Have you ever wondered how to write a book review? Is there a right way and a wrong way—or is it simply up to you to splurge your feelings for the book onto the page? Personally, I hate writing book reviews. I’m always short of time and I never think I manage to do a book justice—in terms of time spent reading and rereading, analyzing and then composing my thoughts. A good book review will be able to convey to its reader something of the essence of the book, the intent of the writer, whether they have succeeded or failed in that intent and—ultimately—whether it’s going to be a book the reader will enjoy reading.
And I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit that I pretty much fail at this. It’s one of the reasons I don’t do too many reviews. Reviewing books is its own genre of writing and professional book reviewers possess a certain skill for it. That’s not to in any way invalidate all of the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. As a writer, there’s nothing I appreciate more than when someone who has read one of my books takes the time to leave their response to it—and I and most other writers have had some wonderful reviews that leave us smiling for days after we receive them.
The flip side of that coin is the not so wonderful reviews that one occasionally stumbles across. Not because they say something bad about the book, or that the reviewer doesn’t like the book. As writers, we’re all fair game for that—no book is universally loved and everyone’s all entitled to their own opinions. No, what I’m referring to here are the sorts of reviews that don’t really tell us much, or anything, about the book. Or which fixate on one small aspect that seems to have completely colored the reading experience for a particular reader.
If you remember my last column here, I was talking about a reader whose enjoyment of Alchemy xii had been marred by the fact that the characters didn’t practice safe sex. This week, another reviewer has expressed disgust that the main character smokes—a vile, suicidal habit. Fair enough, I understand people’s concerns in life about safe sex and smoking—but this is fiction. You can’t smell fictional cigarette smoke, so how much can it bother you? Would the reviewer have been happier if Harry had been smoking an electronic cigarette? As I’m writing a serial, I could have Harry give up smoking in the episode I’m working on, but I rather fear that by this point I’ve already lost the anti-smoking brigade. However, when it comes to the review I’d rather have known what she thought about the story or whether she found the sex hot…
But at least that reviewer had an opinion! A reader recently gave an anthology I’m in a three star review with the comment, ‘haven’t read much yet.‘ That’s not really a book review, is it? To be fair, I know exactly why this happened. Every time I buy something from Amazon, within a few days I receive an email asking me for a review. And usually, I haven’t read much yet, so I don’t bother. This reviewer was obviously just telling them the truth—but why didn’t he wait until he had read much and was in a position to give a genuine opinion?
Like I said, I’m pretty crap at reviews myself. So how should one go about writing a book review? With a bit of research, I’ve been able to pull together some useful tips.
- Read the book. This obviously is essential and should go without saying. But I felt the need to say it anyway. Because I sometimes wonder if reviewers have actually read the book from the comments they make.
- If you know you’re going to review it, take notes as you go along and highlight good and/or bad passages. That way you’ll be able to back up the comments you’re going to make.
- Keep it honest—one reason why it’s not always a good idea to review books written by your friends or lovers or editors. There’s nothing more awkward than posting an honest review of a really bad book written by your partner.
- Start by setting the scene. What genre is the book? What’s the basic premise of the story? Who are the protagonists? But don’t go in to too much detail. Don’t be mistaken by thinking a book review is simply a summary of the plot. And that’s all. Those reviews are less helpful than actually reading the book itself.
- Don’t reveal spoilers. Unless you’re waging a vendetta against the author whose book you’re reviewing. (No, don’t even do it then!)
- And saying ‘SPOILER ALERT’ won’t work. That makes everyone read it to find out what’s going to happen. And then they’re annoyed with themselves and even more annoyed with you.
- But do say ‘SPOILER ALERT’ if you simply want to tempt more people to read your review. And you don’t care that they’ll hate you for it.
- Discuss the things that worked for you—the plot, the writing, the characters, the humor… Are the settings well drawn? The people realistic? Is it believable? Does the narrative flow? Does a clear theme emerge over the course of the story? Does the hero make your panties wet/give you a hard on? Give reasons as to why you thought particular elements were strong. Site examples to support your opinions. Do your own life experiences give you any special insight into what the writer is talking about?
- Mention any problem areas you identified. Were there holes in the plot? Did the characters behave inconsistently? Did you stumble across poor grammar or typos? Do you take issue with any particular scenes? For example, this is from a real one-star review of one my books: The book is mainly sex scenes. And who has anal sex for the first time in public on a hood of a car?!? Ridiculous!
So, this reviewer could have gone into a little more detail. I’d like to know, is ‘mainly sex scenes’ a bad thing? In erotica? And what’s the problem with the anal sex on the hood of the car? Would it be better if it had been vaginal? Or is it that anal sex for the first time should be in a more appropriate setting? The car was a famous German sports car but perhaps another model would have made it more acceptable. We writers need detail, so we know where we’re going wrong!
- Try to make your criticisms helpful to other readers. Not like this one: “bla bla bla off list.” It accompanied one star for an anthology—but what does it even mean?
- Avoid making any criticisms into a personal attack on the writer—remember, they will probably have poured their heart into the work, not to mention many hours of work. And be aware of how relevant your criticisms will be to other readers—the fact that you hate cigarette smoking doesn’t make it a bad book.
- Don’t be afraid to venture an opinion on the work, even if it’s not the same as the opinion of most other reviewers. It will make your review more interesting reading—but make sure you can justify your view.
- Finish your review with a recommendation to read or not, or an indication of who might enjoy the book.
- Review your review! Do you think it will be helpful to someone trying to decide whether to read the book or not?
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