The Easy Guide to Better Book Reviews

We have come to the season of end-of-year book reviews. If this is a fun and festive season for you, please enjoy a winter wonderland of "Best of 2022" lists! You will easily be able to handle that question often asked of avid readers: "Read any good books lately?" If you're more like me, though, your reflexive answer is something like, "Yes. Why are you asking??" If your skies are gray with great expectations, and you'd rather just move along to the next title in your reading list, I've got some tips to stoke your cozy fireside Jolabokaflod and fend off well-meaning inquiries from extended family seeking small talk.

 

A review doesn't have to be long or say a lot about literature, but it should help someone decide whether they would want to read the book. (Sometimes the answer is no! Unless your job is to market that book for sale, try not to get invested in whether you succeed in winning a new reader. Just give them details so they can make an informed choice.) In classrooms I often ask children to indicate how they felt about a book with a thumbs-up (I liked it!) or thumbs-down (Not my favorite) -- which works fine for getting a sense of a book's popularity in a crowd. It doesn't tell me the important information, though, like "I don't understand why the author tried to rhyme so much," or "My best friend read this and then told me to read it and we love all the same books," or "If this had been a story about a pony who gets lost in outer space, I would have liked it, but this book had too many monkeys and not enough ponies." The same goes for when I recommend books to friends and family, or to library patrons. All too often, my personal tastes in reading will not align perfectly with someone else's, so "Omigosh I loved this book!" is just not good enough.

How can you move beyond that simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Try asking yourself questions, such as:

  • What is the message of this story? What central themes does the author explore?
  • What happens in the first chapter? What does the reader know by then? What will they want to find out?
  • Who do you think might like it? 
  • What other books does this one remind you of? How does it compare to another popular title in the same genre?
  • Was it easy to read? Why?
  • Did it make you think? About what?
  • Did it make you feel? How?
  • What surprised you? (Don't give away plot twists!)
  • What three words would you use to describe the writing, the mood, the characters? What's the vibe of the story?

Then pick a few answers that make 3-4 sentences expressing your overall opinion. You can link the book to something written on a similar theme, or with a familiar style ("If you liked ABC, try XYZ!" lists are always popular). You can (mentally or otherwise) wrap the book in brown paper and give it some labels to attract a "blind date". You can even explain why you really hated this book and how it disappointed you. Sometimes this is the best kind of review!

Sample short reviews:

  • Such a Fun Age made me think about how I engage with race as a white-coded woman. I kept thinking, "It's not ABOUT you!" at the mom who was overanalyzing her conversations with her kids' nanny. There was a lot to unpack about social and economic class, too. The alternating points of view made the chapters go by quickly.
  • I read Once Upon a River to fill a challenge about Gothic novels, and it was totally creepy! I kept thinking that the next plot twist would be something fey lunging out of the fog to carry away an unsuspecting passerby, but it didn't quite go there. Historical fiction with a strong flavor of the uncanny about its central mystery of a found child. If you liked the soundtrack to Penny Dreadful or got really invested in The Alienist, this would be one to try.
  • The blurb for Honey Girl drew me in, but where I thought I was going to get a fluffy meet-cute-and-got-married-accidentally queer romance, I instead found an overachieving-Millennial-meets-existential-crisis study that was a much tougher read, emotionally, than I'd expected. I needed some Casey McQuiston as a palate cleanser.
  • Fairy Tale is Stephen King's newest release, and it departs from the classic slasher stuff you might expect. Remember, though, that the master of modern horror also wrote the short story that became Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile, and that very weird tumble down the rabbit hole Rose Madder. This story of a Maine teenager entering a Narnia-like mythical land is steeped in folklore and has its moments of terror, but it's more a coming-of-age story than a supernatural one.

For my personal reading list, I make sure to write down all of the titles throughout the year and then in December I'll assign one of two quick categories of recommendation I have: "enjoyed it, but wouldn't read it again" and "would recommend with enthusiasm". That gives me at least a few to offer as a starting place for a longer review.

If you're looking for something new to read, OPL has an avalanche of recommendations for you: OPL Staff Picks. If you feel like submitting one of your own, you can do that here. Remember that we're all unique snowflakes, and we don't all love the same books. The better you can communicate why​ you liked a story (or didn't), though, the better chance you'll have of finding a kindred spirit with a similar bookshelf -- and giving them the gift of a detailed recommendation for something they haven't yet read.

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