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>Book Reviews: A Ten-Step Process

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Introduction

How to Write a Book Review in 10 Easy Steps

Okay, so you have to write a book review. What do you need to do and in what order? Here’s a 10-step process you can use to review any book.

1) Don’t read the book. At least, not yet. Instead, start by looking at it. Look for clues to the nature of the book you’ll be reading. Is it a richly manufactured item aimed at collectors? What does the cover illustration indicate the book will be about? What sort of blurbs are included? How is it categorized by the publisher? All of these will tell you the book’s target audience.

2) Don’t read the book. At least, not quite yet. Instead, open the book and flip through it. Look at how the words are arranged on the pages. Start with the largest distinctions—the number of pages, the number of chapters, and so on. Then move to the size of paragraphs, how much of the book is dialogue, etc. This will tell you about the book’s readability and how the author structured the book.

3) Build a framework for taking notes. You always focus better if you have something specific to look for and markers to pay attention to along the way. Start with the simplest things—the number of chapters, for example—and then move on to more complex tasks, such as questions you’ll want to answer: “What makes this book a classic?” or “What made this book ‘speak for a generation’ like the introduction said it did?”

4) Read the book. And as you do so…

5) Pay attention. That isn’t a disciplinary command like, “Don’t let your mind wander!” Instead, pay attention to your reading experience. This is the first real challenge for most people. What caught your attention, and when were you bored? When was the book suspenseful? Which characters did you like, and why?

6) Review the book and take notes that let you explain its effects. This is the second tough step for most people. Remember that note-taking framework you built earlier? Now’s the time to fill it in. Flip back through the book and write brief, purposeful notes. What happens in the first chapter—and what was its effect on you as a reader? When you passed from one part of the book to the next—chapter, section, or setting—what kept your attention? This is the part most people neglect, but it lays the foundation for the rest of the book review, so keep at it until you can do the following:

Explain how the book as a whole affected you.

Explain how the author achieved the effects he or she did.

Explain the relationship between form and content.

If it is fiction, explain the function of each character in the novel.

Explain the characters’ relationships to one another.

7) Sum up the book. This is the easy part, and half of what most people think a book review is. Put the book in a nutshell. Keep summarizing it until you’ve got everything covered clearly. Use that to start your review.

8) Pass judgment. This is the other half of a book review for most people. Is this book good or bad? This is the time for you to say so. Put that second in your review—but use your notes from earlier to explain why and to make your judgment persuasive. Give specific examples, and move from passing judgment to explaining the book. That comes third.

9) Put the book in context. You might have been able to get this information from looking at the book’s cover and introduction, or you might need to do a little research. What categories does this book fall into? Is it science fiction or fantasy? Is it the first of its kind or an imitation? The author’s first book or fifteenth? Spend some time relating this book to others in its category to further explain the book and your judgment of it.

10) Check your aim. You’ve written your review. Now’s the time to step back and apply this sort of reasoning to your own review. Did you explain every major aspect of the book? What was your target audience? Did you write this for a class with specific criteria—or for a fan magazine whose audience already knows this type of book well? If so, you might have to edit your review to add or remove details. If you don’t…you’re done!

 

>Book Review Basics

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Los Angeles Valley College Library

