How to Write a Stellar Book Review
Book review writing, particularly at the university level, is significantly different from the book report that students might prepare at the high school level. Generally, a book report focuses on the plot first and then the other aspects of the work. Even in the case of non-fiction works, students are taught to summarize the content and to comment upon their own feelings. These comments are usually in response to the mundane questions, “Did you like the book? Why or why not? Would you recommend this book to someone else?”
A book review is a more sophisticated work requiring analysis, evaluation, and criticism and actually focuses very little on the plot or actual content. More time is spent discussing themes, author’s purpose, bias, and style, character analysis, setting and/or context, language usage, authenticity, contribution to the content field (non-fiction), etc.
There is no single format for book review writing. Because there are so many genres of book writing, review content will vary. The following information should provide you with important inclusions for the major types of books
- This type of book review may begin with a short synopsis of the plot and possibly the author’s general purpose. For example, The Color of Law, by Mark Gimenez, is written as a contemporary version of To Kill a Mockingbird and focuses on the continuing discrimination against poor minorities in the American justice system. Sub plots related to drug abuse, antiquated societal mores, and personal ethics provide enrichment in this fast-paced narrative of a young lawyer faced with consequential choices.
- Characters: this section will of course focus on 3-4 main characters. How does the author develop them? Through statements, actions, thoughts? Here, details from the work will be required, because you cannot simply describe the character. You must “show” the character through his/her actions, thoughts, and words. Evaluate, as well, the characterization techniques of the author. Are they believable? Are they fully developed? Are they flat or round? Why are some flat and some round and do they serve the author’s purpose?
- Theme(s): Generally, there will be more than one theme in a novel. You have already mentioned the themes in the introduction, but this section must develop those themes, again through actual events. What does the author say about human nature, about institutions, or about society? Have the themes been fully developed? Are the author’s positions and/or beliefs clear?
- Style: Several analyses will occur in the discussion of the author’s style. Is the language formal or informal? Does it “fit” with the plot and characters? Does the author use humor, sarcasm, etc.? How do these things enhance the tale? Are descriptions well written providing pictures that appeal to the senses?
- Setting: Time and place should enhance both the plot and the theme(s). How does this setting promote the plot and theme(s). Are you placed into the setting in an artful manner, so that you truly “feel” the time and place? How well does the author use setting to involve the reader in the novel?
A book review for a non-fiction work will obviously not have a fictional plot. Yet, it will focus on a very specific “story” – a piece of history, social, political, economic, or other realities of human existence, or the lives of people, as in biographies and autobiographies. A non-fiction is based upon factual information, but do not mistake that for objectivity on the part of the writer. Bias and background of the author play a significant role in the creation of a non-fiction work.
Consider, for example, the bibliography on Lyndon Johnson, written by Doris Kearns-Goodwin. While the factual information is not in question, she certainly had biases and opinions which are fully apparent in the work. Having spent a great deal of time with Johnson after his Presidency (including living on his Texas ranch while she worked on the biography), her ambivalence toward this man is apparent throughout the work. At a personal level, she had regard for this individual; on the other hand she was quick to point out bizarre and cruel behavior and character flaws that ultimately resulted in his demise.
Non-fiction book review writing should include the following facets:
- An introduction that provides a brief synopsis of the content/focus of the work.
- The importance of the work to the field of knowledge and understanding of the content within the context of societal, historical, political, economic, or human condition.
- The style of the author – formal, informal, satirical, objective, subjective, etc.
- Biases of the author and how they impact the content. (Some background research on the author may be warranted). For example, what biases might be present if Donald Rumsfeld were to produce a work on the Iraq War?
- An analysis and evaluation of the author’s expertise, the completeness of coverage, and the contribution to the topic field.
Non-fiction book reviews are often assigned in related course work in high school, college, and certainly in all academic disciplines of graduate programs. For one who is not fully proficient in such book review writing, it would be wise to read the book reviews that have been authored and published by others. Using these as models for one’s own production of these types of works will be invaluable.