I read a lot of website reviews of books by bloggers, and I have a few suggestions to share for those who want to write useful reviews.
What is a useful review? It’s useful for the potential reader (who is wondering, Do I want to spend my precious time to read this or not?).
It’s also useful to the book’s author (your review is well written and points to positive aspects – so is helpful to the author, who may wish to quote an excerpt from your piece).
And it’s useful to you, the reviewer! As the review author, you want others to link to your review, to share it actively, to value your thoughtful literary opinions.
Here are a few tips:
Basic Elements of an Effective Book Review
- Tell us briefly about the book. Obvious, right? A good framework is what’s on the back of the book (for a paperback), on the flaps (for a jacketed hardcover), or on the title page at the publisher’s site or an online bookseller. I wouldn’t quote verbatim (but you can, if you credit it as a quote). Just be sure to give some simple overview summary of the book. The publisher’s own description is a good place to start. Rephrase as you wish, but to give us some glimpse of what’s in the book.
- Tell us what you liked most about the book. What delighted you? Why did the book inspire you to write a review? Be specific: what did you like the most? I like to give examples or brief quotes from the story: maybe a lovely phrase that describes the main character. Or I might include a few sentences that describe the place where it all takes place. (I’m a “sense of place” fan. Where the story takes place is often overlooked, but attracts me and other readers; it’s a nice touchpoint in a review.) In general, a quote gives specificity, a quick close-up moment to engage the reader with a choice phrase.
- Give us a good take-away recommendation. This might point to the audience you think enjoy this book the most. “Fans of Harry Potter will love this book because [how it’s different, yet cool]” “Parents of young children who like [stories about animals, etc] will love this book.” “This is a great read-aloud book for storytime, with a great message. about [diversity, love, etc.]” “This is a thought-provoking book that will make you see [x] with fresh eyes.” “This is an essential book for [what sort of readers.]” “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to give this book to everyone you know, because it [reveals something special].” Etc.
- Be sure to include core details. Title plus subtitle, genre, series, page numbers, price, publisher, etc. Mention the title and author at the beginning of your review, or in the title of the post itself. But I suggest closing with these extra technical details. It makes the review a little more professional.
- Include a brief bio of yourself as reviewer. This need not be long. But it should give some idea of your credentials. Maybe that’s just: “Selma Semolina is a writer with a novel in progress. At her website www.SelmaSemolinaIstheBest.com, she regularly reviews Best Books for Left-Handed Fantasy Writers.
I’m surprised how many reviews I see that just cover Item #1. They tell me about the book. That’s useful, but I can find that elsewhere.
I want to know #2: What excited you most?
And #3: How would you sum up your excitement and recommendation in a choice phrase or sentence?
And who are you (#5), if we’ve clicked on a link on Twitter and have been dropped out of the blue into this single blog post?
This short list of things I like to see in a review doesn’t mean your review needs to be of great length. You could probably do it in a 4–5 sentences. I just took a minute, for instance, to write a sample review of a book I like:
Soon after its beginning lines (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole . . . nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole . . . it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”) we meet the hobbit himself, a stay-at-home, furry-toed halfling whose cozy underground dwelling is overrun by self-invited dwarves and a wizard named Gandalf. The story launches the troop into a wondrous adventure, where you’ll find yourself rooting for the quiet hobbit who learns to become a clever thief and is often called on to rescue his companions who get themselves into plenty of trouble in their quest to plunder the rich horde of Smaug, the dragon. This is a story not just for young readers but for any adult who enjoys literary fantasy at its finest: a carefully imagined world, delightful and memorable characters, and a plot that dances sure-footed from one amazing adventure to the next. This is a book I will read more than once, and you will likely be inspired to do the same.
– review by Philip Martin of The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkien, 256 pages, first published 1937 by George Unwin & Sons, reissued 1988 by Houghton Mifflin
• • •
Philip Martin is an author, editor, and indie-book publisher. He is the author of several books on writing and literature, including How To Write Your Best Story, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, and The Purpose of Fantasy.
You get the idea. Sure, you could spin it out. But those are the elements: What the book is about. What really delights you about some specifics of the story. And a heartfelt recommendation.
I’ll close with some favorite reviews from a book project I was involved in, a middle-grade historical novel set in Norway in World War II during the German occupation of that Scandinavian country, titled Odin’s Promise.
My point: look and think about how each of these excerpts shares the reviewer’s enjoyment and offers a well-written line about why they liked the book. The reviewers are, not incidentally, excellent writers themselves. Each went out of their way to write a phrase that summed up some essence of the book and why it was being recommended. This is the crux of a good review that’s useful to everyone – the potential reader, the book’s author, and the book reviewer.
“Mari, a Norwegian girl, is forced to grow up fast when Nazi soldiers occupy her village in 1940. Readers will cheer for Mari as she discovers her inner strength – and the courage to help celebrate Norway’s spirit of resistance.”
–Kathleen Ernst, author of the Caroline Abbott series from American Girl
“Not since Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure have I read such a book about the heroic roles children played in the resistance movement in Norway during WWII.”
– Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous
“Love of dog, love of family, and love of country – all are woven together in this beautifully written, emotionally taut novel of one girl’s coming of age during war time. Realistic yet hopeful.”
– Gayle Rosengren, author of What the Moon Said
If you look at these, you can see how each reviewer has gone beyond the straight-forward summary of the book to share some spark of delight.