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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Author: C. Scott Wyatt

Writer.