Writing book reviews…


There are, obviously, a lot of these little items about these days.  They’re popping up everywhere too, it seems. 

Everybody’s busy writing the little varmints as well.  On places like Amazon and every online blog and website known to man–and a few known only to my dogs… 

And, in light of last weekend’s revelations about Orlando Figes using Amazon’s facilities to anonymously diss his alleged rivals–I may even have been one of his victims or perhaps the recipient of a Figes-copycat reviewer–I thought I might, as a book critic of some 20 years’ experience, mention a bit about what a review is. 

And what it is not.

Let’s be clear from the outset, a proper review cannot indulge in character assassination.  Because a proper book review is a review of a book.  Not its author.

Also, it is not anonymous and there are things such as libel laws and lawyers and lawsuits. 

No respectable paper will allow their reviewers to indulge in character assassination for the simple reason that they’d get sued and that gets costly. 

Then too, a proper critic is expected to be able to support every one of his statements with an example from the text.  It’s called proof.  So I can’t call something badly written unless I have at least one quotation that will support my assertion. 

So, what does a good review cover? 

Basically, for fiction, it should include something about plot, writing style, characters and genre.  At the very least.   A minimum of a paragraph for each, I should have said.  Perhaps more on those elements which stood out–for better or worse.  

For history, a reviewer should probably throw in something to give context to the casual reader who may not necessarily know all about a subject. 

Whether the historian did their research well or not is also an essential point.  As is whether they added anything to our knowledge of the subject or whether it was just a vanity project…whether they were able to bring the period to life.  That kind of thing.

Because at base, the idea is, or was, that one could read a book review and determine whether to buy the thing or not.  That’s really what it’s for.

So, for example, if a review is nothing more than a plot summary, it’s not a review.  It hasn’t  reviewed the book as a whole entity, instead it’s a synopsis.  (A review should never, not ever, not under any circumstances, include plot spoilers!)

Thus, the discussion of plot should probably be just enough to give the gist of maybe the opening fifty pages, to set the scene as it were, so that the punters can say, “Oooh, I quite like books about racing…” (That’d be for a Dick Francis…) And then the good reviewer will move onto something about it developing well or not, being predictable or not, being credible or not. 

About characters?  Well the main questions a reviewer will be looking to answer are:   Are they engaging, believable, so nasty you want to strangle them on page one…Do the characters develop or do they stagnate?  If it’s historical fiction, are they modern characters in dress-up costumes or are they true to their era? 

And, above all–fiction or non-fiction–a review should discuss whether the work is well or beautifully or badly written–probably including at least one quotation which will give a reader a chance to judge for themselves whether they enjoy, dislike or even understand the style of the thing. 

And that’s it really. 

Yet if writing a review sounds easy or facile, think again.  Because when one writes these little numbers for a newspaper there’s usually a word limit.  850 words is a normal length.  So identifying all of the above and then condensing it into readable prose can be an art form on its own. 

It’s really a very tight essay form including all of the abovementioned elements and wrapped up in some neat writing of its own. 

So, there you have it. 

(And I did think I’d post a couple of my reviews over the next few days so you can see what I’m babbling about…that is if you’re interested.  Ha ha ha.)


6 comments on “Writing book reviews…

  1. MHM says:

    Have read only a couple of your reviews, MM and found them to be informative, succinct and of course well-written! I’d enjoy reading more, so yes, do post some examples.

  2. M M Bennetts says:

    Yes, of course…

  3. Greta van der Rol says:

    I’d be interested, too.

  4. Piotr says:

    Aha, so true. Same goes for marking and grading. Just wish one of my thesis examiners followed your advice, but I’m not complaining. I passed my Masters and graduating in May.

    Now, that I have had my daily dose of your blog, I’ll go write my own.

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