Book Reviews: A Casual Reader’s Guide to Reviewing

DeathtoStock_Medium4So, you’ve read a book and it made you have feels. Lots of them. Good ones, bad ones, confusing ones that are kind of fuzzy and a little bit disconcerting. What can you do about it? How can you make the world feel what you’re feeling? Book reviews.

Book reviews are the reader’s chance to stab back at the encroaching dark. They’re a chance to share beauty with the world or squash some putrid eggplant of a novel.

How do you go about doing it?

Why Write Book Reviews

First we have to talk about WHY we write reviews. Here is what they are not:

  • Reviews are Not a Letter to the Writer: Look, smart writers don’t read reviews of their books. Or, if they do, they’ve developed thick enough skin that they just don’t give a shit what you think.
  • Reviews are Not Scary: Afraid that you’re not going to say something right or that your grammar will be imperfect? Fuckit. Nobody cares. Book reviews come in all forms and THEY’RE ALL USEFUL.
  • Reviews are Not Sacred, but they are Special: This is your take on a book. Not someone else’s. Not a reflection of the Great Twitter Gestalt. If you write your opinion and it doesn’t match what anyone else says? THAT’S THE BEST REVIEW EVER.

But why the hell do we want to write a review? We’re just hurling words out into the void, right?

  • Reviews Genuinely Help Readers: The best reviews help future readers make decisions. No matter how many stars you give something, the words you put down MIGHT help some future reader make a decision.
  • Reviews Help Authors: Wait, what? But authors don’t read them! Yeah, well, the number of reviews is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT on Amazon and Goodreads. For early-career writers, getting reviews is absolutely critical. And… the star value isn’t even as important as the SHEER QUANTITY. It matters for buying advertisements and marketing. It matters for finding places to sell. It matters for search engine optimization. The number of reviews plugs into all kinds of algorithms in dozens of unknown ways.
  • You Just Finished a Book and you Want to Shout it to the World: Books evoke emotions. They should, anyway. The natural response is to want to shout glory or disdain LOUD from the doorstep, hollering out praises so the world will KNOW THE GLORY OF THIS BOOK. M-maybe write a review instead? I don’t know. That’s just me.

How to Write the Book Review

A good book review should be written to be quickly useful to a new potential reader. What does this mean for how we write reviews? Well, here are the guidelines I like to follow:

  • Be Useful: The goal of an Amazon or Goodreads review is to be useful. To someone. To anyone. The format I fall back on looks like this: “If you like ________, then you’ll like _________ because ___________” Fill in those blanks and you have a review that is targeted to be useful to someone.
  • Keep in Short: A sentence or two is fine. Maybe up to five? When I’m looking for books, I won’t read any review more than a couple lines. I’m busy, okay? Also, there’s always a danger of spoilers in those really long reviews.
  • “I Hated It” and “I Loved It” are fine, BUT: Better to say “It wasn’t for me” or better: “I enjoy epic space erotica, but this book had TOO MANY BUNNIES”. Remember, the potential new reader doesn’t know you. Tell them what you like and whether or not the book worked for you. That’s all they need.
  • Skew Specific: Saying, “This book was hella violent,” instead of “This book was horrible,” can sell the book to people who crave violence in the deep darkness of their souls. And, I guess we’d rather those people be reading books, right?
  • Skew Positive: Even terrible books have some redeeming factors. So what if the book’s characters are a collection of identical turds. If the worldbuilding was great and the prose was fantastic, say it. Mention the turd people, but, um, maybe don’t rub our noses in them.

Disclaimer: These tips are not really for book bloggers, who love nothing more than to write in-depth analysis of the books they read. It’s also not for the Amazon Review subculture, in which reviewers pride themselves on the distinct quality of their reviews. Those folks know the review business better than I do, and if you want to be in that club, I suggest you take a look at some of Amazon’s top reviewers.

Examples of Book Reviews:

I have a backlog of books that I’ve been meaning to review, so here are a few:

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: City of Stairs is an epic fantasy, and even though I don’t always like epic fantasies, this book really worked. The mystery driving this novel keeps things moving quickly enough that one hardly notices the amazing worldbuilding and character development. I found that I cared about most of the characters in this novel. Sigrud has what might be one of the best scenes ever written in a fantasy novel. This book is worth reading just for that.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season is a book in which magic moves the earth almost as much as emotion moves the reader. This is a heavy book full of complex, deep characters that somehow need to live through the end of the world. It does some interesting things with structure as well. Parts of it are in second person, which seems odd, but really worked for me. Those were the parts of the book that got the most emotional response from me.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: Lagoon doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter format of Hollywood-inspired stories, and that’s ok. It’s a story of change descending upon Lagos and the effect of that change on its various people. Change comes, in this case, in the form of aliens. There are a lot of things to love about this book. Aliens. Sea creatures. A road monster.

Do these say everything there is to say about those books? Nope. They’re not even fantastic examples of my writing. My goal is to say one thing that someone might find useful for each book. That’s it. I put it in Amazon and Goodreads. Then I’m done.

So, get out there. Write some reviews. Write them hard. Be honest, and be USEFUL.

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