What makes a ‘good’ book review?

My blog started out as a series of posts of my book reviews and despite dabbling in one or two other types of content it remains primarily a review site. English (especially literature) wasn’t something I chose to pursue as a subject at school or later so beyond the odd exercise to write about a book in my teens I’ve never been taught how this should be done. When it comes to writing a review I know that I don’t necessarily have the right terms of reference or terminology to summarise some of the aspects of what I’ve read or perhaps even the knowledge to identify specific features. You can probably tell this from my earliest posts, I’d like to think that over time I’ve got better, or at least have more of a clue about what I’m doing. But I’m not sure that I’ve grasped it completely yet. Does it matter as long as I’m posting about the books?

A review in The London Review of Books could be 2,500 words long and in a newspaper or magazine it might be 500 or even down to just a series of short quotes. Until I ended up particularly behind with my reviews this year I’ve tended to find 500 words is about right but have been trying to write shorter reviews in order to catch up (and perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing) but obviously length isn’t necessarily a sign that a review is better or more comprehensive just because it’s longer.

I often see people sharing reviews on twitter or facebook as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ but, in general, these seem to be ‘positive’ rather than incisive reviews. So what does a good review mean to you? Whose reviews do you admire and why? I’d really like to know other blogger’s/reviewer’s thoughts.

 

 

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13 comments

  1. Interesting question! To me, at any rate, a high-quality review is informative (i.e. not just ‘I hated the book,’ or ‘This was a fantastic read’). It includes a very brief summary, and then explains clearly specifically what worked for the reviewer and what didn’t. Reviews don’t always have to be positive to be ‘good’ reviews, but they do, I think, need to be more specific than just gushing or ranting. High-quality reviews are also candid and do not reveal spoilers. Just my view…

  2. Well, I’ll mention my key point for a good review, which is that there is still a reason to read the book, should you be so inclined, after reading the review, i.e.plenty of the plot developments remain unspoiled. There is scope for the more in-depth review, but it always irks me when I find that I’m reading one without warning.
    It helps as well if the review is written by someone with a love for the genre, if not the book itself. It does bug me when I read a review in a newspaper that slags off a book because the author doesn’t like, say, mysteries at all.

  3. I suspect readers have varying preferences for review style. There are many book blogs that include the blurb. I prefer the reviewer to provide a plot summary in their own words along with how the book made them feel and why. The why is important. I read somewhere that a book review tells the reader as much about the reviewer as the book and I agree. This personal touch is fine so long as it doesn’t become what the review is about. I like to see a mix of positive and negative reviews on a site. I look for readability so structure and flow matter, also spelling and grammar (I wish I could claim to be more skilled at these). In terms of length, 500 to 1000 words is usually sufficient to provide thoughts and flavour without demanding too much reader time. I enjoy the reviews on Bookmunch which is why I wanted to become a contributor there myself.

    1. Thanks for your comments Jackie. I confess I used to coy the blurb myself but it actually feels like quite good discipline to be able to summarise the book as an opener. I like the idea of the relationship between review and reviewer. I will check out Bookmunch!

  4. From the perspective of an author, it’s great to see people’s emotional responses, but I still want to see more than just “I loved it!” or “I hated it!” in a review. I appreciate any mention of favorite characters or moments, or the opposite–what things just didn’t work for the reader, or slowed down the story. Specific reactions are wonderful. It’s fine to have the blurb just copied and pasted, but sometimes it’s very interesting to see how someone else summarizes the book.
    The big thing is spoilers. Minor spoilers aren’t that big of a deal, but when someone throws out the major twists in a story? That’s not good. Often times a book is crafted around those moments, and taking that surprise from other potential readers is a huge disservice to the author. Fortunately, very very few reviewers seem to do that.
    I think that there are many different kinds of good and high-quality review styles. Lots of ways to do it right, and pretty much all of them are greatly appreciated by the author.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, it’s helpful to see an author’s perspective. Personally I try to avoid spoilers and you have to be careful mentioning twists too because people will look for them.

      1. I think pretty much all reviewers do, but sometimes it makes it very difficult to talk about the book without giving things away! I know it’s something I struggle with in my reviews. 🙂

  5. I think it’s really important to give the reader a real sense of what it would be like to read the book, or give some thoughts that help interact with the book (even if the other reader thinks you’re wrong!). I tend to think that 600 words of content is about right (though I have just written a 1,200 word blockbuster!) – less than that and you can’t really engage enough.

  6. Some context. Yes, this may be a great book about mice on the Moon, but what makes it different / better than every book about mice on the Moon? Is it what I’d expect from this author or are they taking a new direction? What else about the book might catch me out (“the first 50 pages are a bit slow but PLEASE bear with them – once the cat arrives, things really get moving!”

    I don’t think reviewers should be frightened of disagreeing with a consensus if there is one eg on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews can helpfully jump off/ cite. disagree with from those in newspapers etc (“What the Guardian reviewer didn’t get was…”)

  7. Interesting question and answers here.

    As someone who looks to reviews for recommendations for what to read I’m in general agreement with everyone else…the golden rule is definitely no spoilers and I’d go so far as to say give as little information about the plot as you can get away with…I’d rather read/hear about what the reviewer likes and doesn’t like about the book and why…I don’t mind comparisons to other work in the genre but I have to have some sense that the reviewer is a reader of that genre/type of book for me to pay much attention to that aspect. Reviews that start with “I generally don’t read this genre but…” are ones I tend to ignore

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