What Makes a Good Book Review?

review wordsI’ve been thinking lately about what makes a good review.  I’ve been writing this blog for 3 and a half years now, and while I love writing reviews, I always want to get better at it.  It starts to feel a little routine after a while.

I expect most bloggers follow a pattern when they write reviews.  Mine usually start out with why I picked a certain book, and whether it met or didn’t meet my expectations.  I like to provide a little background and historical context (is it the author’s first book or written late in their career, is it part of a series, did it contain elements of history or the author’s life?).

And then a plot summary, and what I liked and didn’t like, and I try to include a quote.  Sometimes I look at what other reviewers are saying about a book, but I usually outline my review first so I’m not parroting someone else’s views.

I think it’s important to tell you when my reaction to a book might be unusual.  I think readers need to know what I like and dislike in general, so you know whether my review of a particular book is meaningful.  For example, I like endings that leave things unsaid.  I like messed-up, flawed characters.  I like dialect and tons of historical detail.  You probably don’t.

I’d love to hear from the readers out there, what makes a review useful for you?

And if you’re a blogger, what do you struggle with as a reviewer?

What do I struggle with?  I try not to say the same things over and over in each review.  I try to be balanced (and constructive if I know the author is reading) — but not so balanced you’ll think I liked a book when I didn’t.

But the biggest challenge is trying not to tell too much about a book.  It’s usually impossible to really express my views about a book without telling you something about what happens.  I try not to go too far.  But what’s too far?  When does a plot summary tell you more than you wanted to know? For example, if I tell you I cried like a baby at the end, that alerts you that maybe something tragic happens (which is not always true – I’m a shameless book crier).  Or in a recent book review, I wanted to write that I was glad a certain coincidence didn’t turn out to be true – but that would give away too much.  So the most I can say is I’m glad the book didn’t go as expected, but that’s horribly vague.

Last is balancing informal, personal writing and good analytical writing.  I want every review to tell you how it personally affected me — I think that’s what books are all about.  But I also want to write a thoughtful review about the merits of the book.  Sometimes I think I’m too informal, like my recent Panopticon review, and I feel like I short-changed a great book.  Other times I think I’ve taken a “fun” book and totally analyzed it (Divergent maybe?).

I’d love to hear what you like and dislike in a book review, and if you write reviews, what you find challenging.  Please comment!

  12 comments for “What Makes a Good Book Review?

  1. December 4, 2013 at 5:13 am

    I think this is something that we all struggle with. I try to always find something in the book that is good even if i didn;t like the book and be sure to mention who would like the book if I didn’t.

    • December 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks for commenting! There’s always something positive you can say about a book. If I really hate a book I don’t finish it.

  2. December 4, 2013 at 10:29 am

    When I’m reading reviews, I really like bloggers that talk about what worked about the book for them. I always think you’re so good at getting that across in your reviews – like you say, people like different things from books and I actually find what those different things are. I personally love historical fiction that has a lot of detail (so I knotw that if you’ve liked a book that’s historical fiction, I probably will too!) but I’m not always sold on dialects (which I think I mentioned recently when you reviewed The Panopticon).

    As a blogger, I personally worry that my reviews are too detailed or that I ramble too much. I prefer longer reviews though because I think that’s the only way to really get a feel for what someone thought is to have some detail but…I don’t know, really. I always try to write about a range of aspects too. So I’ll talk about characters and plot and all that because I know that different people like different aspects.

    Sorry – that was a bit rambly – basically, I think a balance between objective qualities and detail and personal responses is best 🙂

    • December 4, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      Awesome comment, I appreciate a bit of rambling! Thanks.

  3. December 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I’m always feel like I’m stuck writing something that sounds vague, because I don’t want to spoil anything. However, I much prefer reading reviews of books that I have already read because I find it interesting to see what other people thought of them. So I tend to read the kinds of reviews I shy away from writing myself.

    Some books are harder to review than others, maybe because there is less to be said, especially if I felt ambivalent about it – not even enough feeling to muster up hatred.

    I do prefer reviews to have a much more personal touch as well as thoughtful or analytical. I don’t think a mere synopsis is worthwhile because I can find that on the back of the book. It’s useful in the context of a review but not if that’s all the review consists.

    I wish I could be braver and just go to hell with spoilers – but being wary of reading spoilers myself, I feel this might be hypocritical. I tend not to always read some reviews in depth because I’m wary of them.

    • December 4, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      You make a lot of great points! I hate spoilers but you’re right, a review is so much more meaningful if you’ve already read the book. Maybe we should say to hell with spoilers once in a while — at least if it’s a widely read book.

  4. December 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    I looked back at some of my older reviews earlier in the year, and my style has definitely changed. My biggest struggle is feeling like I say the same thing or stick to the same formula all the time. While I feel like some of my earlier reviews were better written, the ones I write now are shorter, which has its own appeal to the passing blog reader. Great post!

    • December 4, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks Andi! Your blog is always evolving which is very cool. Mine has been pretty much the same for a while. I’m feeling the need to shake things up a little.

  5. December 4, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Oh man, I have so much trouble writing reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, but it can be so hard to get the feelings down in writing without giving away too much. I’m always afraid of revealing spoilers. I think that’s actually why reads longs are so fun cos you don’t have to worry about spoilers.

    I like your reviews so really, whatever you’re doing keep it up!

  6. December 6, 2013 at 4:24 am

    I often find myself split between two aspects of a good book when writing reviews: does the book have MERIT, and did I ENJOY it? Because there are books that are Important, but are an utter slog to get through. And I feel like it’s necessary to point that out in a review. On the other hand, sometimes a book can be very enjoyable to read, but only if you don’t think about if for more than three seconds (after which it completely falls apart into a mess of bad writing, bad characterization, etc.).

    I personally never summarize books for two reasons. One, I know enough people who are absolutely insane about spoilers, and two, because if you really want to know the summary, you can find it elsewhere. I want to read books based more on their writing or the way they impacted the reader than the finer plot points. So I generally forgo those.

  7. December 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    I tend to follow the same pattern when I write reviews. They’re always two paragraphs long; paragraph #1 is a basic (spoiler-free!) plot summary, and paragraph #2 is my reaction/thoughts on the book. I always try to give reasons for why I liked or didn’t like a book, including both objective problems (terrible dialogue, a plot that doesn’t make sense) and my own personal issues (this book had X in it, and I hate X). At the end, I always try to say whether I would recommend the book or not — and if so, to whom?

    When I’m reading a review, I like to know a little bit about what the book is about, and then why it worked or didn’t work for the reader. Personally, I prefer shorter reviews. I do admire bloggers who write long reviews with tons of detail about the book; I know they approach the books they read seriously and thoughtfully, which is a good thing. But honestly, if the review is so long that I need to scroll down, I’m probably not going to read all of it. I just want to get a basic idea of whether this is a book I should read or not. So I guess I use reviews as an indication of what to add to my TBR list, not so much as a forum for detailed discussion of a book.

  8. December 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I feel like you wrote about so many of the things I struggle with while writing reviews! Firstly, I have a difficult time writing a negative review if an author has sent me a book. I know that they put a lot of time and energy into writing and so I really try to point out weaknesses without being cruel about it.

    I find myself trying to avoid using certain phrases or descriptions because I know I am prone to use them in reviews. Especially when you are reading books that are similar, it’s tough to come up with original thoughts!

    Thanks for this post. It’s great to hear what other bloggers think about writing reviews.

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