Library 

5800 Fulton Ave.

Valley Glen, California, 91401-4096

                          Phone: 818-947-2425
                          Fax: 818-947-2751

How to Write a Book Review

A book review is a description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book, not a retelling. It should focus on the book’s purpose, content, and authority. A critical book review is not a book report or a summary. It is a reaction paper in which strengths and weaknesses of the material are analyzed. It should include a statement of what the author has tried to do, evaluates how well (in the opinion of the reviewer) the author has succeeded, and presents evidence to support this evaluation.
There is no right way to write a book review. Book reviews are highly personal and reflect the opinions of the reviewer. A review can be as short as 50-100 words, or as long as 1500 words, depending on the purpose of the review.
The following are standard procedures for writing book reviews; they are suggestions, not formulae that must be used.
1. Write a statement giving essential information about the book: title, author, first copyright date, type of book, general subject matter, special features (maps, color plates, etc.), price and ISBN.
2. State the author’s purpose in writing the book. Sometimes authors state their purpose in the preface or the first chapter. When they do not, you may arrive at an understanding of the book’s purpose by asking yourself these questions:
a. Why did the author write on this subject rather than on some other subject?
b. From what point of view is the work written?
c. Was the author trying to give information, to explain something technical, to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
d. What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it? (Use outside sources to familiarize yourself with the field, if necessary.) Knowledge of the genre means understanding the art form. and how it functions.
e. Who is the intended audience?
f. What is the author’s style? Is it formal or informal? Evaluate the quality of the writing style by using some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, correct use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, fluidity. Does it suit the intended audience?
g. Scan the Table of Contents, it can help understand how the book is organized and will aid in determining the author’s main ideas and how they are developed – chronologically, topically, etc.
g. How did the book affect you? Were any previous ideas you had on the subject changed, abandoned, or reinforced due to this book? How is the book related to your own course or personal agenda? What personal experiences you’ve had relate to the subject?
h. How well has the book achieved its goal?
i. Would you recommend this book or article to others? Why?
3. State the theme and the thesis of the book.
a. Theme: The theme is the subject or topic. It is not necessarily the title, and it is usually not expressed in a complete sentence. It expresses a specific phase of the general subject matter.
b. Thesis: The thesis is an author’s generalization about the theme, the author’s beliefs about something important, the book’s philosophical conclusion, or the proposition the author means to prove. Express it without metaphor or other figurative language, in one declarative sentence.
Example
Title: We Had it Made
General Subject Matter: Religious Intolerance
Theme: The effects of religious intolerance on a small town
Thesis: Religious intolerance, a sickness of individuals, contaminates an entire social group
4. Explain the method of development-the way the author supports the thesis. Illustrate your remarks with specific references and quotations. In general, authors tend to use the following methods, exclusively or in combination.
a. Description: The author presents word-pictures of scenes and events by giving specific details that appeal to the five senses, or to the reader’s imagination. Description presents background and setting. Its primary purpose is to help the reader realize, through as many sensuous details as possible, the way things (and people) are, in the episodes being described.
b. Narration: The author tells the story of a series of events, usually presented in chronological order. In a novel however, chronological order may be violated for the sake of the plot. The emphasis in narration, in both fiction and non-fiction, is on the events. Narration tells what has happened. Its primary purpose is to tell a story.
c. Exposition: The author uses explanation and analysis to present a subject or to clarify an idea. Exposition presents the facts about a subject or an issue as clearly and impartially as possible. Its primary purpose is to explain.
d. Argument: The author uses the techniques of persuasion to establish the truth of a statement or to convince the reader of its falsity. The purpose is to persuade the reader to believe something and perhaps to act on that belief. Argument takes sides on an issue. Its primary purpose is to convince.
5. Evaluate the book for interest, accuracy, objectivity, importance, thoroughness, and usefulness to its intended audience. Show whether the author’s main arguments are true. Respond to the author’s opinions. What do you agree or disagree with? And why? Illustrate whether or not any conclusions drawn are derived logically from the evidence. Explore issues the book raises. What possibilities does the book suggest? What has the author omitted or what problems were left unsolved? What specific points are not convincing? Compare it with other books on similar subjects or other books by the same as well as different authors. Is it only a reworking of earlier books; a refutation of previous positions? Have newly uncovered sources justified a new approach by the author? Comment on parts of particular interest, and point out anything that seems to give the book literary merit. Relate the book to larger issues.
6. Try to find further information about the author – reputation, qualifications, influences, biographical, etc. – any information that is relevant to the book being reviewed and that would help to establish the author’s authority. Can you discern any connections between the author’s philosophy, life experience and the reviewed book?
7. If relevant, make note of the book’s format – layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there maps, illustrations? Do they aid understanding?
8. Check the back matter. Is the index accurate? Check any end notes or footnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text? Check any bibliography the author may provide. What kinds of sources, primary or secondary, appear in the bibliography? How does the author make use of them? Make note of important omissions.
9. Summarize (briefly), analyze, and comment on the book’s content. State your general conclusions. Pay particular attention to the author’s concluding chapter. Is the summary convincing? List the principal topics, and briefly summarize the author’s ideas about these topics, main points, and conclusions. Use specific references and quotations to support your statements. If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new material at this point.

Some Considerations When Reviewing specific genres:

Fiction (above all, do not give away the story)

Character
1.From what sources are the characters drawn?
2.What is the author’s attitude toward his characters?
3.Are the characters flat or three-dimensional?
4.Does character development occur?
5.Is character delineation direct or indirect?
Theme
1.What is/are the major theme(s)?
2.How are they revealed and developed?
3.Is the theme traditional and familiar, or new and original?
4.Is the theme didactic, psychological, social, entertaining, escapist, etc. in purpose or intent?
Plot
1.How are the various elements of plot (eg, introduction, suspense, climax, conclusion) handled?
2.What is the relationship of plot to character delineation?
3.To what extent, and how, is accident employed as a complicating and/or resolving force?
4.What are the elements of mystery and suspense?
5.What other devices of plot complication and resolution are employed?
6.Is there a sub-plot and how is it related to the main plot?
7.Is the plot primary or secondary to some of the other essential elements of the story (character, setting, style, etc.)?
Style
1.What are the “intellectual qualities” of the writing (e.g., simplicity, clarity)?
2.What are the “emotional qualities” of the writing (e.g., humour, wit, satire)?
3..What are the “aesthetic qualities” of the writing (e.g., harmony, rhythm)?
4.What stylistic devices are employed (e.g., symbolism, motifs, parody, allegory)?
5.How effective is dialogue?
Setting
1.What is the setting and does it play a significant role in the work?
2.Is a sense of atmosphere evoked, and how?
3.What scenic effects are used and how important and effective are they?
4.Does the setting influence or impinge on the characters and/or plot?
Biography
1.Does the book give a “full-length” picture of the subject?
2.What phases of the subject’s life receive greatest treatment and is this treatment justified?
3.What is the point of view of the author?
4.How is the subject matter organized: chronologically, retrospectively, etc.?
5.Is the treatment superficial or does the author show extensive study into the subject’s life?
6.What source materials were used in the preparation of the biography?
7.Is the work documented?
8.Does the author attempt to get at the subject’s hidden motives?
9.What important new facts about the subject’s life are revealed in the book?
10.What is the relationship of the subject’s career to contemporary history?
11.How does the biography compare with others about the same person?
12.How does it compare with other works by the same author?

