The Why and the How of Book Reviews

For this month’s post, I invited Tristi Pinkston, AML’s new book reviewer, to share her talents with us. Tristi has a great eye for books, and her opinions are a great guide to go by when selecting books to add to my to-read pile.

The Why and the How of Book Reviews

by Tristi Pinkston

I’ve always loved writing book reviews.  I started posting them on my blog way, way back when my blog was still brand new, and then I was lucky enough to get a job as a blogger for Families.com.  One of my roles there was to review media, and yes, I did take my job very seriously.  Books and movies are two of my favorite things—right after raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens—and I was in my element. Now, several years later, I’m excited to be reviewing books for the AML.  Reviews on this site are always anticipated (and feared) by authors, and greatly respected.  I’m honored to be on this team.

I’m frequently asked questions about reviewing books, and I thought I’d take a moment and answer some of those questions here.

Q. What is the purpose of a book review?

A. A book review will help the author in a number of different ways.  First, it brings the book to the attention of the consumers in the market.  It helps them to determine if the book is one they would enjoy, and it tells them where to find the book.  Reviews are also sometimes instructive in nature, helping the author hone their skills in areas that might be a little rough.  The ultimate goal is to make the consumer aware of the product, and to help the writer become as successful as possible.

Q. Why should I read book reviews?

A.  Reading book reviews will help you know if you want to purchase a particular book, but they also help you see the book from new perspectives.  I know that when I read a book review for a book I’ve already read, I notice that the other reviewer opens my mind to facets of the story I might not have seen for myself, and it makes my experience with that book more rewarding.

Q. What tips do you have for someone who wants to write book reviews?

A. I’d be more than happy to share my own process for constructing book reviews.  Keep in mind, this is just how I do it, and you’ll find your own style and way of doing things as you delve in and feel it out.

1. After I’ve read the book, I let it sit for a day or two and let it percolate in my brain.  I think about the plot, the characters, the things I wondered as I was reading, the questions I felt were left unanswered.

2.  When I sit down to write the review, I give a synopsis of the plot in my own words. Yes, you can use the text off the back of the book, but I personally prefer to write one of my own.  It presents my interpretation of the book, rather than what someone else wants me to think about the book.

3.  After I’ve written the synopsis, I will make a criticism sandwich.  That is to say, I share something I liked about the book, something I felt could have been stronger, and then I close with another thing I liked.  I rarely just praise without mentioning something I would have improved – I am a critical reader, and so I spot things.  That’s just what happens when you work as an editor.  You see stuff.  I think it’s important that a potential buyer know for certain what they are buying.  I also feel that the author can grow and strengthen their talents as they hear what they might have done better.  But I also feel that writing in and of itself is a huge accomplishment, and I don’t ever want the author to feel slammed or harshly criticized.  If I can’t be helpful, constructive, and edifying, then I shouldn’t be critiquing.  Simple as that.

4.  And that moves us on to my fourth point.  I try hard to keep my comments helpful and edifying. If I totally hate a book and can’t find anything good to say about it, I will contact the author or the publicist – whoever sent it to me – and I will explain to them that the book didn’t quite fit me, and that I’d like to pass it on to another reviewer.  This is the most fair way for me to handle it – I don’t believe in ripping people up, but instead, I believe in allowing them to learn and grow from their experiences.

5.  I always like to talk about how the book made me feel or the things it made me think about.  That’s what makes the review unique to me.  Anyone can post the text from the back of the book, but it’s hearing what the reviewer felt while they were reading that will sell the book.

6.  When I’m posting on my blog, I always, always include a purchase link to the book.  The book review should tell about the book, it should tell how I feel about the book, and it should give my reader a way to buy the book when they are done reading my review.

Reading book reviews and writing book reviews makes us more alert readers.  We look a little deeper, we open our minds a little more, and we find ourselves understanding more about the story.  If you want to get more out of your reading, try reading it with the goal of writing a review when you’re done, and see if it changes your perspective.  I know it has mine.

Tristi Pinkston is the author of nine published books and works as a freelance editor. She loves to read, scrapbook, and take really long Sunday afternoon naps.  You can learn more about her at www.tristipinkston.com

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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10 Responses to The Why and the How of Book Reviews

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thanks Tristi (and Rachelle). It’s always interesting to see how other book reviewers approach their work.

    I don’t have a particularly systematic approach to book reviewing. However, I generally try to include/address as many as possible of the following:
    - Publication information, including whether the book was self-published (not a bad thing, just something to note) and any peculiarities or challenges readers may face in finding a copy
    - General genre that the book fits within
    - The book’s setting and basic challenge facing the character(s)
    - The audience that I feel would like the book
    - Style, including illustrative quotes if possible
    - Editing and production
    - Important themes
    - How the book fits within the larger cultural/literary conversation

    I believe that Whittaker Chambers once made a comment to the effect that the book reviews section is the (unacknowledged) opinions page of a magazine. While I wouldn’t go that far, I have to admit that I’m most fond of reviews that go beyond describing and evaluating a particular book to engage broader issues. This kind of review, of course, can be frustrating for authors who feel like the book itself got lost along the way (sometimes I sometimes felt in reading reviews of my own book that focused on the gay/Mormon issue to the exclusion of all else). Hence my mental checklist above: I want to feel that I’ve truly engaged with a writer’s work, even if I use that discussion as a springboard to talk about broader questions. This, of course, is also one reason why my reviews tend to be both few and relatively long — and frequently appear long after the publication date…

    Both kinds of review serve their purpose, in my opinion. Tristi’s kind help inform readers about books in a timely fashion. Longer reviews of the type I especially like (and try to emulate) help to advance a valuable critical conversation in the community.

