Storyville: How to Write a Book Review
In today’s column, I will talk about how to write a book review. I know that many of you are avid readers, and whether you simply want to put something up on your blog, send your criticism to a small journal, or get paid professional rates to publish lengthy narratives about fiction that moves you, there are some essential components to focus on. Here are some suggestions on how to write a compelling review, how to excite your readers and get them to seek out the books you love, as well as some techniques that have worked for me in the past.
FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE PAST WORK OF THE AUTHOR
One way to look at a novel or collection is in the context of an author’s body of work. Take a moment, if you can, to think about what that particular author is known for—lyrical language, epic storytelling, or graphic horror—so that you understand the traditional focus and perspective of the voice you are criticizing. It’s important to know that if a particular author is gifted in one area but not as talented in another that this may just be their particular style. I wouldn’t criticize Cormac McCarthy for the same things as Stephen King, or sing their praises either, since they are two very different authors, and my expectations of their writing would be different. If you can educate yourself a little bit before jumping into the latest novel, it may help you with your review.
READ THE BOOK
I know, seems obvious, right, but actually read the entire book, or collection of stories. And read it with a critical eye. This is not reading for pleasure, this is reading with an eye on several different layers of storytelling. You read to understand the plot of the story—does it make sense, does it keep you turning the page, is it fulfilling when it’s done? And if so, how did they do it? Talk about those things. The same thing goes with having an eye and ear for the setting and atmosphere—did the horror story scare you, did the fantasy story take you to another world, did the literary story inspire you and leave you with epiphanies? You will read this book with an interest in the characters, the ones that are believable, that make you cry when they perish, the ones that you root for, or root against. It’s the entire reading experience, the entertainment on the surface, the imagery and meaning just below that, the depths of emotion and philosophy under that.
Everybody had their own way of taking notes when reading a book or collection. However you like to do this, make sure you are looking for things that will be important after you are done. You are looking for passages to quote, you are looking for moments that moved you—you are looking for excerpts that will be stunning representations of the entire narrative in only a few lines. I like to take small Post-It notes and litter the book with them—any moment that is powerful, any line that seems like it could be important later, or any paragraph that shows off the voice of the author. I’ve marked as few as four and as many as thirty, over the course of a novel. This helps me later when I am writing my review and I’m looking for that brutal passage where the werewolf destroys all of the passengers on a plane (Red Moon) or that lyrical battle where the violence is poetic in its destruction (Blood Meridian). These moments will support your review, and they may also jog your memory about things you forgot, passages you read days, or weeks, or months ago.
Definitely find a way to quote a few excerpts from the novel, or collection. If it’s a novel, you don’t want to give away (spoil) the overall narrative, so often moments towards the beginning can work. And, you also don’t want them to be too long, as the goal is to get the readers to pick up the book, not feel like they’ve read it already. If it’s a collection of stories, I try to pick my three favorites, and quote a bit from each of them, showing a range of stories, subjects, and techniques.
COMPARE IT TO OTHER VOICES
At some point in your review you may want to compare what you've read to other authors, whether they are big names or just important voices in a smaller genre. If you do decide to make these comparisons, don’t just say that the author sounds like Stephen King, say that in the epic journey of this massive tome the author channels the broad scope of Stephen King’s The Stand. In other words, compare whatever it is this particular author did brilliantly to the same trait in another author, usually somebody with a large readership, someone your audience has heard about before—and possibly read already. They may then think, after reading your review, well, I’ll definitely run out and get this book, because I already love Neil Gaiman or Dennis Lehane or Clive Barker.
SPEAK ABOUT SEVERAL KEY COMPONENTS
I also try to focus on three aspects of the novel that were the most moving and compelling to me. In Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, which I mentioned earlier, I thought his backgrounds and settings across the Pacific Northwest were particularly deep, layered, and intense, so I talked about that. I may talk about language, or a moment in the plot where things took an unexpected turn, or the emotions that were most powerful while reading (sadness, euphoria, inspiration, loss, etc.).
LOOK FOR WHAT IS UNIQUE
In addition to comparing this voice to authors and traits that are well known, talk about what makes this book special. The world building in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is expansive, dystopian, and shockingly original. The use of mythology and folklore in Matt Bell’s In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is familiar, but also takes a lot of risks, so in the end it is a very unique experience, contemporary magical realism like I’ve never seen it before.
GIVE YOUR CONCLUSIONS AND RATING
Finally, at some point in the review, let us know how much you liked the book. I don’t typically write negative reviews. Partly that’s because I tend to focus on emerging authors and small presses, so I don’t see the point in writing negative views on these voices. If I don’t like the book, I just pass on the review. But that’s just me. I have in the past given stars (say 4/5) or numbers (on a scale from 1-10) but usually I just save that for Amazon and/or Goodreads later on. I instead try to use language that explains what exactly I loved about the book, and how it affected me personally. I might talk about how it made me realize that being a father is a gift, or how I need to forgive somebody that wronged me, or how a noble deed is never the easiest. Or I might just say it was a hypnotic read that will stay with me for a long time. How you convey your feelings about the book you just finished is up to you.
Whether you write a 500-word review for your blog, or a ten-page criticism for the New York Times, take the time to look at the author’s work, in the context of their own history, as well as that of their peers, and let us know what aspects of this writing were compelling, unique, and impactful. Put your heart and soul into the review, show us how much the book meant to you—and you will inspire others to seek out this title (and author)—and that’s a good thing.
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