Let’s get a few things clear up front:
- No one is obligated to write a book review. Not book bloggers, not authors, not regular readers. Reviews are something readers do out of the goodness of their hearts, as a hobby, as a favor, as a way of improving their own writing… it doesn’t matter.
- Reviews are for other readers… they are not for stroking the author’s ego, tender though it may be.
- Reviews can be as simple as “I loved this book!” or “I hated this book!” That is absolutely fine.
Book reviews can be primarily for yourself, as a kind of reading journal to keep track of the books you like and dislike. If this is your intent, then obviously you can write whatever you want!
But if you want your reviews to be useful for other readers, you may need to add a bit more. Unless you’re a big name yourself with a well-known style, few people will care if you liked or disliked a book. Neil Gaiman could sell a jillion copies of some unknown author’s book simply by saying “I loved it!” But that won’t work for the rest of us. So what to do? Writing book reviews is a great way to build your credibility as a reviewer (if that’s something you’re interested in) and maybe even your editing skills (if you’re a writer). But it requires some effort and analysis of why exactly a book worked or didn’t work for you.
If you want your book reviews to be more insightful but don’t know how to get started, read on. The rest of this post is for readers (and authors) who want to write book reviews with a bit more depth.
There’s an art to writing the best book reviews. I’m not a book reviewer or book blogger, but I’ve noticed a few commonalities in the best book reviews. By best, I mean… well, you’ll see. A book review does not have to be five stars to be a great review! Instead, a great book review is:
Of course, we’re all people, and we all speak (and write) from our own perspective. Writing is art, and there’s no such thing as a completely objective view of art. However, the best book reviews attempt to objectively identify what worked and what didn’t work in a given book. Were the characters effective? Did you understand (not necessarily agree with, but understand) their motivations? Did you have an idea of the setting? Were you bored as you read it? Did the plot make logical sense? Was the ending satisfying?
The most important part of objectivity is being able to identify matters of preference and matters of quality.
If you simply hate books set in the Roaring ’20s, and you review a book set in the Roaring ’20s, it’s not really fair to slam the book for its setting, is it? That’s something you probably could (and should) have known before you started reading it. It’s also not especially helpful to slam the book for things that go along with being set in the Roaring ’20s… jazz, flappers, etc. The fact that those things are included is necessarily part of the setting and possibly the story itself… it’s not an additional flaw.
Unfortunately, not all matters of taste are as easy to identify and avoid. One of my beta readers for an early version of The King’s Sword saw Kemen as a Superman-type character… too exceptional to be relatable. Although it wasn’t “her type of book”, she gave me useful advice because she was able to clearly separate her opinion from structural flaws and strengths in that early draft and the characters. Another beta reader said “well, if he’s not the most skilled, why bother reading about him? The most exceptional characters are the most interesting!” Those are both opinions and preferences, and I was fortunate that at that early stage in my writing career, I was able to get opinions from two people with vastly different tastes who were aware of those tastes and how they affected the comments they gave me.
Try to review based on what the book is, rather than what you imagine it should be. Does it capture the feeling of the Roaring ’20s well? If so, then it did its job in that regard… even if you don’t like it. You can honestly say you didn’t enjoy it for that reason, but try to distinguish between “I didn’t like it” and “it failed”. This isn’t just a matter of being nice to the author… reviews aren’t for the author! It’s more a matter of helping other readers know whether the book might fit their taste. Their tastes might not be like your tastes! They might love the Roaring ’20s, and knowing that you didn’t like the book, or did, isn’t as useful as knowing whether the book was effective at what it set out to do.
Obviously, how effective the book is at achieving its goal is also a matter of opinion. But it’s the only way to begin to objectively evaluate something that is inherently subjective. It’s also much more useful to whoever might read your review. Knowing that the characters resonated (or didn’t resonate) for you is useful, though not necessarily true for everyone who reads the same book. Knowing that you didn’t enjoy the book isn’t useful. Identifying trends in reviews is one way that readers decide which books to buy.
Review the book, not the book you wish the author had written.
In my experience, this is often more difficult for authors to do than readers… readers are used to reading as readers, whereas writers are often thinking about their own stories and trying to analyze what they might have done differently in whatever story they’re reading. This is also why, as an author, I value the perspective of non-writer beta readers so much!
One thing that isn’t required but that I’ve really appreciated as a reader shopping for books is knowing who you would recommend this book to (if anyone). “Although it wasn’t to my taste, this book would probably appeal to readers who enjoy police procedurals with a hint of romance set in the Roaring ’20s” is an incredibly helpful conclusion!