  2. Wm says:

    Not that I ever regularly wrote many book reviews, but I’ve arrived at a place where I’m unable to write a book review as a consumer service. It’s part laziness (I get tired when I start thinking about summarizing the book in my own words — there’s an art to that, and I like that Tristi described a reviewer synopsis as the reviewer’s “interpretation of the book”) and part lack of commitment to the model Tristi presents (which I do think is a valuable one).

    I’m still feeling out what I should do instead. This post is timely because I’ve actually been thinking about this in relation to Death of a Disco Dancer. Both Scott Hales and Theric Jepson have written excellent, thorough reviews of the novel. Do I even bother writing about it? I feel like I should, but how? Or what?

    Which brings me back to the conclusion of this post: the purpose of reviews isn’t just to help decide if they should buy the book or not. It’s also to “make us more alert readers.” That’s a fantastic way of putting it. And I think that’s what I need to work on: what can I say about a book that will help me and others be more alert to the pleasures (and/or pains) of the text?

    • Andrew H says:

      I enjoy and am impressed by the long-form reviews that people like Tristi and Scott Hales do. I have also become very fond of GoodReads. I like how you can pick certain reviewers, and follow them. As I look for reviews of books for my year in review, I have found GoodReads reviewers whose opinions I value, I start following them, and in a while I have a stable of reviewers I can “call upon” in evaluating a book.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      An alternative way of considering reviews is as part of the critical conversation about a particular work, and the field in which it’s situated. In this view, you’re interlocuting largely with others who have already read the book, including other reviewers. Reviews are an invitation to a conversation about what you did and didn’t like about a book, and why. “More alert readers” — yes. Which is why (responding to William) I think that yes, there is value in reviewing a book, even if others have reviewed it previously — and even explicitly engaging with other prior reviewers, whether you agree, disagree, or want to extend or qualify something they’ve written.

      It’s also one reason why I agree with Moriah to some extent about the value of negative reviews. I don’t disrespect those who choose not to write them, but I do think they have value. Perhaps, sometimes, more value than positive reviews, if they are perceptive and help explain *why* a work — or an entire publishing trend — lacks value, in the reviewer’s opinion.

      Inherently, I would say that the opinions of those who find value in a work of art should be weighted more heavily than those who don’t find such value. But negative critiques can point out problems that need addressing. All literary criticism (in my view) is both moral and artistic, whether explicitly or not. (The moral question rises whenever we talk or imply a decision about whether reading a book is worth our time.) But sometimes we enjoy things we shouldn’t enjoy, or what are commandments all about? Many of the best reviews raise questions of that type.

      At this point, I’m past the boundary of review-as-literary-critique and into the territory of review-as-cultural-critique, where a review may be less about a particular work and more about what that work says about the culture that produces and/or appreciates it. But that’s a legitimate purpose of reviews as well — if very different reviews from the type Tristi is talking about.

  3. Katya says:

    “Both Scott Hales and Theric Jepson have written excellent, thorough reviews of the novel. Do I even bother writing about it?”

    Yes, because I like being able to cite at least three reviews on my wiki. ;)

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’m of the opinion that if a book is truly bad, nothing is gained by keeping silent about it. I’ve gotten to the point where I wonder if I’m living in an alternate universe because there are so many glowing reviews of books that I found nearly unreadable. Well, there has to be one other person besides me who would appreciate knowing this before buying the book, so I write the bad review. The absence of a bad review only increases my frustration with the book.

    If a book reviewer reads a bad book, but won’t review it for fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or because they don’t want to be negative, I see that as a disservice to his readership. If I find out that’s what he does, I will then not trust his reviews.

    • Wm says:

      This is why, even if I don’t choose to write about a book on one of my blogs, I at the very least provide a rating and brief review via my GoodReads account.

  5. Thank you all for your excellent feedback. I’ve enjoyed reading all the different perspectives.

    To clarify, I do write negative reviews from time to time – depending on the book and what made me dislike it. I just do prefer to balance the positive and the negative, because most things are a mixture of both.

    • Th. says:

      .

      It’s tricky. I’ve almost never written a wholly negative review, and that process of finding something—anything!—good to say about a book often is enlightening. And it certainly does not result in the book sounding like my favorite of the year.

  6. I think that as a new writer, I am almost more eager to hear what the criticisms are than what the reviewer might like because (as you said) it helps me develop as a writer. Some of the most frustrating critique interactions I’ve had are the ones where someone reads my few pages in a group, smiles at me and says, “it’s good.”

    Well… thanks. But I can’t help but think you really aren’t trying? Like you don’t care enough to comment? Or perhaps it’s so terrible you can’t find anything at all constructive to say about it, haha!!

    The only worse critique is the one where you sit in a room with several people, read your few pages, and nobody says anything, they just hand them back to you. Has happened to me before. It feels a little bit like death.

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