Before exploring the mis-named “impartial” book review format, I want to mention the most influential form of book review today: the customer review. Just as “word-of-mouth” reviews by friends and colleagues can help you select a book (or avoid it), the online customer reviews found on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere can help or hurt a book more than any traditional published review. When a book has thousands of positive reviews, who cares what the critics believe? Likewise, a torrent of negative reviews can condemn a critically acclaimed work.
Online Customer Reviews
Many online comment forms permit only 250 to 500 word reviews. The result is online reviews more like blurbs than reviews. Even negative comments posted online resemble blurbs more than in-depth reviews. “Don’t waste your money,” is not a review because it offers no explanation or insights. A proper review demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a book.
Do not waste any words in your comments. To write a useful customer review within the limited space available, try to select the best or the worst passage from the book. If your complaint is that the characters are one-dimensional — a common complaint about low-rated books — give an example of the weak description used by the author.
Posting more reviews does not always translate into influence. Most online systems allow readers a chance to evaluate other reviewers. If you post a thousand five-star reviews, that’s going to cast doubt on your critical thinking abilities. If, however, you post a hundred reviews that demonstrate careful consideration of the works, then other readers will pay attention.
I look to see what someone reads when I judge book ratings online. If you read science fiction and post a negative review of a history of World War I, that’s not persuasive. However, your reviews of science fiction books might be insightful. If you like some authors and not others, that information is useful to other readers and reviewers.
While most reviews are posted on merchant sites, such as Amazon, I encourage you to consider Goodreads. Also, there are websites dedicated to particular genres.
(Somewhat) Impartial Book Reviews
Writing a full-length book review for a newspaper, magazine, or online publication involves analyzing the book and defending your opinions. A good book review educates readers, explaining what the ideal qualities of a text might be and how the book being reviewed does or does not reflect the criteria you have established. A good review is craftwork.
The label “impartial” suggests that the reviewer did not receive money or other perks in return for writing a review. Most publications have strict policies to foster impartial reviews. However, many publications feature reviews by authors and there might be some hesitation before criticizing a colleague. Ideally, a reviewer does not share a publisher, agent, or any other financial connection to the author being reviewed. At the end of a review, you should disclose any potential conflicts of interest, if only to insulate yourself from claims of bias.
The Intro and Overall Assessment
The first paragraph or two of a book review need to state the work’s title, the author’s persona, and your overall assessment of the work. The introduction demonstrates your understanding of the genre, the author, and other readers. You need to hook review readers, just as you do readers of any work.
Francine Franklin’s A Stitch in Crime, her latest humorous mystery, keeps a reader in stitches while medical examiner Barney Bumble stumbles his way through a complex scheme to dominate the clothing industry. Unfortunately, much of the laughter comes at the expense of Franklin, who resorts to the tired formula that seemed so original in her first two novels. Some might consider A Stitch in Crime literary comfort food, but most readers will want more from such a talented writer.
The sample intro offers the big details: Francine Franklin’s book A Stitch in Crime is, at best, a mediocre book. The remainder of the review needs to explain this claim with evidence and comparisons to other works.
About the Author
The second section of a book review needs to balance its appeal to readers new to the author and the loyal followers likely to defend the work. By proving you know about the author and his or her works, you are more likely to persuade readers to take your analysis seriously. Some of the information you might address includes:
- What else has the author written?
- Does the author stick to one genre?
- Does the work (or previous works) resemble those of another writer(s)?
- Does the author have any special qualifications?
- Are there any biographical facts that might help readers?
- Are the any great bits of trivia about the author that readers might not know?
Other works written by the author, especially if they are well known works, should be mentioned. First, this shows you have the most basic knowledge of the author. Second, it tells readers something about what they might expect from a new book. When you mention these past works, indicate if the author tends to favor one genre. If the author writes in a few genres, do the works in one sell better? Are they better written?
