Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Writing: How to Review (Anything) Books

      A review has three parts, made up of at least three paragraphs. Part one is the summary of content, part two is the critical assessment, and part three is the answer to the Big Question.
     The summary of content is generally one to three paragraphs long. In this part of the review, you tell the reader what you are reviewing, who made it (including some other things they may have made), what genre and subgenres the thing represents and what the thing is generally about. Important: This is not a summary. You are writing a review to let people know whether or not they should try it, not to tell them the ending. Don’t be a spoiler!

     The critical assessment can be one to three paragraphs. In here you get down to brass tacks: What you liked about the thing and what didn’t work for you. Maybe the plot was great but the characters seemed fake. Maybe there was too much garlic or not enough banjo. Maybe the dialog was fast and realistic, but the costuming was weak. Important: It’s not enough to say that you liked or did not like something; you have to say why.
     Your review will nearly end with the answer to the Big Question, which usually takes the form of a short paragraph. The Big Question is: “Should your reader seek out the thing you are reviewing, and try it herself? Why or why not?”
     Finally, one line: Where can readers find the thing you are reviewing?

 Sample Book Review

A nearly Perfect Circle
What haunts harder, ghosts or a wasted life?
By Robert Greene

Touted as a cross between Stephen King and playwright Henrik Ibsen, writer Sean Stewart is a rare find — an author who keeps you in the dark. Stewart’s tale, Perfect Circle, is a ghost story of sorts. Protagonist William “Dead” Kennedy was born with the ability to see ghosts and it hasn’t helped him out much.
Dead Kennedy (DK) is a slacker, recently fired from a pet store job because he ate cat food in front of a customer to prove a point. It’s only the latest in a series of dead-end, low-skill jobs he has held since his wife left him for a Marine 12 years ago. His short marriage resulted in a daughter, who DK gets to see about once a month. DK doesn’t drive a car — in the dark he can’t always tell the dead from the living, a fact that has resulted in a couple of accidents — and his soon-to-be teenage daughter is losing her interest in the monthly trips, via bus, with her wastrel father.
Enter a distant cousin with a ghost problem; he claims he’s being haunted by the spirit of a girl he ran down with his car. DK also is haunted, by the love he still has for his ex-wife, his failures as a father, by certain tracks on his favorite CDs and, eventually, by a ghost who vows to kill everyone DK loves.
Stewart’s writing is occasionally beautiful; some of his descriptions of happenings and scenes — and DK’s inner monologue — stay with you solely for the grace of the writing. His character development skills are also strong: DK is a wreck but you can’t help but liking the guy. (He also utilizes one of the best unarmed combat strategies I’ve ever read.) The book’s ending is a little rushed, however, with a tipping point that smacks more of “god in the machine” than logical plot and character progression.
I’m new to Stewart’s writing and was happy to find out that he wrote seven novels prior to Perfect Circle. Now, while waiting for his next book, I can busy myself with his earlier efforts. You should check him out, too.
Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart, Small Beer Press, July 2004, 243 pages


  1. It seems everything you review I want to read. I think you just write great reviews. Good info.

  2. It's an easy little formula. Just plug in some decent sentences and go.

  3. Thank you for this. It's information I can use while I attempt to whip my critical essay into shape ... thanks :)

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