As a teacher, I often ask students to write a book review and it’s time to be honest.
When teachers say “Write a book review” – or write anything – we don’t mean anything of the sort. What we will be looking for is a very set range of skills. We often use book reviews to explore the way writers can create “voice” in a transactional non-fiction text and we will teach our students to use – for example – the first person pronoun, emotive verb choices and parenthetical grammar. Or perhaps we will use the task to explore how writers create relationships with the reader and expect to see second person pronouns, rhetorical questions and imperative sentences. What we don’t really expect to see is anything that actually feels like a book review; What we do get is 30 almost identikit “reviews” all of which begin with a rhetorical question, summarise the plot and end with the same question plus an answer.
The same applies to most writing tasks: we ask students all the time to do something utterly artificial. Take a look at some possible examples. “Write a letter from Romeo to an agony aunt about his feelings for Rosaline…”. Okay, but firstly what is an agony aunt and secondly we are three hundred years in advance of the mass media here; “Write a diary entry for Piggy in Lord of the Flies…”. Okay, but where has the pen and paper been? And the silliest I have seen in a real lesson: “Imagine you are in a ship wreck. Write a blog post about what is happening to you.” Okay, but I’m sorry I’d rather grab my place in the lifeboat first!
So, let’s dispense with that nonsense. Five tips on writing a review.
Tip #1: Own Your Voice
This seems apt advice for life rather than just a blog: don’t pretend to be anything other than you are! The energy needed to imitate others’ voices is extraordinary and counter-productive – you’ll sound like you are producing a school task otherwise!
I am – in my own opinion – rather pedantic and analytical in my reviews – I don’t squeee as much as others, nor do I fanboy / fangirl as much. And that is fine. I am rather pedantic and analytical in life too! That’s me. No apologies.
And you should find and own your own voice too: there will be a readership out there for you in the wide and varied world of the bookblogging universe.
Tip #2: Own Your Opinions
Anyone can find a plot summary on Amazon and Goodreads… they will come to your book for something else. Your opinion. Yes, you probably will include some form of plot summary, but did you like the plot or plots, were they woven together well, did you spot any plot holes (but don’t go down the “Why didn’t the eagles just take the hobbits to Mount Doom in the first place” rabbit hole without being prepared for lengthy explanations)?
What blew you away or left you cold? Was it the writing? The prose? The dialogue, the characters or the plotting? Don’t be afraid of those personal adjectives (“lovely”, “sweet”) as well as the more literary ones: “lyrical” is one that I turn to when faced with writing which is just beautiful.
And you should fear giving neither gushing praise, nor the negative review. That is the point of a review. I rarely do write negative reviews mainly because, I guess, after forty years of choosing books I am fairly good at knowing my own tastes; and having a wide and eclectic taste, I will enjoy many books. But if you do write a negative review, aim to be constructive and respectful: you are reviewing the book, not the author. An example of a negative review is here and I hope you can see the point.
Re-reading that, the novel in question was received from NetGalley as an ARC and I have since learnt that it is a little bad form to quibble about formatting and editing issues with ARCs as they are not intended to be in their final forms yet.
Tip #3: Quote from the Book
It just saves time: if you want to show how wonderful the writing or dialogue is, show it! For me, these writers are much better at language than I am, so why waste my efforts and energy in describing or paraphrasing badly something wonderful?
Also, quoting will exemplify and help evidence your opinion. “I loved the depiction of Dead Papa Toothwort in Lanny” doesn’t help anyone, but saying
I think you can probably see evidenced there all three of my tips, and indeed my next one…
Tip #4: Make Links and Compare
Okay, this one won’t always be possible, but I love to make links between the book I am reviewing and other books, between the characters in this book and other characters in other books, in history, in mythology. It allows our reviews to spiral out to a wider context, a richer tapestry – and gives you more opportunities to fill other people’s TBR lists!
An easy one is to find out what else this author has written.
Perhaps you want to do this in the text of the review, perhaps as I have started doing including an “If you liked this book, consider getting…” section. But these books are part of their own community as much as we readers are, so let’s acknowledge that!
Tip #5: Be Present in your Review
The reviews I like to read best have the reviewer very much present in them: I love reading those anecdotes about why you picked up the book, who recommended it for you, what made it stand out for you, how you got hold of it, where you were when you read it.
Again, we are all part of a community of readers, and with everything going on in the world at the moment, being part of a community is so important for us all! So let us see you.
Having said all that, I do not for a moment believe that all, most nor even many of my reviews actually apply those tips, but they are there, for what they are worth! Perhaps as much as an aide memoire to me than (unwelcome and unnecessary) advice to anyone else!
Disclaimer: I have no specialist knowledge, experience or expertise to give any advice to anyone in this How To… Series!
Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.
Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.
Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.
This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!
So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!
Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!