Readers… read. Therefore, they are likely to be familiar with other authors within the same genre as the book being reviewed. Mention similar authors, and later in the review you should expand on any comparisons or contrasts. When you do compare authors, realize that comparisons are imperfect. Readers do not want writers that mimic each other, but they do recognize that some writers are more alike than others.
After you establish what the author writes, explore any unique qualifications brought to the topic. A former police officer writing about urban crime? A doctor writing medical thrillers? Those are special qualifications. It isn’t that a writer must have career experience related to a book, but it does help readers take the author more seriously.
Non-fiction works might not require a doctorate in the field explored, but it helps to have a broad knowledge of the book’s topic. I happen to prefer books at least co-written by scientists, historians, and other experts. There are good books by journalists — they are often self-taught experts — but I do give more credence to books by researchers. Be sure to verify how qualified a non-fiction author is and share that information with review readers.
What if the author is a pen name? Some reviewers choose to reveal the writers behind pseudonymous works, while others treat author personas as unique creations. Some authors have made their pen names part of marketing strategies. Nora Roberts is one good example of this.
Telling a Good Story
Does the work tell a good story? Most readers want a story, with more than a basic linear recounting of events. A story might be either plot-driven or character-driven, but it is always “driven” by something. Do we follow the growth of one or more characters? Do we watch an event unfold? Some readers are passionate about characters, while others focus on plot points.
I cannot recall much about the character in the film Titanic. The film was event-driven with characters serving to help us relate to the disaster. Yet, there are also characters we know better than their stories. I enjoy the character Sherlock Holmes; the stories seem to be vehicles for the character. One approach is not superior to the other.
When you review a book, indicate if the book emphasizes memorable characters or plot points. Of course, a good story has interesting characters and an interesting chain of events, but which are the readers more likely to remember? Series tend to need great central characters that become familiar to readers.
Themes and Theses
Books tend to teach lessons — at least they attempt to teach lessons. The lesson might be shallow, serving no real purpose. The theme is the overall topic, usually with some moral leaning. For example, a theme might be “friendship.” The thesis might be, “We need friends to achieve great things.” The thesis is an opinion on the theme — an argument that the book attempts to support. A theme is simply a short topic, which might not be a complete sentence. The thesis about the theme is not only a complete thought, but it is at the core of the story.
A good review tells readers if the theme and thesis are developed and realized. It is disappointing (and common) when a book fails to defend the author’s thesis. A book that tries to teach about love, yet conveys to readers that marrying the richest man is the best choice, has failed to realize its thesis.
An academic book review might spend more time on the theme and thesis of a book than a general review. An academic review tends to favor conceptual and historical comparisons, while a general review needs to focus on the reading experience. The themes and theses of popular fiction tend to be simple and familiar, which is another reason you can keep this section of a review short.
When you do encounter a book with an unusual theme or a thesis that challenges popular values, then you can spend more time addressing these aspects of the story. If a book about love suggests that an affair or two might be okay, readers might want you to challenge the thesis in a review. Plenty of literary works do challenge norms, which is why they tend to be outside the mass market.
Characters that Count
Having covered the basics, a review should address specifics about characters and plot points. I suggest addressing characters first, since they tend to be what sells mass market books. Even popular non-fiction often highlights the “characters” behind the events discussed. Does the book have characters who will be remembered? You don’t have to like characters to find them interesting, but dull characters can ruin a story.
We like to read about people (or creatures) caught in situations we’d rather avoid. For all the dystopian stories in our culture, we still like heroes rising against the odds. Because I write scripts, I tend to favor the “Hero’s Journey” story model common to screen and stage. A good story follows a character as he or she becomes a better person in the process of solving a problem.
A book review needs to address the following:
- Are the characters interesting or dull?
- Do the characters have backstories?
- How does the author develop characters?
- Are any characters “wasted” space?
- Do you want to know more about them after reading the book?
