Reviewing a Book, Part I

Book reviews allow us to share more than our opinions about specific books or authors: they are an opportunity to defend what we consider the qualities a good book should have, while often giving us easy examples of the traits a book should not posses. A well written review offers a lesson to writers and readers.

In this first part of “Reviewing a Book” we examine basic school book review assignments and promotional marketing reviews. Our second part will explore impartial reviews such as those appearing in newspapers and magazines. Some college courses also encourage students to compose long-form impartial reviews.

Beginning with Book Reports

Our first experiences with writing about books is the elementary school book report. The genre is the simplest form of a review. Consider one possible assignment outline for young students:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Setting
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Antagonist(s)
  • Other Characters
  • Summary
  • Why I would or would not recommend this book.

In the lower elementary grades, students might complete a basic form with spaces for the required information. Teachers want students to develop the ability to identify elements of narratives. Early reviews reflect this emphasis on identification. Once students can identify narrative elements, teachers encourage more advanced comprehension and application activities.

Once you can identify the role characters play within a narrative, you are ready to explore the lessons taught by the choices characters make. In upper elementary grades and middle school, students begin to compose five-paragraph reviews exploring the themes and theses of books. The theme of a work is often a generalization. A thesis is the core argument of a work.

Theme: A family is more than genetic inheritance.

Thesis: An adopted child is as much a part of a loving family as any child might be.

Appreciating the relationship between a theme and the thesis of a work helps you understand why a writer makes certain choices when developing a plot. Exploring such complex concepts as “theme” requires more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks approach.

The (infamous) standard school essay format leads to a review that might be structured according to this model from the state of New York (http://www.nysedregents.org):

Catchy Review Title

Paragraph 1: Introduction of the Review. This paragraph mentions the author and the book title. Indicate your overall recommendation in the first paragraph, which will be rephrased in the conclusion.

Paragraph 2: Summary and Main Characters. Summarize the story and describe the main characters.

Paragraph 3: Favorite Section. Describe the best part of the book, explaining why other readers will enjoy it, without giving away the entire plot. If you are writing a negative review, explain your least favorite part of the book.

Paragraph 4: Lessons Learned. Explain the theme of the story and any lessons that the author wants readers to remember.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion of the Review. The last paragraph should restate if you recommend the book to others or not.

Book reviews expand in detail as we gain experiences as readers and writers, but the underlying structure remains the same. A New York Times book review tells us a bit about the author, the basics about the book, and tries to persuade us to either read or avoid an encounter with the text. The breadth and depth increase, but those elementary school models remind us that most of us have written book reviews.

In high school, book review assignments resemble marketing reviews. Teachers tend to ask students to write about books they enjoyed reading. As a result, the book reviews of high school students read like promotional materials.

Blurbs and Marketing Reviews

If you read dust jacket endorsements, known as cover blurbs, you are familiar with the shortest form of marketing review. A marketing review is meant to sell a book; rarely does a marketing review teach the potential reader a meaningful lesson. Of course, if you do buy a book based solely on blurbs, you do risk learning how useless blurbs are.

Blurbs read like the snippets of movie reviews studios use (often out of context) to promote their films. Hyperbole is the norm in blurbs. “The ‘must-read’ book of the year!” “This book will change your life.” “I had to read it cover to cover. It is impossible to put down this book.” If blurbs were accurate, then every book published would be superior to all previous books. Blurbs are less than 100 words and seldom longer than 50 words.

Marketing reviews are short reviews commissioned by a publisher or author. Some writing groups offer to review member books, so these reviews can be cited in marketing materials. Such reviews are collegial and supportive, rarely examples of detailed critical analysis. However, before dismissing all marketing reviews as useless, appreciate that there is a difference between being supportive and being dishonest. When writing groups review books by members or when an agent asks an author for a review, these reviewers tend do their best to compose honest reviews.

Marketing reviews tend to be less than 750 words. Within the constraints of their purpose, the reviews adhere to the conventions of longer form reviews you might find in newspapers or magazines.

A sample marketing review structure:

Catchy Review Title Review Subtitle

Paragraph 1: Introduction. This paragraph includes short, easily quoted sentences about the best qualities of the book. Mention the author and the title in the middle of the paragraph. The wittier your statements recommending the book, the better in a marketing review.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Summary. In the summary paragraphs, continue the positive and witty recommendation model. Marketing reviews tend to embrace adjectives and adverbs, without the absurd hyperbole of blurbs. Clichés pepper marketing reviews, but we wish they didn’t. You do not need to write, “The dangerous voyage across Lake Superior during a squall had me on the edge of my seat.” Replace a cliché like “edge of my seat” with more detail to make the marketing review more substantial.

Paragraph 4: Characters. People want to know what makes the main characters compelling. Marketing materials know that people remember characters better than plot points.

Paragraph 5: Promote the Author. Marketing reviews tend to include more promotion of the author than impartial reviews do.

Paragraph 6: Style Points. Because most marketing reviews try to associate an author’s style with his or her biography, praise of the style tends to follow the biographical information. For example: “Drawing on her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Garza vividly describes the operating room scenes. Readers witness the common mistakes surgeons make under pressure, from a firsthand perspective.”

Paragraph 7: Conclusion. Again, the wittier, the better. The first and last paragraphs of a marketing review are the most important because they are meant to be quoted.

If you are asked to write a marketing review, we suggest outlining the review using the above model. A marketing review needs to fit on a page or two. The sentences and the paragraphs are short, allowing them to be quoted. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Part II

In our next post, we will address composing long-form reviews.

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