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How to Write a Great Book Review

Matt Berman

(Some of these guidelines were taken from the Young Australian Readers' Awards Site
And from the University of Saskatchewan Library's Page on Book Reviewing

The standard review format that is roughly (but not rigidly) followed by most reviewing journals (as opposed to magazines such as The New Yorker, which follow an essay format) is 2 paragraphs, each approximately 100-150 words. The first paragraph is a summary of the story, the second is your evaluation. Some reviewers will mix the two: I generally prefer to keep them separate. It is generally assumed that most people won't read reviews much longer than 300 words total, especially in a forum such as this one.

A book review has two objectives:
  1. to describe the work
  2. to provide a critical evaluation of the work within its literary genre or academic discipline.

Basic Guidelines
Here are a few guidelines for the evaluation paragraph:

  • Back up and explain your overall rating
    • Enjoyable?
    • Well written?
    • Character appeal, growth, change?
    • Emotional response?
    • Language use, writing style?
    • Educative?
    • Inappropriate?
    • All the rage but wrong for the market?
  • Spell out why it is or isn’t age appropriate
    • Be specific about maturity issues versus content
  • Highlight the good points
  • Highlight the negative
  • What kind of readers will or won't respond, and why?
  • Appeal to its intended audience
  • Choice of topic and its suitability for the intended age group

  • Are you hooked from the very beginning?
  • Can you see, hear and smell the background setting?
  • Can you feel the atmosphere the author is trying to create?
  • Is the subject and the action appropriate for someone of your age?
  • Could you put yourself in the story?
  • Is the plot plausible and easy to follow?
  • Do all the parts fit together to make a whole?
  • Does it keep you interested all the way through?
  • Does the story build to a climax?
  • Are you waiting for the climax?
  • Is there a satisfying ending?
  • Is it hard to put the book down?
  • It is worth getting into trouble for reading it under the covers with a flashlight?

  • Are the characters credible?
  • Can you picture them in your mind?
  • Do they have a real personality?
  • If they are human, do they make mistakes like real people?
  • Can you form a bond with them?
  • Do you care about what happens to them in the end?
  • Are the relationships between them realistic?
  • Are the things they do in keeping with their personalities?
  • Do you feel like you are part of the adventure?
  • Is the dialogue realistic and natural and appropriate to the character?
  • Can you hear them talking?
  • Do you feel like an eavesdropper on their conversations?
  • If they were real, would they be the sort of people you would like to have as friends? Why?
  • Whose story is not told that should be?

  • Is the purpose of the story merely to entertain you?
  • Is the author trying to convey a message between or beyond the lines of the story? What is it?
  • Is this subtle or does it intrude on the entertainment?
  • How does the author's bias influence his/ her writing?
  • What did you learn by reading this story?
  • Does the story leave you with issues you want discussed or questions you would like answered?
  • What are the main issues raised?
  • Are they appropriate for the intended audience and the format of the book?
  • Why has the author 'disguised' the issues within the context of a story?
  • Did you discover the message by yourself or did another person highlight it for you?
  • If you could talk to the author, what opinions would you offer about the issues raised? What other questions would you have?
  • If you want to find out more about the issues, do you know where to do this?
  • Why did the author write the book? Look in the introduction and preface for this information.
  • Does the author intend to inform, persuade, entertain, teach?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How does the author achieve the purpose?

  • Quality of the illustrations, if any, and their integration with the text 
  • How do the pictures help the reader understand the story?
  • If it was read aloud to you and you couldn't see the pictures, would it be just as good?
  • Do they help to build up a sense of atmosphere and anticipation?
  • Has the illustrator used any special media or techniques for the illustrations?
  • How do these enhance the story?
  • Is there a story within the illustrations, as well as the text?
  • Would the cover catch your eye if you were browsing in a bookstore or library?

  • Is the language appropriate for the audience?
  • Is the language rich and original and interesting?
  • Are the words used well to build up the atmosphere and to create images in your mind?
  • Does the language and sentence structure contribute to the atmosphere?
  • Is the style and size of print easy to read?
  • Does the layout assist the reader?
  • Is it a read-aloud, read-along or read-alone book?

Offering a personal opinion of the book
  • Is this is book you would like to receive or give as a gift?
  • Is it a book you would spend your pocket money on? Why?
  • Would it be one that you would like to keep for your children to read? Why?
  • Would you recommend it to other students of your age? Why?
  • Have you been changed by reading this book? How?
  • Are you glad that you read it? Why?

  • What are the author's qualifications in the subject?
  • How is the author influenced by race, gender, nationality, social, cultural or political events or institutions?

  • What are the author's main ideas or themes?
  • Are the author's ideas presented consistently?
  • Are they developed logically?
  • How thoroughly is the subject addressed? Does the author state areas of the topic that are excluded from the book? Are there areas of omission from oversight or bias? How serious are the omissions?
  • Is the author's approach suitable for the intended audience: elementary, academic, popular or scholarly?
  • Are the sources used current?
  • Does the author examine sources critically?

Style and Format
  • How well does the author express his/her ideas?
  • Is the style suitable for the subject and for the intended audience?
  • Does the author use charts, graphs, maps, statistics, illustrations, photographs effectively? Do they assist the reader to understand the information?
  • For literary works, does the author use literary devices effectively?

Significance of the work
  • What new approach or new information does this work add to its discipline?
  • Has the author written other books in the field?
  • How does this book compare to other works by the same author or works by other authors on the same subject?
  • Prepare notes about these points. Select quotations from the introductory material and the text that support your views or statements.

Background information
  • In order to address the critical questions you may need to read:
    • a biography of the author
    • other reviews of the author's work
    • other texts on the same subject.

A note about your writing style
  • Use direct and simple language
  • Keep your sentences short
  • Do not use the first person no “I think” or “in the reviewer’s opinion” -- we know this is your opinion already
  • Remember the review will be up for a long time so avoid time references such as “this spring” or “next week”
  • The first time you use an author’s name, use the first and last name, subsequent references should be last names only