Storyville: How to Write a Book Review

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In today’s column, I will talk about how to write a book review. I know that many of you are avid readers, and whether you simply want to put something up on your blog, send your criticism to a small journal, or get paid professional rates to publish lengthy narratives about fiction that moves you, there are some essential components to focus on. Here are some suggestions on how to write a compelling review, how to excite your readers and get them to seek out the books you love, as well as some techniques that have worked for me in the past.

FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE PAST WORK OF THE AUTHOR

One way to look at a novel or collection is in the context of an author’s body of work. Take a moment, if you can, to think about what that particular author is known for—lyrical language, epic storytelling, or graphic horror—so that you understand the traditional focus and perspective of the voice you are criticizing. It’s important to know that if a particular author is gifted in one area but not as talented in another that this may just be their particular style. I wouldn’t criticize Cormac McCarthy for the same things as Stephen King, or sing their praises either, since they are two very different authors, and my expectations of their writing would be different. If you can educate yourself a little bit before jumping into the latest novel, it may help you with your review.

READ THE BOOK

This is not reading for pleasure, this is reading with an eye on several different layers of storytelling.

I know, seems obvious, right, but actually read the entire book, or collection of stories. And read it with a critical eye. This is not reading for pleasure, this is reading with an eye on several different layers of storytelling. You read to understand the plot of the story—does it make sense, does it keep you turning the page, is it fulfilling when it’s done? And if so, how did they do it? Talk about those things. The same thing goes with having an eye and ear for the setting and atmosphere—did the horror story scare you, did the fantasy story take you to another world, did the literary story inspire you and leave you with epiphanies? You will read this book with an interest in the characters, the ones that are believable, that make you cry when they perish, the ones that you root for, or root against. It’s the entire reading experience, the entertainment on the surface, the imagery and meaning just below that, the depths of emotion and philosophy under that.

TAKE NOTES

Everybody had their own way of taking notes when reading a book or collection. However you like to do this, make sure you are looking for things that will be important after you are done. You are looking for passages to quote, you are looking for moments that moved you—you are looking for excerpts that will be stunning representations of the entire narrative in only a few lines. I like to take small Post-It notes and litter the book with them—any moment that is powerful, any line that seems like it could be important later, or any paragraph that shows off the voice of the author. I’ve marked as few as four and as many as thirty, over the course of a novel. This helps me later when I am writing my review and I’m looking for that brutal passage where the werewolf destroys all of the passengers on a plane (Red Moon) or that lyrical battle where the violence is poetic in its destruction (Blood Meridian). These moments will support your review, and they may also jog your memory about things you forgot, passages you read days, or weeks, or months ago.

QUOTE PASSAGES

Definitely find a way to quote a few excerpts from the novel, or collection. If it’s a novel, you don’t want to give away (spoil) the overall narrative, so often moments towards the beginning can work. And, you also don’t want them to be too long, as the goal is to get the readers to pick up the book, not feel like they’ve read it already. If it’s a collection of stories, I try to pick my three favorites, and quote a bit from each of them, showing a range of stories, subjects, and techniques.

COMPARE IT TO OTHER VOICES

At some point in your review you may want to compare what you've read to other authors, whether they are big names or just important voices in a smaller genre. If you do decide to make these comparisons, don’t just say that the author sounds like Stephen King, say that in the epic journey of this massive tome the author channels the broad scope of Stephen King’s The Stand. In other words, compare whatever it is this particular author did brilliantly to the same trait in another author, usually somebody with a large readership, someone your audience has heard about before—and possibly read already. They may then think, after reading your review, well, I’ll definitely run out and get this book, because I already love Neil Gaiman or Dennis Lehane or Clive Barker.

SPEAK ABOUT SEVERAL KEY COMPONENTS

I also try to focus on three aspects of the novel that were the most moving and compelling to me. In Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, which I mentioned earlier, I thought his backgrounds and settings across the Pacific Northwest were particularly deep, layered, and intense, so I talked about that. I may talk about language, or a moment in the plot where things took an unexpected turn, or the emotions that were most powerful while reading (sadness, euphoria, inspiration, loss, etc.).

LOOK FOR WHAT IS UNIQUE

In addition to comparing this voice to authors and traits that are well known, talk about what makes this book special. The world building in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is expansive, dystopian, and shockingly original. The use of mythology and folklore in Matt Bell’s In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is familiar, but also takes a lot of risks, so in the end it is a very unique experience, contemporary magical realism like I’ve never seen it before.