A good example of this is Iola’s review of The King’s Sword, where she writes:
The one thing that some readers might not like is that it is written entirely in the first person (from the viewpoint of Kemem Sedona). Personally, I found that he had a self-depreciating style that was highly engaging, but I know some readers don’t like first person at all. The sequel to The King’s Sword, A Cold Wind, has just been released (and added to my wish list). Well worth reading for fans of historical fantasy.
I’m not big on book reviews that include complete plot summaries… as a reader, I want to know whether the book was enjoyable, satisfying, and immersive. I don’t want to know every detail of the plot before I start reading. However, discussion of some aspects of the story is obviously critical.
Rebecca Foster’s review of my book Things Unseen is a great example. Among other things, she says:
She took pieces from several different myths and legends in order to create the fae within these pages. These are not the fairies that you’re accustomed to, with flitting wings and mischievous giggles. They’re strong, they’re rough around the edges, and I never saw a single wing flitting about.
Brightley did something different with their creation, and I strongly recommend that you discover the intricacies of the species of fae that she designed.
She told you a little bit, but she didn’t spoil the actual story… she just gave you a taste of the kind of book you’ll be reading.
If you can think of other authors whose work is similar in some way, mentioning those similarities can effectively convey the “type” of book you’re reviewing.
with strong characters and just enough description of the towns and countryside that you get a feel for the land without feeling overburdened with overly formal “medieval-esque” language that bogs down the storytelling in so much high fantasy.
Mike Reeves-McMillan said in his review of Honor’s Heir:
It’s much more a book about relationships than it is about events, and as such, it reminds me of Debora Geary. It’s about the powerful things that happen when people are kind to one another.
Both of those comments are very helpful, not just because they identify authors that are similar in some way, but because they specify exactly what that similarity is. Do you have to do this? Of course not! But it’s helpful if you can.
Questions to Ponder
Still not sure where to start? I’ve put some questions below to help get you started. This isn’t a quiz! You don’t have to answer every question. You’re not graded on your result. It’s just a list of things that might help you think about a book and what other readers might find most helpful.
- Title – What does the title suggest? Does it fit the story?
- Cover – What “type” of story do you expect from the cover? Did the story fit that initial impression?
- Genre – If you’re reading outside your favorite genre, are you familiar with the tropes of the book’s genre? Tropes are not the same as clichés. Did the story play with any tropes in new (or new-to-you) ways?
- Point of View – Was the book in first, second, or third person? Did the point of view work for you? Did it work for the story, even if it wasn’t your preference? Was the narrator reliable or unreliable? Did the author do anything unusual in playing with the point of view?
- Style – Was the language formal or informal? Did the language fit the story?
- Story – What was it about?
- Did you know that plot and story are different? The simple explanation is that the plot is the events that happen in the book (the physical journey), and the story is how the protagonist grows through those events (the emotional journey). When you think about what the book was about, you’re really thinking about both plot and story at the same time. A story with a dramatic action-filled plot could have a lackluster story. The reverse is also true: dramatic life-threatening events aren’t necessary to have a satisfying story. Generally, when a book didn’t “work”… it’s actually the story that was the problem, unless you have logical problems in the plot events. That said, some books have their story more hidden in the plot than others, and if it didn’t work for you, see if thinking about the story rather than the plot makes it more meaningful.
- Did the story work for you? Was it satisfying?
- Characters – Did you care about them?
- Did you understand them and feel invested in the characters’ stories (their emotional journeys) through the book?
- Were they credible? Did they feel real?
- Who was your favorite? Could you relate to any of them?
- Did you enjoy the book?
- What was your favorite part? Did you have a least favorite part? (Spoilers can be ok, but authors and readers appreciate a spoiler warning!)
- Was the ending satisfying?
- Would you recommend the book? Who do you think would enjoy the book?
- Do you think the book was important in some way? Did it have anything to say about some important moral or social issue?
This warning should be unnecessary since your reviews will all be objective. But I’m going to write it anyway because I’ve seen it done: If you are an author, don’t write vindictive or retaliatory reviews of other authors’s books. Seriously. We’re all grownups. Be classy, folks. If you can’t be objective (you are an author and they wrote a scathing review of your book, or they were mean to you on social media, or whatever), then don’t write a review at all. There are about a jillion books out there. Review something else. Read something that makes you happy. Rant to a friend. But don’t rip apart their book in retaliation. Just don’t.
If you’re an editor or other professional in publishing, it’s uncool to slam other author’s work for any reason (amusement, whatever). And by slamming, I don’t mean writing well-thought-out, objective, fair reviews that happen to be less than stellar. Objective reviews can be negative. But over-the-top, mocking reviews for the sake of being cruel are just unclassy. Yes, you can do it. Yes, it’s definitely your right. It might be fun, and it might be funny. But… do you really want to be the person that finds amusement in being mean and petty? Is that part of your business model? Do you think it will make authors eager to trust you with their work? I just… don’t understand. Be bigger than that.