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.

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