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The Art of the Book Review Part II – Fiction vs. Nonfiction

There are many different types of books that have been published; all shapes and sizes, lengths – some short, some very short; some long, and some behemoths!

Accordingly, there are many different types of reviews to go with these books.

Sometimes there is a correlation: a short review for a short book, a long review for a long book (I tend to do the latter, especially if it’s a long book that I enjoyed, such as Under the Dome and The Way of Kings).

But when it comes down to the type of book, different thoughts and processes need to be employed, especially in the case of the fiction book versus the nonfiction book.

The Fiction Review
When it comes to writing a book review on fiction, the two parameters to keep in mind are the story and the characters.  (There’s a minor third, writing, that I will get to later.)

I’m a story kind of guy, so if it’s a good story, I’m hooked right away, and that tends to be what I look for in a book I’m interested in reading.  I certainly get picky with books that take a while to get going, especially if the world isn’t interesting enough to get me engaged or at least keep me interested.

The second parameter is character, which can pretty much always save a book, even if the story isn’t doing it.

Now, I’m not saying that a terrible story can be miraculously saved by a strong character or two, but a story that doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, or is dragging along, trying to pick up steam, can be kept alive with its characters.

Some people read books solely for characters, and decide to read certain books on this premise.  Characters can be interesting, or complex, or have some unusual tic that the reader may identify with or just keeps them interested; or it can be all these things.

The quasi rule is that a good story can keep a book alive, even if the characters aren’t really doing it for you; alternatively an interesting character can keep a book alive, if the story seems like it’s going nowhere fast; ultimately it will be up to the reader whether one or other of these facets holds out and keeps them reading.

Now, there is technically a third parameter, which is the writing; but it tends to be the weakest of the three in keeping a book alive, at least for me personally.  If the story isn’t doing much, and the characters aren’t that engrossing; good, creative, original writing can hook a reader in.  But for me, this is certainly on a limited time, as good writing will only keep me going for so long, if the characters don’t get interesting, or the story doesn’t go somewhere.

When writing the fiction review it’s important to touch on these parameters of the story: what made it compelling, what it was that hooked me, and a decent amount of the actual story but not too much to give everything away (see Part 1: How I Write a Book Review for more on this); the characters, what makes them interesting and unique, and again what I liked about them; and finally if the writing is unique and impressive, to discuss what I enjoyed so much about it and what made it different from anything else I’ve read before.

The Nonfiction Review
For the nonfiction book review, it’s a whole different entity.

Once again, the story and characters and writing each play their own part, but in a completely different way to a fictional book, for this is a tale of fact and reality; a true story.

The story in nonfiction relies more on how it is formatted and arranged.  Sometimes it’s chronological – which is most popular with biographical works; others have framing chapters to set the scene; some chapters even end with cliffhangers, to hook the reader on to the next one.  This has actually been a relatively new development in nonfiction, at least that I’ve noticed in my reading, creating an almost fictional arrangement to a nonfictional story.

The book that fits this profile most is The Lost City of Z, where the story of a man’s life is told like an adventure story or thriller, with each chapter ending on a gripping moment or cliffhanger, making the reader want to keep reading.  It’s certainly an interesting turn on the stereotypical work of nonfiction, which implies the idea of being read at a slow and easy pace, to absorb everything that is being covered, and to be ingested piecemeal.  With The Lost City of Z, the reader is hooked like they are in fiction, wanting to find out what happens next; the fact that it is a true story serves as an enjoyable reminder to the reader.

When it comes to characters in the nonfiction book, if the author is aiming to be true to who the story is about, there’s really very little that can be changed from who this person was, and what the sources say about him or her, depending on how much of their lives the writer chooses to tell.

But assuming the author wants to tell the correct story of this particular person, when it comes to telling the story of the character, they can be presented in a “by the facts way,” which can often lead to a stagnant story that plods along at a slow pace and doesn’t necessarily hook most readers.  Naturally, there are always exceptions to this, and some readers love and prefer this type of writing and seek it out when it comes to nonfiction.

On the flip side of this particular coin, characters that have seemingly dry, boring lives can be completely brought to life by a talented author with a great writing style.

As I mentioned earlier, story, character, and writing play a part in the nonfiction book review, but in different ways, on a different stage.

The story is what it is, because it is one that actually happened, and shouldn’t be embellished or altered; how the writer chooses to tell it, in what particular format, can lead to a seemingly dull story becoming a fascinating, engrossing one.  Characters can be brought back to life, in a new light that may be as true to how that person actually was, but still told in such a way that keeps the reader thoroughly interested.  As for story, it is often strongly linked with the character, so that the two essentially become one and the same.

As for writing, it can help bring a seemingly simple story about an ordinary person to a whole new life and vitality that may not have existed before with the primary sources available.

In writing the nonfiction book review, like the fiction one, it’s important to tell part of the story going on, but not to give absolutely everything away; however there are also exceptions to this, because it is a work of nonfiction – and especially in the case of the biography – the complete story is likely already known, so there are no real surprises to be had, unless this is brand new material that has been discovered and is being revealed in this particular book for the first time.

So in some reviews, I will tell most of the story of the book (such as with Einstein, His Life and Universe and The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality), or as in the earlier mentioned case of The Lost City of Z, I will only give so much of the story away to keep the reader hooked.

Whether I’m writing a book review on a fiction book or a nonfiction book, there are some similar ideas and thoughts I take into account each time I sit down to write one or the other, but there is also a necessary distinction between the two, which makes me think differently with each type of book review I’m writing.

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