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How to Write an Effective Book Review

February 16th, 2010

book-review-how-to-write.jpgWhat is the purpose of a book review? Don’t all readers know their preferences? Why, then, do they defer to the opinion of another person? Book reviews serve two purposes. First, they provide a road map for potential readers. Often, readers want to explore a new genre, but do not trust their instincts to find a fitting example of that literary style. Second, people look for affirmation of their tastes. They may like what they have read, yet feel the need for someone else’s approbation. Since a significant portion of the public values the professional reviewer, you must make sure your book review is effective.

First of all, you must understand what a book review is not. It is not a simple rehashing of the plot. It does not describe the characters, nor does it restate the theme. The author has already done that. What the review must do is guide the public, either toward or away from the book. It does this by establishing the book’s worth and its connection to the human condition. Farce or fantasy . . . tragedy or comedy . . . history or novella . . . all of these must strike a spark within the readers to make them say, “I understand what the stakes were. I can relate to the conflict within that character.” The reviewer’s responsibility is to find the truth — or lack thereof — lying between the first and last pages and impart that to her readers.

While you should avoid hyperbole, if your review can back the statement up, go ahead. You might say, “Great Expectations is the best novel ever written in the English language.” That is a rather sweeping statement; however, when one analyzes the scope of the novel — its broad array of well-defined characters, the intricacies of intertwined coincidences leading to astounding revelations, the satisfying denouement — this is a perfectly valid observation. You could not say the same for a novel like Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. While it is an excellent example of the spy thriller genre, it is also what Graham Greene would have called an “entertainment”; that is, it gives its audience a moment’s escape from the day’s cares, but does little to teach us about the human condition.

Next, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the book. If it is a history, does it teach anything new about its time period? If it is a biography or an autobiography, consider the author’s biases. In Andre Agassi’s recent release, Open, he tells his life’s story from his own perspective. When he expresses the hardships his father put him through, one might ask if his father could justify those actions based upon his own life in Iran. Therefore, point of view is important.

Then, ask yourself if the characters are two-dimensional or fully formed. People change over time, either because of outside forces or introspective discoveries. In Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry grows and changes. In the chapters, he is fascinated by the whole concept of war and his personal concern of whether he will stand and fight or run. Caught up in the moment in his second melee, he runs and must deal with conflicting emotions. Ultimately, he comes to grips with his dilemma, stands and fights, and leaves the battlefield well satisfied with himself. Henry is a well-formed character.

Believability and truth stand at the heart of all literature, no matter what the genre. If the reviewer discovers these and imparts them to his or her audience, that will be a successful book review. Take into consideration these elements: character, plot, conflict, genre, and theme. Then, look at the book’s intended audience. Do not expect the sophistication of an adult in a child. At the same time, do not expect that just because a book is written for children, that they will not be able to see truth in terms of their brief life’s experience. If you follow these guidelines, you will be well on your way to writing effective book reviews.


This article on writing good book reviews was supplied to us by Mel MacKaron from Constant Content.


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