Writing Book Reviews

A book review is an essay about a book. It may be objective or subjective. An objective review is about the book and its author. The qualifications of the author are discussed. The purpose, content and coverage of the book and the degree to which it accomplishes this, are analyzed.

When a reviewer discusses his/her response to a book, it is a subjective review. S/he may evaluate it in terms of her/his own expertise. Some reviews do both - discuss the degree to which the book accomplishes its intent and the reviewers reaction to it.

Reviews may also be categorized in terms of what they do. A review may be a criticism where the book in described in the context of other works on the same topic. These are called judicial reviews. Critiques of this kind are found in scholarly or scientific journals.Others are more journalistic, describing what the book was like and the degree to whichit did whar it set out to do. These are impressionistic reviews. Descriptive reviews of this kind are found in the popular press.

Well written reviews contain elements of criticism, impressions, reactions and objective assessment. The reviewer describes the book, compares the book in question with other books by the same and other authors, says what s/he likes and dislikes, and makes recommendations to other readers.

One way to learn to write book reviews is to read them. They may be quite short, only a few hundred words; or they may be long articles which are literary works in themselves. Most fall in between.

Book reviews are found in magazines, newspapers, scholarly and scientific journals and in review publications.

 

The basic components of a review include:
  • the complete citation - author, title, place of publication , publisher, publication date, number of pages and sometimes other descriptive material such as price.
  • information about the author - background, qualifications, reputation, etc.
  • brief synopsis of the book.
  • critique of the book - main thesis or argument, place in relation to other work, personal response to the book, comparisons and contrasts with other books you have read or other reviews, recommendations to other readers, etc.

 

All this is woven into a more or less graceful essay. Succinctly evoking images and commenting on the intellectual content is a skill which is developed with practice.

While there are similarities in all reviews, there may be some differences. Some other questions to consider when writing reviews for several types of books are found in the following sections. These questions may be appropriate to other book types beyond the one indicated.

 

FICTION
  • Who are the characters? Why are they important? How fully are they developed?
  • What is the plot and how was is constructed? But do note the story!
  • Where does the story take place?
  • Is the theme local, idiosyncratic or universal?
  • What is the genre or style of the writing?
  • How does the writer relate to the characters?
  • What literary devices are used and how effectively?

 

 

BIOGRAPHY
  • How is the book organized, chronologically or episodically?
  • Does the book give a complete picture of the person or does it emphasize either the personal or the professional aspects?
  • Is the author sympathetic or critical of the person? What is his/her point of view?
  • How are the unusual characteristics of the person handled? Are they ignored or emphasized?
  • Is the book well documented? Is it authorized or unauthorized?
  • How does the book compare with others about this person?

 

 

HISTORY
  • What are the author’s qualifications? What is his/her training in history?
  • How detailed is the account given?
  • What are the sources used?
  • From what point of view is the author writing?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Does the author interpret or just report?
  • Is the book about great men and events or about the experience of a wider group?
  • How effective are the illustrations, charts, maps, etc?
  • Is the book timely and timeless? Is it more a reflection of the time it was written than the time about which it portrays?

 

 

CONTEMPORARY COMMENT
  • Is an accurate account of the economic, political, social, religious, philosophical or scientific issue it discusses?
  • Are there any special environmental conditions which led to the book, or surrounded its publication?
  • What can be learned from reading the book?
  • Why is the book important now? Is it likely to be so in the future?

 

 

POETRY
  • What type of poetry is it?
  • How accessible is the meaning?
  • What images are evoked by the words?
  • What are the poets sources of inspiration?
  • What symbols are used?
  • How does the language interact with the ideas presented?

 

Reviewing is serious writing and should be treated as such. It is a useful exercise in writing concisely and gracefully. These are valued qualities in all writing. Reviews are sources of information for others. The responsible reviewer keeps in mind that s/he is an intermediary between writers and potential readers.