Grandma's Tales

May 22, 2007

Grammar – 35 How to write a book review 2 A novel way 2

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:16 pm

(Continuation of the post on reviewing novels)
Sit back and think. When you think of fictional characters, who appear before your mind’s eye? Swami, Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Dedalus, Jeeves, James Bond, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh or someone else? A whole identification parade of them?
Ha, ha! That is the strength of characterisation. The author creates a character so strong, so flesh-and-blood, that he becomes completely real to the reader. You know him in and out. You know his highs and lows. You know his strength and weaknesses. You nod sagely when he responds to a particular situation. You mutter to yourself, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what he would have done.” If his reaction surprises you, you blurt out, “That’s so out of character!” You go as far as to say, “How well the author knows him!” Many authors have admitted that after a while the characters he created took on a “life of their own”.
When Conan Doyle decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes, there was such an uproar that the detective had to be resurrected. Ask some of your friends who wrote “The House of Baskervilles”; they might say, “Sherlock Holmes”. He sure is one unforgettable character. And look at the way the James Bond persona has endured! Book after best-selling book and movie-after-movie. It’s world news who the current on-screen JB is.
So, check out.
[1] Are there strong characters in the novel? Do they sound real? Three dimensional? Or stay cardboard?
[2] Do the characters carry the story forward? Does the story revolve around them?
[3] Who are the main characters and the also-rans?
[4] Do some characters unexpectedly steal the thunder from the protagonist? In Merchant of Venice, which character dominates the proceedings? No, not Antonio, the Merchant of Venice!
[5] No review of a novel is possible without creating enough space for a critical look at the characters. Characters bind the sequences into a narrative. They provide the novel form, interest and thread.
Definitely why you kept turning the pages. When you think of style, think PG Wodehouse. No other author has had such a profound influence on Indian writing in English. I see people quoting him in speech and writing. I see people using his analogies (comparisons) without giving the great writer credit. Even those who dismissed his subject as “decadent aristocracy” admitted Plum made it worth reading about.
There was Art Buchwald. People didn’t agree with him, but they never missed reading his columns. Somerset Maugham took great care to craft his sentences. Read Stephen Leacock, James Herriot and Jumpa Lahiri. Read Grisham and Sheldon. See how they are different. Discover why they appeal to millions.
So, is the style simple? Gently flowing? Racy? Pleasant? Even? Choppy? Long-winded and unreadable?
Do you see “intellectual qualities” of writing (e.g., simplicity, clarity, good mix of long and short sentences)?
Are there “emotional qualities”? (humour, satire, wit)?
Could you find “aesthetic qualities” (sentence balance, rhythm, harmony)?
Does the author use devices like metaphor, symbolism, allegory, parody?
And that “interesting” part – the conversation. Don’t you often read the direct speech and just skim through the description? Dialogue gives life to the novel. It brings the reader face to face with the characters. Often their responses become the readers’ responses. There is a mountain of difference between
He said, No! and “He replied in the negative“.
So talk about the style. How effective is it? Take time to re-read passages you like and find out what exactly makes them readable, interesting, arresting, attractive.

Now pick up a novel. Never mind if you’ve read it before. Read it again. And try writing a book review.
All the best!



  1. i must be only guy on the face of the planet who has never bothered to sherlock holmes…as you say each author has a love for character.I have finished writing a book and editing it before going on the hunt for a publisher.I noticed that each character had a special value and that a part of me played them.It is like talking to your self.

    if you had read the full review i had written in my blog,i think you have, i never found the inclination to describe the character.The book’s power would be lost if i had written about him.

    anyway merchant of venice…hmm…haven’t started that one yet…will present reading caesar(fully)…..

    i have finished hamlet and as you like it.Both are amazing and i am touched by touchstone and hamlet really….he knew how to write…

    Comment by vishesh — May 23, 2007 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  2. Dear Geeta,

    It’s been a while since I last sent in a comment to one of your posts. I like this ‘book review’ series – nicely structured and well written, as always.

    It almost makes me want to start writing a review for one of the books that sits cureently on my bedside table.

    – Subrat

    Comment by Subrat — May 23, 2007 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Subrat, very happy to see you here. Will look forward to reading a book review from you! All the best!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — May 23, 2007 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

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