I’ve found that many reviewers confuse a book review with a book report, and they really aren’t the same thing at all. A book report is usually written by a student under eighteen and focuses on giving us an account of what happens in a novel – the major plot, characters, and the main idea of the work.
Book reviews are usually longer than book reports and usually aren’t an academic assignment. Rather than concentrating on “What the book’s about,” a book review usually only gives us a “sneak peak” at the plot. The bulk of the review, or at least half of it, concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses the book, the reviewer’s overall impression of the work, and perhaps details on purchasing the book.
If you really want to write a professional like book review, there are things you need to do before you read, as you read, and when you’re ready to write.
Before You Read
Before you even begin to read the book you want to review, you need to consider some of the elements you want to include in your review:
Author – Who is the author of this book? What else has he or she written?” Has the author won any awards? What is the author’s typical style of writing, and does this book adhere to that style, or is it a departure for the author?
Genre – Is the book you’re reviewing a mystery, romance, memoir, a volume of poetry, etc.? What is the book’s intended audience?
Title – Many reviewers ignore the title of a book, but it’s a good idea to tell readers how the title fits in with the work you’re reviewing. How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate the message of the text? Is it interesting or uninteresting?
Arrangement – Is the book arranged in sections? Chapters? Some other way? Is there an introduction? If so, is it enlightening? Does it contain spoilers about the book’s plot?
Book Jacket, etc. – Book jackets often contain blurbs that function as mini-reviews. In addition, many people are very interested in a book’s cover art. Does the book contain any photos, maps, or graphs? Do the binding, page cut, and typescript contribute to or detract from the work as a whole?
As You Read
As you read, think about how you’ll structure the first part, or summary portion of your review. You’ll probably need to take at least a few notes on the following:
Characters – Who are the main characters in the book? How do they affect the story? Are they sympathetic and easy to empathize with or not?
Themes/Motifs/Style – Do any themes and motifs stand out? If so, how do they contribute to the work as a whole? Are they effective? How would you describe this author’s writing style? What kind of reader do you think would enjoy this book?
Conflict – Conflict is the essence of fiction. How is this book’s main conflict set up? Is it effective?
Key Ideas – What is this book’s main idea? How does the author present it in a way that’s unique and will appeal to other readers?
When You’re Ready to Write
After you’ve finished reading and you’re ready to write your book review, begin with a short summary of the work, but don’t give away too much or you’ll spoil it for the reader. A lot of reviewers lead the reader up to the rising action and no further. The final portion of the review needs to concern itself with the reviewer’s opinion of the work and why he or she felt the way he did. When you’re ready to write your review, remember that following:
Remember your audience – Remember, your audience has probably not read the book. Don’t ruin it for them by giving away key elements.
Deal only with major issues/characters – Obviously, you can’t cover every character and plot point in the book, so deal only with the main ones. What did you agree with? Disagree with? Why?
Organize – The purpose of a book review is to critically evaluate, not to summarize. Keep your summary brief and leave plenty of room for your evaluation. Often the ratio of summary to critique is half and half, but it’s better to give your critique more time and effort than your summary.
Evaluate – You can’t evaluate the entire book, so it’s best not to even try. Choose a few points you consider important and concentrate on those. What worked well for you? What didn’t? How does this book compare to others written by the same author? Did you find the characters and theme well developed? Was the writing subtle and restrained or was it too melodramatic and possibly overwritten?
Publication Information – Many book reviews include the publisher, the price of the book, the year published, and the ISBN.