How to write a great book review

Do you have any hints on giving a fair and honest review?

I have received books that were not of my choosing written by those of a very different experience and background to me. The genre may not be what I usually would read. I have a few where I haven’t finished. Much work has gone into the writing of these books which may have a message that I was unable to connect with. Without doubt if they reached a person who liked the style they would be enthusiastically received.

Great question, and as someone who has reviewed books for a decade with the Woman Alive Book Club and in places like Christianity magazine, I have given it much thought. It’s easy to write a negative review – just fire off a list of all the things you don’t like about the book or author. It’s also pretty straightforward to write a review about a book you love, because you can share your passion and say what moved you. What’s harder, though, is to write a nuanced review that shares the high points and low points in a fair way.

Photo: Christopher, flickr

Photo: Christopher, flickr

When I choose which book to select for the Woman Alive Book Club, some months I flail around, for I want to pass along something that I loved, a work that I think will connect with my readers. So I consciously don’t write hugely negative reviews there. Why waste everyone’s time? But when I’m assigned a book to read and review, such as for Christianity magazine, then I give the negatives and the positives. If you’re blogging and you’ve received the book on condition that you’ll give a review, you’re in the same situation, and so these tips are for you.

1. Say what the book is

I often start off a review with a summary-sentence that describes the book. Here are a few from those published in Christianity magazine a couple of years ago:

A gentle exploration of ageing from one of the giants of our generation, and not only for those in their “golden years” – a phrase which Graham dispels. (Nearing Home by Billy Graham)

HopefulGirl (a pseudonym) reentered the Christian singles market after her fiancé unceremoniously jilted her, and kept a diary of the good, the bad and the ugly from four years of dating (as published in Woman Alive). (Would Like to Meet by HopefulGirl)

As a self-professed “Eeyore,” Kay Warren has penned a book that has emerged out of her struggle to choose joy in the midst of challenge, heartbreak and sadness. (Choose Joy by Kay Warren)

As you describe the book, tell us if the book is a novel or a biography or a self-help book. Is it fantasy or a rom-com or historical fiction or a thriller? Is it a book on how to live the Christian life better? A memoir? A work exploring pastoral theology?

My own first book, Finding Myself in Britain, can be placed in several categories – it’s my story but it’s also cultural commentary and an exploration of spiritual insights. Some reviewers have criticized this multi-category approach, but others see it as a benefit. In contrast, my second book (forthcoming this autumn), The Living Cross, falls neatly into one category, for it’s the BRF Lent book for next year so it’s classified as a devotional.

Photo: Moyan Brenn, flickr

Photo: Moyan Brenn, flickr

2. Say what you liked—and what you didn’t

This is where the nuance comes in. If you’re sharing something negative about the book, put it in context. For example, you may not be the target market, or you disagree with the author’s views because of x, y, or z, and so on. Here is an example of a review for Christianity in which I said what was good about the book (Lead Me, Holy Spirit by Stormie Omartian), but also what was lacking:

I savour books on hearing God. And I’ve enjoyed The Power of a Praying… books by this author. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t grip me.

It’s a solid and sound look at the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible, and would be a good resource if you wanted to study this sometimes overlooked member of the Trinity. But I had hoped for more stories interwoven amid the biblical explorations. The few she recounted stuck with me, and made me want to hear more. I also would have appreciated her views on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which she said were better addressed elsewhere.

Her Prayer Power sections, however, are worth the price of the book, especially if you struggle to find the words to seek God’s leading or empowering in your life.

As you can see, I highlighted what was good about the book – it’s a solid look at the Holy Spirit as rooted in the Bible. But also where I found it wanting.

In describing what you liked and what you didn’t, try to be specific. For instance, if the book is fiction, which characters appealed to you? Did they feel real? How about the plot – were you carried along, your belief suspended? For nonfiction books, did the argument move seamlessly throughout the book? Did it capture your attention? Did reading it change you? How was the writing style?

3. Say who the audience is

Flagging up the intended audience will help the reader understand why you liked (or not) a book. For instance, with Kay Warren’s book that I mentioned above, I said:

I agreed with her and was moved by some of her vulnerable stories. But as I read I wondered why her writing wasn’t really connecting with me. Perhaps because she is, on her Winnie-the-Pooh personality scale, an Eeyore, this serious, melancholy tone seeped through. Which, of course, could make this the perfect book for some other woman.

Although in one sense I should have been the target market for her book (a woman concerned with the Christian life), our personality differences meant I didn’t resonate so much with it. And now, in hindsight years later, I wonder how much of me not clicking with her had to do with her not being able to write openly, for this book came out before the tragedy of her son dying by suicide.

Photo: Alan Levine, flickr

Photo: Alan Levine, flickr

4. Let your personality shine through

What I love most in reading reviews is finding out more about the book reviewer. I try especially in the Woman Alive Book Club to be myself and share from my life, as openness and vulnerability can help build community.

Don’t be afraid to share who you are, and how this book influenced/moved/changed you. When we connect with a reviewer, we allow ourselves to be more persuaded by whether they liked a book or not. The individual quirks and personality traits that shine through in a review make them more likable and compelling.

“Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) – thanks be to God. And I pray too that “of reviewing many books there is no end,” for authors need readers and readers need reviewers. A community coming together to share their love for books. What will you review next?

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