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The Art of the Book Review Part I – How I Write a Book Review

I’ve been writing book reviews now for over ten years; 2014 will actually be my fifteenth year of writing reviews.

I started in college, working for the student-run newspaper, and while my life has changed in many ways since 1999, and I’ve moved to a number of different places, two things have remained constant: I am continuously reading one or more books at a time, and when I’m done reading a book I will usually review it, no matter when it was released.

My website, BookBanter, now has over 600 book reviews, and as of April 13th, I posed my 650th review.

I have had a number of my reviews quoted in books, and one even quoted on the cover – Amber Benson’s Cat’s Claw.

So I like to think I know a thing or two about writing book reviews.

I’m sure if you scour the internet you’ll find a number of sites and documents and perhaps even treatises proclaiming how to write the ideal or perfect book review, and how there is a set form and format to it that cannot be diverged from, if one is seeking to create said “perfect book review.”

However, as anyone who hasn’t had their head stuck in the ground (or perhaps print journalism) for the last decade knows, most of these “ideal” ways of writing a book review are aimed at newspapers and magazines, but with the advent of blogs — both professional and personal — where many people write their own book reviews, or just even blog posts on specific books they’ve read — as well as the likes of Goodreads, the dynamic of the formatted book review has changed and in most cases doesn’t really apply anymore.

Many people have many different ways of writing book reviews.

There are also many people who feel certain ways are completely wrong, and that there is only “their way,” but this is what writing and the Internet is all about.

There are many, many, many books in the world, and most of them I wouldn’t ever be interested in reading, and yet there are still many people who would and do read and buy these books.

The same pretty much goes for book reviews.

Long story short: different people like different types of book reviews.

Now, when I sit down to write a book review it will depend on the type of book it is (genre, story, etc.), how much of a fan I am of the author — I tend to write longer reviews for authors I’m a fan of, or at least like, as well as books that are longer (see Under the Dome and World Without End) — and what publication I am writing the book review for, as there may be a word count limit.

Here’s the basic mental outline I automatically perform when doing a book review for a book I enjoyed; I have a standard three- to four-paragraph layout.

Paragraph 1:
I usually begin with two to four sentences to kind of hook the reader into the book; much as you want the cover and first line of a book to be captivating, you want a similar effect with the opening paragraph of a book review — especially if it’s a long one and you want the reader to keep reading to the end.

Sometimes I’ll open up with a general fact that I find interesting about the author or the particular books the author writes, such as with Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. Other times I’ll deliver a short one-liner and then go into a brief couple of sentences about the author’s other books, especially if this is a sequel, such as with Velocity by Alan Jacobson. In cases where I don’t know much about the author or his or her books, and this is the first book of theirs I’m reading, I’ll do a couple of sentences on what the author has done before and then give a brief hook on why this particular book is a good one, like with Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin.

Paragraph 2 (and 3):
The next paragraph or two are usually the long ones where I’ll make a summary of the story.

There’s a fine line to be made here, balancing how much of the story to tell, but also keeping lots left to be discovered by the reader. A general rule of thumb is you want to reveal who the characters are, perhaps a little about their background, and where they’re headed in the story; about the first third of the book is usually a safe place to stop. Again, it depends on the type of book.

For some reviews, such as Handling the Undead and American Vampire, it becomes necessary to reveal a large part of the plot to actually show what is going on in the book, but it’s always important to keep a number of secrets hidden for the reader to discover when they read the book.

One rule that must always be followed is an easy one: never give away the ending.

I know there are people out there who read the ending first thing, before they even start the book, and those people are just darn weird; but you don’t give away any sort of ending in a book review (unlike a number of movie previews I’ve seen). I’m the type of person who very much doesn’t like to get spoiled; usually once I have an idea of what the book is about and I’m interested in it, I’ll just start it without reading the inside flap or the back of the book.

For me it’s all about the mystery and being surprised by where the story is going to take you.

Depending on the length of the book and how much story is needed to be told, this part usually takes one or two paragraphs. At the end of this section of the book review, you want to finish with a sort of cliffhanger line that will really make the reader want to read the book, such as with Dan Well’s Mr. Monster, where I end my summary paragraph with, “But something’s not quite right about this guy from the FBI.”

Final Paragraph:
If the reader is still on the fence about whether to read the book or not, this is the final chance to get them.

Here is where I usually talk about the writer and/or the writing, the style, the language used, what I enjoyed about the writing, such as with Amber Benson’s Among the Ghosts. Or I’ll talk about what I particularly enjoyed about this book and why I think people should read it, like with Seanan McGuire’s An Artificial Night. As for the last line, by this point you have to have captured your reader and made them want to read the book; the last line isn’t going to make much of a difference one way or the other.

I generally end with a question of what the author will do next, or what the next book in a series might be, or a quick one-liner on why I enjoyed the book.

And there you have it.

The second part of this series will focus on writing different kinds of book reviews for different kinds of books, such as fiction vs. nonfiction, which will be up April 27th.

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