18 October 2008

What's in a Book Review?

This post owes its life to a question Mack Lundy of Mack Captures Crime (previously Mack Pitches Up) asked of Petrona, whose reviews are always wonderful. She replied here.

So I decided to see whether I could analyse what I do, and perhaps come up with my own set of "book review guidelines." I'm sure there are people out there who've had much more training than I have and there are some wonderful review writers out there. You know, you read their review, and you wonder why it never occurred to you to say what they did.

Anyway, for what they are worth, here are some of my internal guidelines, which I mostly try to follow. I'll follow up with some general Q&A. Feel free to comment, what have I missed? Have you already covered this in a post of your own?

The general mechanics
  • As I read the novel, if there is something I want to remember, an incident, a quote, I will use a post-it note to mark the place. I find though if there are too many of these, they are of no help at all.
  • Sometimes I write a blog posting which I call a progress report. That seems to help me clarify my ideas about what I've read so far. I follow that up with a full review after I've finished the book.
  • I try to write the review almost as soon as I've finished the book. I have a wonderful forgettery that sieves detail out pretty quickly, so the sooner the better. I probably couldn't write a review 2 or 3 weeks after reading a book without a quick re-read.
  • I only read one book at a time. It helps me focus on that particular book. I'm not sure that I would be able to think clearly about one book if I had several working their way around in my brain.
  • I write reviews for all the books I read, whether I like them or not, even when I can't finish the book - unless I didn't read few more than a few pages.
  • I rate all the books I read.
    I have a rating scale of 0-5 and it is possible to score anything in that range.
    My general benchmarks are
    • 5.0 Excellent
      4.0 Very Good
      3.0 Average
      2.0 Poor
      1.0 Did Not Like
      0 Did Not Finish
  • I keep records in a database, write my book reviews as blog postings, list them on Smik's Reviews, put them up on Library Thing, and store selected ones on Reviewer's Choice and Australian ones on AustCrimeFiction.
  • I belong to a small Yahoo group that critiques reviews if I submit them. I don't submit all my reviews for critique but the process is often useful.
  • I always do some research about the author, find lists of books previously written, author website etc. I'm not always precious about reading reviews that others have read. It's often interesting to see what about the book they chose to highlight but what they've said is unlikely to influence my take on the book. I do include some of the research links in my review.
The structure of the review
  • I include publisher, year of publishing, ISBN number, and number of pages at the top of the review.
  • The first two paragraphs are about the beginning of the book, but based on the principle that I rarely include anything from the story that comes after page 50. I don't want to spoil the experience for the reader, just whet their appetite. Blurbs that you find on the book itself often reveal more than I do. The rule is no spoilers ever.
  • Then I talk about the structure of the book - whose point of view was it written from? themes that emerged. Strong characters, historical settings
  • Next comes how I felt about the book. What I liked, disliked, what narked me beyond belief. Not just what but why.
  • Where does this book fit? A debut novel? Part of a series? Where can the reader find more about the author or other books? Anything other interesting titbits my research has revealed.
  • My rating.
Other Q & A

Q: Why do you write a review?
A: It helps me clarify my own feelings about the book. I'm also writing for others who might want to read it. And then finally, sometimes, as feed back to the author.

Q: How long does it take to write a review?
A: At the very minimum an hour to get my ideas down and organised. Longer if you include the research time. If it goes through the critique process, then you have to be more patient, because getting feedback from others can take days.

Q: Are you a real reviewer?
A: Well, I'm not a journalist, if that's what you are asking. But I have degrees, have taught English, and have been reading crime fiction for about 40 years. But you don't need the first two to write a book review. I'm an amateur, but an amateur who knows what she likes to read, and one who can usually pick a good book from a bad one.

Q: Could I write a review?
A: Yes, you could. But you need to be prepared to do more than just copy the book's blurb and says "I liked it". Initially I found writing the first 2 paragraphs, introducing the story, incredibly hard to do. It always seemed that the original blurb had said it all. That's why often my "blurb" takes a very different tack. I start with an entirely different view of the book. Then you need to think about what you liked about the book (or didn't like). I find the process of giving the book a rating helps clarify my ideas too and for me it is an indispensible part of the process.

Q: How long does my review need to be?
A: My reviews are usually about 500 words. I don't think people want a review they have to struggle through.They basically want to know whether they will enjoy the book or not.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and useful, Kerrie. I follow many of these guidelines myself and have learnt a few. I am less organised than you and don't rate books, but I agree it is helpful as a reader of reviews to see a rating so perhaps I will start.
I agree about the post-it notes, I often start out bookmarking pages with them, and then find I've put 20 post-its in the first couple of chapters! Now I am much more selctive.
I agree totally about the spoilers and what you say by implication about blurbs. I rarely read blurbs of books because they are often more like synopses than blurbs, and ruin much of the suspense or effect.

(PS thanks for the link and kind words!)

Marg said...

Interesting post! When it comes to writing reviews I think one of the most important things is to just practice. The more you write, the easier it becomes. I look at my earlier reviews and totally cringe, but they are what they are now!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Kerrie

I do rate my books although I have a statement/sentence that describes each rating for me. For example in my rating scale 1 = "they killed trees for this?" while 5 = "I want this with me if I'm stranded on an island and have to read it repeatedly until my death". I find it much easier to rate things using words that describe my feelings when I read them.

I think you might be on to something with the one book at a time theory. I usually have three or more on the go at one time (the big fat books stay home while the little paperbacks go in my backpack for reading while out and about and I keep the hard covers out of the bedroom as I tend to fall asleep while reading and those hard corners can hurt) but for the next month or so I am going to read sequentially rather than concurrently.

As a reader of reviews I often skip the plot summary bits (I also quite often don't read book blurbs either) as I'm far more interested in people's reactions to the book than I am in their summary of it. Now that I am starting to write reviews I am therefore finding the plot summary bits quite difficult to do. But I will practice.


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