am now nearly 24 years old and this is my first time reading Harry Potter, which was published when I was in elementary school. I remember my mother reading them, and then my middle brother. I was into other genres, and for some reason I had an unfounded stigma toward Harry Potter. I have seen the first four movies; I didn’t really keep up with the latter movies. But I didn’t know what was going on because I missed out on so much that was in the books! I wish that I had read Harry Potter as I was growing up, instead of waiting – I feel that I’ve lost a lot of the magic in waiting, and also in seeing the movies before reading the books. The basic premise of Harry Potter is about Harry Potter himself, and discovering who and what he is, where he came from and his quest to becoming what he’s destined to become – a great wizard, with a bond not seen before in the wizard world of magic (i.e. Voldemort).

The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware.

We already know from the first book that Harry is going to encounter a scary, dangerous situation while at Hogwarts – and it is all about him. (Cue Voldemort.) After Voldemort’s quick and mysterious exit yet again, it’s no doubt that he will return at the worst possible moment and be behind it all. And, seeing as how he used a Hogwarts professor as a means to an end to get to Harry, who’s to say he won’t do the same thing again? Or will he, since he’s already played that card?

Each subsequent book in the series brings additional characters into the life of Harry Potter. And with them come more knowledge, more mystery and more story lines. Young Ginny, Ron’s little sister, comes to Hogwarts as first year…and she has a terrible crush on Harry. It’s quite cute if you’ve ever had a mad crush before. In the latter half of the book, we learn Ginny and Harry unknowingly share an item that belonged to the student who first opened the Chamber of Secrets so many years ago.

The new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts is a pansy, to say the least. Gilderoy Lockhart is a pretentious narcissistic bully. How did he even become a professor at Hogwarts? Ohhh, that’s right! Buddy, old pal Voldemort scared any potential candidate away with the stunt he pulled the year before. The man flies off the handle any time some grubby first year even mentions Harry, has to make sure he’s getting the limelight…and yet, he can’t even seem to perform the easiest of magical spells. I smell a rat (or chicken) in mauve robes.

Harry really begins to question said chicken’s credibility when Hagrid makes negative comments about him, and Hagrid isn’t one to criticize professors. Interesting.

Another interesting thing is a new ghost who joins Peeves, Nearly Headless Nick and the Bloody Baron at Hogwarts – Moaning Myrtle. She haunts the girls’ bathroom…and every girl avoids her and her depressing antics. She is integral to discovering information about the Chamber of Secrets. My burning question: where was she last year? She just all of a sudden pops up in the second book, but you’ll find she’s been around for a while.

With new characters also comes new terminology…but this applies to those we already know.

  • Mudblood: It’s the worst of insults to someone of a non-magical background. It means someone who is born to Muggle, non-magic parents. Not so bad, right? Well, the insulting slur is that they have dirty, common blood and are not pure-blooded. There is definitely a hierarchical structure in the magic world, with the “pure breeds” at the forefront. Malfoy throws this highly inflammatory degradation in Hermione’s face, and this is the main premise behind the entirety of the Chamber of Secrets.
  • Squib: A dud. A person who is born “pure bred” to two magical parents, but isn’t magical. It’s highly embarrassing.

The run-down: Dobby makes a few surprise appearances, sharing some valuable and thought-provoking information. Harry and Ron get punished for some grievous infraction with Malfoy at the center. Harry is sequestered with Lockhart for punishment and he hears a chilling voice. Not only would the words uttered stop you in your tracks and send you running and screaming, but Lockhart can’t hear it. And neither can Ron and Hermione later…which lands them in an empty corridor with some bad juju and incriminating evidence: The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware. 

Heir? What heir? And then we find out – the heir to Slytherin. Who the heck is that? … Oh, wait. Remember when Harry first came to Hogwarts, and had to get sorted into a house by the Sorting Hat? It wanted to put him in Slytherin. But…is it Harry?

And not only do Harry, Ron, Hermione and the usual professor gang see the threatening message, but the whole student body does so as well. Now the cat’s outta the bag! They are all bent out of shape trying to find out about the infamous Chamber of Secrets. Hermione has naturally gone on the Nancy Drew sleuthing streak, but comes up empty-handed. And in the meantime, we learn something interesting and embarrassing about Filch, which explains his apparent hatred of the students, and that the Chamber has already been opened.

Turns out Hogwarts was founded by four great witches and wizards – Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, Salazar Slytherin. They built the castle, and of course, Slytherin turned into a bad apple: he wanted only pure bloods to attend. He didn’t get his way, and he sealed the hidden so-called Chamber of Secrets until the true heir came to the school – to “unleash the horror within.” Horror, Professor? Yes, horror. This thing goes around petrifying any who cross its path. They can all be saved, but they could have died as one did before when the Chamber was opened.

Harry discovers a diary of a former student in Myrtle’s bathroom. And this diary is different. Harry meets the owner of the diary, and goes back in time to the night when the Chamber of Secrets was first opened and a Hogwarts student died. This stranger shows Harry who was expelled for opening the Chamber, which is someone Harry (and Dumbledore) trusts. And then it disappears….

And then, once again, Harry is caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. When Dumbledore asks Harry if anything is wrong, a million things fly through his mind (secret creepy voice only he can hear – that says he’ll be killed!, Malfoy being the heir…) …but he stupidly tells Dumbledore otherwise. WHAT!?! He could have saved you a lot of trouble!! Boys. Such tough things…

The attacks on students continue, and Daddy Malfoy brings down the hammer on Hogwarts. It’s a troubling time, but even more troubling without the headmaster, with your ally thrown in Azkaban and with your Nancy Drew petrified…but not before she finds the information Harry and Ron need to enter the Chamber of Secrets.

The most rewarding moment for me was when the professors ganged up (in professional style) on Lockhart to go do his thang in the Chamber of Secrets and save them all. They say and imply all the things that a reader wants to say. As it turns out, Lockhart is indeed a chicken…but Harry and Ron drag him down into the Chamber of Secrets.

And Harry discovers the real identity of this mysterious stranger who owns the magical diary.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

The shared item between Harry and Ginny, a diary, crystallizes Rowling’s style: she sets up a mysterious scenario, with the main characters involved, and a few suspects as well as some hints of evidence. (And of course the worries of an expulsion.) All of these hints and suspicions build up the plot (and undoubtedly cause other side problems for the gang) and give small flickers of light in this dark big picture. But we never see the whole picture until the pitfall, which is quite unexpected…yet, not really. (We know that’s the natural course of the book.) And then all is revealed, and we get that “aha!” moment when the light bulb comes on. I have the sneaky suspicion this is going to be the formula for most of the rest of the series, which is something I’m not a fan of. But, seeing as how I couldn’t figure it all out on my own, it’s nice having it explained. 🙂

The diary plays on Ginny’s feelings for Harry, as well as her insecurities as a young, adolescent girl. I can relate to that, and I can see how she could have been taken advantage of because of this. Harry has grown in his bravery and his cunning, as well as battling even bigger internal conflicts. That moment in Dumbledore’s office exemplifies most of us – during hard times we are immensely torn, we weight the ramifications of our actions, and we question, Am I doing the right thing? The Harry-Ron-Hermione gang has become more confident as a whole. The interactions between various students, which reveal loyalties and animosities, is very real.

Overall, I enjoyed this book (as I did the first, and probably all to come), with the exception of the light bulb idea above. Rowling, give us some more options! If you’ve never read the Harry Potter series, I highly encourage you to do so. It is truly an enjoyable (and easy) read.

Check out what Harry, Ron and Hermione will run into in the next book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.