History and other Nonfiction

1.With what particular subject or period does the book deal?
2.How thorough is the treatment?
3.What were the sources used?
4.Is the account given in broad outline or in detail?
5.Is the style that of reportorial writing, or is there an effort at interpretive writing?
6.What is the point of view or thesis of the author?
7.Is the treatment superficial or profound?
8.For what group is the book intended (textbook, popular, scholarly, etc.)?
9.What part does biographical writing play in the book?
10.Is social history or political history emphasized?
11.Are dates used extensively, and if so, are they used intelligently?
12.Is the book a revision? How does it compare with earlier editions?
13.Are maps, illustrations, charts, etc. used and how are these to be evaluated?

Poetry

1.Is this a work of power, originality, individuality?
2.What kind of poetry is under review (epic, lyrical, elegiac, etc.)?
3.What poetical devices have been used (rhyme, rhythm, figures of speech, imagery, etc.), and to what effect?
4.What is the central concern of the poem and is it effectively expressed?

Subject headings used in the catalog:

Book reviewing                                             Criticism
Related books:
Book reviewing : a guide to writing book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Boston. The Writer, 1978 PN98.B7 B6
Drewry, John. Writing Book Reviews. Boston: The Writer, 1974. PN98.B7 D7 1974
Teitelbaum, Harry. How to Write Book Reports. New York: Monarch Press, 1975. LB2369 .T4
Miller, Walter James. How to write book reports : — analyzing and evaluating fiction, drama, poetry, and non-fiction New York. Arco Pub., 1984. LB2369 .M46 1984

Sources of Book Reviews

Book Review Digest 1985+ INDEX Z1219 .C96
Book Review Index 1965+ INDEX Z1035.A1 B6
Contemporary Authors REFERENCE Z1224 .C5

Related Websites:

>Definitions of writer, author, plotter, artist

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Writer Defined
Posted by R.C. Harvey on February 4th, 2011 at 12:01 AM
Play it again, Sam. 
The writer-artist controversy still lurks. The more I ponder it, 
the more I wonder what everyone means by writing. 
The meaning of drawing is plain enough: Drawing 
means making pictures, either with pencil or with ink using pen 
or brush. No room for disputation there. A person is an artist if 
he or she does either (or both); but if neither is done, the 
practitioner cannot, perforce, be an artist.


But writing is another kind of cause. As the term is being ridden these days, it apparently can mean any of the following: (1) concocting a story, (2) contriving a plot, (3) stringing words together across a page, (4) forming sentences with words, or (5) inventing dialogue and captions to suit actions and incidents depicted in pictures.

As long as the definition of writing and, therefore, writer is as fluid as this, we will have confusion and contention about who is doing what. Jack Kirby, for instance, could legitimately claim to have written the Fantastic Four because he invented personalities and a story with a plot; Stan Lee can lay an equally legitimate claim to having written the same title because he scripted speech balloons and caption blocks. Both are correct. Neither is fibbing. But unless we define what we mean by writing we cannot say with precision what either actually did.

Herewith, my precedent-setting solution. Some definitions.
A story is a sequence of events: First A happened, then B happened, then C happened, and so on. A person who invents a story is an author.

A plot is a sequence of events in which the causes of the events are identified: First A happened because B happened, then C happened because A happened. The key language in a story is “and then”; the key language in a plot is “because.” A person who invents a plot is a plotter. (No, not a plodder.) Most authors are plotters, too.

A person who strings words across the page is a typist.

A person who makes sentences out of words is a writer.

A person who makes sentences and words for speech balloons and captions is a scripter.

To return to my Kirby-Lee example, we might say (if the credits I’ve given are correct) that the Fantastic Four was created by Kirby, who was apparently the author and plotter and artist, and Lee, who was the scripter.

One last term: storyteller. I’m reserving that one for the person who creates the visual narrative — that is, the one who breaks the story down into sequential panels and determines the size and shape of the panels and the visual elements that go into them. Sometimes the storyteller might be the author; sometimes, the artist. It depends upon how complete (or “full”) the verbal version of the story is. If it includes directions to the artist about how to depict scenes, actions, persons, then the person who creates the verbal version of the story is also the storyteller.

On the other hand, if the visual narrative is left entirely to the artist, then the artist is also the storyteller. Like Kirby.
Having solved that controversy, I think now I should rest.


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