A common piece of advice given to aspiring writers is, “To be a great writer you must be a great reader.” True enough, reading good books is essential to learning the craft of writing well. However, there is one further step: learning to develop the art of analysing a book in a logical manner. Such analysis imposes upon the writer the discipline of writing precisely, coherently and putting together a compelling argument; also, the writer has to be fair and balanced in providing his opinion. In so doing, a writer learns to write good book reviews.
The starting point is the need to keep in mind that, throughout, your duty is to provide an honest opinion of the book. Thereafter, writing a review can be divided into three steps.
Step 1 – Basic information
Start by making a list of the core questions you should ask about a book. For instance:
- What is its title?
- Which publishing house published it? Is there a paperback edition of the book?
- What is its ISBN?
- How many pages does it contain?
- What is its price?
- Where is it available for sale?
Step 2 – The essence of the book
In this step, you begin to analyse the book in detail. This means writing more than just a full synopsis of the story and ending with, “It’s a great book. Go read it.” The following questions will help you establish the essence of the book you are reviewing:
- Is this book fiction or non-fiction?
- If it is fiction, what is its genre?
- Is it a thriller, a literary novel or something else?
- If it is non-fiction, is it self-help, an academic book or something altogether different?
- What kind of readers do you think the author had in mind?
- Who would this book appeal to?
- What is the author’s background?
The quality of writing in fiction can be analysed when you consider the plot, characters, setting and purpose of the book. Look at the following questions:
- Is the plot plausible?
- Does the story flow from beginning to end?
- Is there a proper climax in the story?
- Are you satisfied with the way the story ends?
- Were you hooked the moment you read the first few lines of the book?
- Did you want to know more? A good example to look at is, ‘Truth, Love and a Little Malice: An Autobiography’ by Khushwant Singh. The passage below is printed on the inside cover of this book:
‘Among other honours, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India (he returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple, Amritsar).’
In your review, you might say that your interest was instantly piqued; you knew you would find the answers to the following questions only if you read more of the book:
i. What kind of man had the courage to return the ‘Padma Bhushan’? It is, after all, a national award in recognition of distinguished service.
ii. Who instilled in him such a sense of identity and pride?
- Are you able to identify the main protagonists and antagonists?
- Are there too many or too few characters?
- As you read the description of the characters, can you ‘see’ them?
- Do you care for your characters? Do you feel their pain, sorrow or joy?
For example, one of the most endearing characters in fiction is Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. You may say that the author developed the character of Mrs. Bennet so well that you felt every nuance of her emotions from unbridled excitement to deep frustration. Then, illustrate the point by reproducing effective dialogue:
“… My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she, “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls! …”
- Do you feel you know the place the author is at pains to describe?
- In your mind’s eye, can you ‘see’ the place he is writing about?
A good example of this point is Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. This tale is set in London. However, it is not the London of today; nor is it the London of the 1930s when the book was published. It is a London of the future. When writing your review, use the excerpt below to invite the reader to observe the detailed description of the place that Aldous Huxley is writing about:
‘A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.
The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north. Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in long recession down the work tables.’
- Does the book have a purpose? If so, what is it?
- Is there a moral to the tale that the author is trying to impart? Does the author do this effectively?
Step 3 – Offer your personal opinion
Granted, this part is, by far, the hardest aspect of writing a good book review. Still, if you stick within certain parameters, you will not find it too tedious a task. For a start, remember that you can only offer your personal opinion. It is up to your readers to accept or reject the offer you make. You should never demand that the reader agrees with your review. If you do, it usually comes across as you ‘talking down’ to your readers.
In addition, you must remember that there is a big difference between being fair and being malicious and petty. While you may not like the book you’ve reviewed, the author has usually put a great deal of effort into his work; for this alone, the author is deserving of respect. Your criticism should always aim to be constructive which, more often than not, many writers learn a great deal from. When criticism has been destructive, many just regard that particular reviewer as unprofessional.
Here are some questions to help you form an opinion about a book you’ve just read:
- Will you give this book as a gift?
- Will you be happy if you receive this book as a gift?
- Will you spend your hard-earned money on this book?
- Will you keep this book for all time?
- Have you developed a different perspective from reading this book?
- If so, how and why?
- Are you glad you read it and why?
These steps will certainly help writers develop the art of writing good book reviews. All said and done, writing a review is still a skill – like all skills, you will become better the more you practice.
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