Grandma's Tales

May 19, 2007

Grammar – 35 How to write a book review

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:05 am

This is friend Rajesh’s suggestion. Thanks, Rajesh.
Want to write a book review? Great. Step 1 – READ THE BOOK.
I read a newspaper article that said it’s possible to write a review without setting eyes on the hard copy (yes!), simply by cannibalising other people’s reviews. Great Scott! If you’re not interested in reading one, why would you want to talk about it at all? Writing a review on borrowed ideas is like wearing a shirt with a big hole on the back. It (the hole, not the shirt) is visible to everyone except you. So, read the book, if need be, more than once.
[2] As you put it away, note down your feelings. At once. Those raw, uncensored opinions are often the most honest. Write everything in points – if you liked the book, why? The story? Style? Suspense? Size of the book? An old idea written from a fresh viewpoint? Writer’s honesty? The beginning, middle, end? Anything that struck you.
[3] There are two major ways of writing a book review – (a) descriptive (b) critical
Descriptive: Give essential information about the book, name, author, publisher, what it’s about and quote a few interesting passages from the book. Use a simple, non-emotional tone, but see that your review doesn’t sound like text from a brochure. See that the paragraphs flow smoothly. End it with a brief opinion. Readers are generally curious to know if you enjoyed the book.
The Critical: This is the fun review. Hey, this is your opinion! But before writing we assume the following:
[1] You have read the book
[2] You have noted down the pages that you want to talk about
[3] Your impressions
[4] You have spent a few hours assimilating what you thought of the book.
[5] The single dominating opinion about the book.
Good. Now you have a central thesis. You have a clear opinion. Could be “Excellent, highly recommended, good, not bad, “well-written but just a lot of fluff”, ok for a train ride or a flight or “just trash it!”
Now sit down and make an outline. What are the topics under which you want to critique the book? Again assuming the review consists of more than a couple of words. Theme? Characters? Structure? The way it progresses? Some of my studdents won’t read Agatha Christie – they say she deliberately misleads. Put down points under each heading. Organise the topics in a sequence of your choice. Theme first, maybe? Next the characters? and so on. Ramember all your points should be realted to that main thesis. You can’t start with “The book is a great buy” and go on to denounce it in every department.
You’ll need to say something about the author. The poor guy took the trouble to write the book, right? But please don’t go into a biography here. Just a few interesting words about him/her. If a Professor of Mathematics is writing a steamy romantic novel (do you read such books?), that may be a point to mention. The choice is yours.
Now, the big question: how do I begin? Not difficult. Try one of these.
[1] State the purpose of the author. What is he trying to say here?
[2] How significant is that purpose? Does he have a theme of great value? Is it immediately relevant? “This book comes at a time when…”. “______ belongs to the class of books that …”
[3] Is a comparison with his other works possible? Then try it.
[4] About the author (remember what I said).
[5] The central thesis, though I’d prefer to save it for the rounding off.
Ok, get your book, read it, make notes and do the outline – under what headings do you want to discuss the book’s merits? Then choose the opening statement and form the lines in the first paragraph.
Good luck! In the next post we’ll start looking at the different genres (types) of books. You may want to deal with each one differently.
And also the style you’ll want to adopt when you pass an opinion on someone else’s magnum opus.



  1. the policy my friend and i follow is never judge a book by its review.especially if it a critical one,the guy who write it will make you think it is a agatha christe kinda mystery and make you take it ,just to find it is as bad as a tamil movie(read as normal/standard)…

    i never like writing reviews, if i want to suggest a book, i usually do it in the middle of a con,so that i know the person’s taste and if he would like it….

    so the quote again:

    :)never judge a book by its review(:

    Comment by vishesh — May 19, 2007 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  2. So you don’t trust reviewers, right? That’s exactly the point behind this post and the ones that will follow. You learn to write a good review, an objetive one, in a readable style, and soon you’ll have people swearing by your judgment! A review need not run into 700 words, you know. You could say it in a few well-written phrases.
    Let me ask you: name a couple of titles you would recommend for a long international flight.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 19, 2007 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  3. an equal music by vikram seth which i am reading now and the afghan by forsyth…

    Comment by vishesh — May 19, 2007 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  4. Excellent, thanks! Now tell me why you would choose those two. Say it in one brief sentence each. Promise to take your word for it.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 19, 2007 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

  5. an equal music- musically written,it takes you into the life of two musicians rapturously throwing light on their emotional struggle and the problems they face both with music and their personal life.(i haven’t finished it yet,so you can see that i stop with mentioning thier struggle and no reference to the ending).

    the afgan-a gripping tale,triggered of by a single cell phone call.He the afgan is a former para and was also part of the military,his toughest missions included hiding as a gardener in IRAQ during saddam’s regime,but now to save the world,he under takes a mission which will see him become the martyr.

    Comment by vishesh — May 20, 2007 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  6. Reviews are not the only way to judge a book. Conversations around it on sites such as Shelfari also help as do those with real people. However when one’s reading tastes are eclectic – there are many books on my Shelfari shelf which only I own – one has to make up one’s own mind before spending money and I also think, it is incumbent upon the one to write a broad, objective review of the book where others can see it.

    Examples of good reviews – which you can tell apart from ‘manufactured’ ones by simple things like the latter’s gushing tone, lack of personal hooks, not identified by name and signed vaguely as ‘a reader’ etc when everyone knows that reviews add to one’s authority as a reviewer/ writer – can be seen on Amazon websites. The reward for writing good honest reviews is the reviewer’s rank and ‘helpful’ votes from other readers. On Amazon UK, writer PD James in the 1st ranked reviewer while someone writing as an amateur is in the 800s but still in top-1000.

    The quality of reviews needed for fiction (the kind cited above) and for non-fiction/ professional books is very different. Fiction is a matter of personal taste which can change how the reviewer sees the book; non-fiction may get more objective comments and less emotion.

    So there is no formula; Both professional and amateur reviewers, in case of latter those who use their real name, rely on their reliability and honesty for their reputation and cut-paste from others’ reviews show sooner than later.

    Comment by Shefaly — May 20, 2007 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  7. Great vishesh. In the first one, you talk of style when you say “musically written’. The second sentence tells me what I can expect as content.
    For the second, the opening phrase “a gripping tale” is enough to hook me! The rest of it tells me it’s a thriller. So what do I want to read? I go ahead and pick the first, I’m a sucker for emotionally charged stories maybe. When I’m through I not only judge the book but the reviewer as well. If I found what you said was true, if I felt the same way as you did, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t continue to take your cue on what I should be reading!
    Do keep reviewing books here, please!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 20, 2007 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  8. Shefaly, I do agree we have our tastes in books. My posts are about the basics one has to remember while attempting to write. Here I deal with the mechanics of writing. It is something like what a teacher would do when she introduces paragraph writing in a class. This is paragraph/essay writing as applied to book reviews.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 20, 2007 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

  9. […] Here’s a great article on writing book reviews. […]

    Pingback by Writing Good Book Reviews | Library Love — May 20, 2007 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

  10. Thanks for talking up this subject upon my request. There are quite a few points of my interest, more so since I have the occasional habit of talking about books on my blog.

    Comment by Rajesh Kumar — May 20, 2007 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

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