Everyone’s a Critic: Some pointers for writing book reviews
Writing a book review is something that you’ll very likely be asked to do as part of your OCA courses in creative writing at some point. It’s a good way to begin looking at books critically, and it’s also something you could use to keep a record of books that you’ve read to help you decide what you really think of them!
You might have heard it said that to be a part of a writing community, it’s good to try and give something back to other writers. It’s something that can be done in many ways; organising events, starting a magazine or online platform for other writers, and sharing work you’ve enjoyed on social media. You might also find it in book reviewing; whether it’s a paragraph on Amazon or Goodreads, or a more weighty piece to pitch to a magazine.
Here are a few pointers you might want to consider in embarking on a book review:
Give some context
It’s always a good idea to make it clear where you’re coming from with any book. Is this author completely new to you? Have you read everything they’ve ever written and keenly pre-ordered this one two months before it came out? If you’re reviewing a book your best mate has just published, it’s also probably fair to come clean on this too. It doesn’t mean your review won’t be valid, it’s just declaring your bias before you proceed.
Good Points First
The author you’re reviewing is most definitely a real person and they might read this review, should it make its way out into the world. So pick the good points out first, a good 2-3 of them, and make this the opening element of the review.
If you can’t find any good points…
It’s probably best not to write the review. I’m not saying every review has to be sycophantic by any means, but if you really couldn’t find anything in it, then you’re not the book’s target audience. If you find the book offensive, then this may be something you want to write about it, but the format of a review is probably not exactly the right place to do so. You might want to contact the publisher or author directly with your concerns, or you could write a more polemical article.
Qualify your statements
Especially the negative ones. It’s lazy reviewing to say ‘this book left me cold’ or ‘this did nothing for me’ without pinpointing exactly why you didn’t get what you’d hoped from it, or how you feel the author has failed to do what they set out to. Be as constructive as you can – imagine that you’re offering feedback rather than tearing the book to shreds.
A few questions to get you started
Not all of these will necessarily be relevant, but: What are the main themes of the book? Are the characters believable? Does it intrigue you? Did you enjoy it from the beginning or did it take a few pages to get into? Do you like this as much as their last book? Is it too long or too short? Does the story become predictable or defy your expectations? Are all their poems about the same subject, or do they span a range of themes and forms? Do you agree with what happens to the characters? Is it easy to inhabit the world of the book? Does the book engage with any social / political ideas that particularly interest you, or you feel are relevant? What wider conversations is it speaking into? Is there anything you’d change, and what?