Good, evil, or neutral, a character needs to be interesting. What is the character’s motivation? How does the character justify his or her choices and actions? You want to avoid characters that do things for no reason. Even an insane villain has a reason (however illogical) for actions. When you review a book, offer readers an explanation for why characterization worked or failed.
When you read the works of some authors, you end up with a complete history for main characters. Other authors offer only allusions to the origins of characters. Both approaches can work, depending on the requirements of the story. Tell readers what to expect: details or hints.
Wasted characters annoy readers. A “waste of space” character is one that doesn’t contribute to the plot or the emotional development of other characters. When reviewing a book, tell readers if there are wasted characters. It is not a waste to have a “red herring” among the characters; misleading readers makes for a good story. A common wasted character is the sidekick who does nothing to help advance the plot. Sidekicks need to be useful.
Some characters are based on real people or composites of real people. A review should mention anything known about the real life inspirations behind characters.
Good characters are complex. Heroes tend to have flaws and the plot helps the protagonist recognize his or her flaws. A villain should have some “reasonable” motivation. Often, a villain’s perspective offers an explanation for his or her actions. Pure evil often is less interesting than the evil that was created by experiences.
What readers want are characters worth meeting again and again, either by rereading a favorite book or by reading new books in a series. A good review tells readers if the characters are compelling.
Do not give away the major plot points in a book review. Do not get cute with “spoiler alerts” in a review. Your job is to critique a book, not to summarize it. How do you address the plot in a review? You give the one-sentence “log line” that would appear in a TV Guide listing. For a reviewer, the challenge is to describe the plot without giving away the details.
To save his beloved swamp, an ogre rescues a princess and accidentally discovers the beauty of true love.
A review might include the following:
- What is the problem that advances the plot?
- What happens if the problem is not resolved?
- Are there any subplots?
A story needs a problem that one of the characters must solve. If the problem is not solved, something bad will happen, usually to some other character or group. The Hero’s Journey model suggests that the protagonist decides to make a self-sacrifice to save others.
Sub-plots are important, but they can also overwhelm a story. Let readers know if there are too many sub-plots in a story. In my experience, romantic sub-plots can distract from stories, but they are included because authors and editors assume romance humanizes characters. In romance stories, sub-plots about money (or the lack of money) can be overwrought and annoying.
Reviews should award style point — and penalize authors for poor style. Spend a fair amount of the review exploring style. A good story deserves to be delivered well. It is possible to have a good story, decent plot, interesting characters… and weak style. Readers won’t forgive poor style, so a review must address the readability of a book. The style section of a book review should address topics including:
- Narrative point-of-view,
- Tone of the narrative,
- Voice of the author, and
- Style of the writing, in general.
I am not a fan of present tense first or second-person narrative. Most readers are not, either. The second-person narrative was common in the 1940s. The short story and radio drama series “The Whistler” featured a narrator talking about the actions of the main character as he or she committed a crime and then tried to escape the consequences. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, but it can be confusing. Is “you” the reader or a character?
You don’t see the gun he has hidden under the table. You move. He shoots.
Does the author/narrator have a sense of humor? Are plot points themselves humorous? What is the “mood” and “tone” of the author? I love A Series of Unfortunate Events because the narration is dark and depressing, yet that is also part of the humor of the books. Such satire is amazing when done well.
There are style norms within genres. One of the norms includes the vocabulary used by the authors. Does the author prefer concise sentences or flowery prose? Is the vocabulary unusual in some way? How does the language reflect genre conventions, or does the author resist the conventions?
Closing the Review
A review concludes by restating your recommendation: should someone read this book? The last paragraph or two should remind readers of the strengths and weaknesses you have discovered. Your role as a reviewer is to promote good writing to readers. If you dislike a book, maybe you can suggest an alternative to read. If you like a book, be sure to remind readers of other works by the same author.
Reviewers foster reading, and they do so by offering honest critiques of the works they read.