I love writing book reviews. If reading a book is like going on a vacation, writing a book review is like showing the photos and souvenirs and telling my friends about the trip. Book reviews can turn the solitary pleasure of reading into something shared with a community of like-minded readers. It also helps other people learn about new authors and books I’m excited about.
But some people are daunted by writing book reviews. They don’t know where to begin. They don’t know what to say. Here’s the good news: there are many right ways to write a book review. Writing a book review is not like writing a book report. You’re not going to get a bad grade if you do it wrong.
Many people start by describing the setting and plot.
“This is a book about a girl who moves to a small foggy town on the Olympic peninsula and falls in love with a boy who turns out to be a vampire.”
Other people go straight into the subgenre.
“This book, which came out in 2005, became so wildly popular that it and its sequels set off a chain reaction of young adult vampire romance novels.”
You can also talk about your relation to similar books.
“I read this book because I’d read Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, and my friend said that this one was even more romantic.”
The purpose of a book review is to give your opinion of a book in such a way that other people can read your review and know if they want to read the book for themselves. If you dislike a book, that’s okay, but it’s better to give concrete reasons why you dislike a book.
Bad: “I hated this piece of crap. Only 14-year-old girls could like this piece of drivel.”
Good: “I hated this piece of crap because the main character seems to have no will of her own and this book is basically a supernatural version of an abusive relationship. Allow me to lay out the 35 worst things about it …”
My own rule of thumb is that a one-star review has to be much longer and more thoughtful than a 3 star review.
And about those stars…
Some people give 5 stars to anything even moderately acceptable. As a reader, I dislike this. I think this is like saying “I love you” to everyone and everything; when you really do love someone, you’ve run out of superlatives. But how many stars you give depends on where the review is.
Amazon’s rating goes from 1 star “I hate it” to 2 stars “I didn’t like it” to 3 stars “It’s okay” to 4 stars “I liked it” to 5 stars “I love it.”
Goodreads is a little less enthusiastic. On Goodreads, 1 star is “did not like” 2 stars is “It’s okay”, 3 stars is “I liked it” 4 stars is “Really liked it” and 5 stars is “It’s amazing.” Since I do my reviews on Goodreads, and I like most of the books I read, most of my books have 3 stars. Because of star inflation, people will look at my 3 star review of a book I liked and think I panned it, unless they bother to read the review. If I wrote the same review on Amazon, it would get a boost of one star just because the ratings are different. Stars, too, are subjective. If refuse to finish any book that you dislike, it’s okay to have mostly 4 and 5 star books in your review shelf. Or maybe you just love everything. (You can certainly give my books 4 and 5 star reviews. I won’t complain!)
Remember this book review is purely your opinion. There are books I gave 5 stars to that had problems, just because something really pleased me about it (The Magicians, Lev Grossman). There are other books that were perfectly executed that I simply loathed (The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen). It’s perfectly fine to have a reaction to a piece of literature that’s purely your own. Some of my favorite reviews are like a little window into the reviewer’s life.
“I loved this book because it takes place in one of my favorite places, the Olympic peninsula, and reading this book made me feel like I was a child again, hiking in the fog and redwoods with my old dog Edward.”
My last piece of takeaway advice is to not read other reviews of that book before you write your own. You will almost certainly find your own opinion colored by whatever else is out there, and the best review is an honest review.
Focus on what you got out of it. Did you like it? Why or why not? What parts didn’t work for you? How did it fit within its genre/subgenre? Did it remind you of other books? I’ve found personally that knowing I am going to write a review makes me pay a little closer attention to everything I read. Writing reviews has made me a better reader, and a better author.