GIVE YOUR CONCLUSIONS AND RATING

Finally, at some point in the review, let us know how much you liked the book. I don’t typically write negative reviews. Partly that’s because I tend to focus on emerging authors and small presses, so I don’t see the point in writing negative views on these voices. If I don’t like the book, I just pass on the review. But that’s just me. I have in the past given stars (say 4/5) or numbers (on a scale from 1-10) but usually I just save that for Amazon and/or Goodreads later on. I instead try to use language that explains what exactly I loved about the book, and how it affected me personally. I might talk about how it made me realize that being a father is a gift, or how I need to forgive somebody that wronged me, or how a noble deed is never the easiest. Or I might just say it was a hypnotic read that will stay with me for a long time. How you convey your feelings about the book you just finished is up to you.

IN CONCLUSION

Whether you write a 500-word review for your blog, or a ten-page criticism for the New York Times, take the time to look at the author’s work, in the context of their own history, as well as that of their peers, and let us know what aspects of this writing were compelling, unique, and impactful. Put your heart and soul into the review, show us how much the book meant to you—and you will inspire others to seek out this title (and author)—and that’s a good thing.

Image of Red Moon: A Novel
Author: Benjamin Percy
Price: $13.85
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2014)
Binding: Paperback, 544 pages
Image of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
Author: Matt Bell
Price: $14.38
Publisher: Soho Press (2014)
Binding: Paperback, 336 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On January 28, 2014 - 12:36pm

Appreciate this--good stuff. I just started doing this and I'm happy to see I pretty much covered the checklist. I might actually print this out in a thumbnail outline form just to keep around as a reminder.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 28, 2014 - 4:30pm

thanks, dino.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Tana French! January 29, 2014 - 6:22am

I was waiting to read this one. Doesn't disappoint. Thanks, Richard.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 29, 2014 - 8:28am

thanks, em.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore January 31, 2014 - 3:35pm

Good info, as always, Ricardo.

This reader wants to see more opinion and analysis, and less plot synopsis. Only if the review's on a product page (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I mean, where I can get the summary by scrolling up. If the review's on a third-party site or zine, I'd expect and welcome more synopsis. So many reviews I see are 90% rehash, and I find myself skipping to the bottom for hopefully a few words about what the book meant to the reader, comparisons, problematic elements, etc.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 31, 2014 - 5:07pm

Thanks, Gordon. Yeah, I think each reviewer of course has their own voice, their own structure and focus, but overall whatever your opinion and analysis, make it count, right?

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong February 2, 2014 - 7:12pm

My problem with many reviewers is they typically focus on the failings of a work, and honestly, I feel like that does no one any good. With every work, there's always something of merit. Well, okay, usually. But even in works where there are a ton of flaws, works where flaws outweigh strengths, there is probably one or two things the work completely nails. Certainly talking about a work's shortcomings is valuable for readers, but I think talking about what a work does well is more valuable because it gives readers ammo for determining themselves whether it's worth their time or not. I think critics often think it's their job to tell their readers whether a book is good or not, but I think it's far more interesting and helpful when a critic tells me about a work's merits, so I can figure out whether to spend my time on it or not.

I think we might have exchanged a few words a while back about reviews, and I said I think it's more important for critics to think analytically before they think critically. And I really do think that's important. What are this work's goals? What is it trying to do? Is that endeavor worthwhile? Does it accomplish those goals well? I think this might be part of thinking about a work in its context, which I personally am not so interested in as a reader. But, if part of understanding a work's context is knowing what the work is intending to do, yeah, I think that's invaluable. Too many critics judge all works by the same standards, whether it's Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or Beavis and Butt-head. Clearly, those works, not just their creators, all have different ambitions. Tell me what they are, and then tell me how well they accomplished them.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 4, 2014 - 4:52pm

you make some great points. i typically don't write critical reviews, although some would say that we don't have ENOUGH critical reviewing going on. since i focus on small presses, mostly, i only review a book if it's great, it is just okay, i pass. and part of writing a solid review is doing exactly what you said, finding out what the focus and point of the book is and then talking about how it does THAT job well, not just comparing every book to Cormac or whoever.