Writing Book Reviews - A Personal Philosophy
Over the last year or so, I have attempted the art of book reviewing. During that time I have formulated a few personal guidelines that I attempt to use in the writing of these reviews. I have not always been very successful in following these guidelines, but they do at least give me a structure within which to work. I have probably left things out of this document, and other people will have different ideas.
The first question to ask is, why write reviews? Apart from ego gratification, the most obvious answer is to tell the reader about the book. By giving others a feel for a work, you allow them to determine if they want to read the book for themselves. So what do we do to convey the essence of a book within the bounds of a short review.
First, choose the book. I prefer to review recently released books. There is a greater chance that people are going to be curious about a new book than one that has been around for a while. I also tend to look at books which are just a little out of the mainstream. If a book is by a very well known author then it is more likely that my target audience will have already read it or have heard about it through the grapevine. Of course this is related to the fact that I do not get advance review copies to review. If the book is too obscure then anybody interested in reading it is going to have a hard time getting hold of it. What is the point of reviewing a book that nobody can get to read?
I feel rather silly including this next point, but it seems that some reviewers skip it. Read the book!
When starting to write, it is necessary to include the basics. This includes, the name of the book, its author and possibly such details as who publishes it and how many pages long it is. I didn't state that I was going to leave out the obvious.
Somewhere along the line, you need to describe what the book is about. This does NOT mean a detailed plot synopsis. In fact there is no call for any significant plot details at all. Putting this information in only acts as a spoiler for the person when they come to read the book. What may be useful in a review is information about the quality of the plot/storyline. You can address such questions as: What type of plot is it (mystery, quest, action, psychological ...)? How detailed is it? Is it credible? How well constructed is it?
From the plot, you can move onto other aspects of the story. An obvious area is characters. Are they believable, stereotyped, well drawn, appropriate and all those other things which go to make up the people in the story. Of course in Science Fiction this can also include aliens, but the questions are basically the same as for humans.
Settings are very important to Science Fiction. Many stories are set on other planets, other times, other universes and other places not familiar to us. If a story is set in the elsewhen and elsewhere then the degree to which this is properly set up should be explored in your review. This even applies to fantasy - if the magic in a story is inconsistent, or very well described then this is an appropriate thing to include in a review. The way the description is integrated into the story is also important. Long passages of description tend to break up a story.
Then there are all those things which can be grouped together under the umbrella of style. But in fact it is more than that. You need to examine any aspects of the writers skill which is significant - either by its quality or lack of it. This catch-all can vary from simple english skills (punctuation, sentence construction etc) through to the way the writing holds your attention. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore all the factors which go to make up a writing style, but if these things impact on the subject then they should be included in the review.
Then there is the vexed questions of pigeon holes. These are the general groupings we give to sub-sections of the genre - for example cyberpunk, space opera, conservative libertarian etc. Authors tend not to like them - like everybody else they like to think that everything they do is unique. But it is very useful for the reviewer to use these descriptions. It is helpful to have a common set of terms of reference to share between you and your audience. The important thing is not to misuse these terms. Do not try to push things into a category just for the sake of doing so - only use these descriptions if they will help in the elucidation of your topic. It is not appropriate to use pigeon holes to characterise an author - each work must be judged on its own merits. It is lazy thinking to assume that because an author normally writes a certain way, then the next work can be described in the same terms as all the others.
You do not need to include all the above considerations in your review. Try to concentrate on those things which best characterise the book. These are the things which make it a worthwhile book to read - or at least give your reader the information he or she needs to make that decision. It is also important that when you write your review that you make it interesting. There is no point reviewing a book if nobody can be bothered reading that review.
Remember that your target audience are going to have different tastes to you. You cannot simply say "I liked it" - you have to provide a feel for the book by use of your observations of the above points. Of course, you may wish to have an overall rating of your subject. You can use the time honoured 1 to 10 scale or some variation thereof. Because one persons 9 is another persons 2 I prefer a more visceral rating system. In this, you try to find a parallel to your feelings about the book. Comparing a book to a chocolate sundae may mean that the work is sweet and tasty, but gives only a brief passing pleasure. Or it may mean that the book is bad for you. Or both. A rating works best when all the variations can be validly applied to the book. The more layers the better.
A lot of what I have included here is rather vague. I do not believe you can have many hard and fast rules about writing reviews. But I do think that there is room for discussion about these points. Please feel free to criticise or review this work or expound your own views. Your input is welcome.