The Sunday Salon, Whatnot
Comments 43

What is a good book review?

The Good Book Review

Recently, I came across this article on the good book review at The Manila Review. Of course, our standards on judging book reviews are relative, but I find the article really nice. In fact, it is so good that I put the pointers at the footer of my blog so that I can refer to them when I feel that I’m not in the mood to do book write-ups, which has been common as of late. Hopefully I won’t be sued for plagiarism?

We follow book blogs from the leading papers of the world to the most obscure blogs that we stumble upon during our Internet dawdling time. But how do you choose the book blogs that you follow or add on your feed readers? Me, I check out the list of books that the blogger reviewed (and this is why the review index is an important page of any book blog). Reading this list gives me an idea of the kinds of books that the blogger reads, and then I read a couple of posts to get a sample of the blogger’s style.

I am usually taken away by posts between 1,000 to 2,000 words. They intrigue me and give me the feeling that the blogger has really thought about the book regardless of his feelings and judgments on it (so long as the post is not merely drivel). Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind short posts and non sequiturs. In fact, the latter are very welcome especially if the blogger knows when and where to put them, and how to link them to the point that he or she is driving at.

So yes, I don’t have a concrete set of standards on the good book review, and this is why I find the article helpful in many ways. In case it’s too much to ask you to scroll back up or down further to check out the bullet points for the good book review, here they are:

[The article is written by Jennifer B. McDonald.]

The Good Book Review …

  • introduces a book and attempts a rigorous appraisal, while demonstrating fairness, intelligence, clarity, discernment, and style.
  • should consider the version offered by publishers for review, not an early, unfinished draft, not a copy acquired through shadowy means.
  • should evaluate the book the author wrote, not the book the reviewer wishes the author had written.
  • does not simply reveal whether a reviewer “likes” or “dislikes” a book. It measures a book’s arguments, ideas, and artfulness, and is ideally well argued itself.
  • comments perceptively on a book’s literary accomplishment.
  • avoids lengthy plot summary.
  • provides context, which requires the reviewer to come to the work well informed.
  • can say a book is bad, but shouldn’t do so with gratuitous venom.
  • is also more than just content: We must consider its style.
  • should avoid cliché, especially book-reviewese, the empty adjectives and exclamations you find plastered on cover after cover.
  • should be written with flair — lucidity, elegance, panache — and indeed may be so well composed that it becomes its own lesson in writing.

Do you agree with all the points listed above? Do you have any additions to them?

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43 Comments

  1. Hi, Angus! As far as the list goes, I would agree. This is actually one of the articles from The Manila Review that I like. There was one, though, on reviewing the reviewers that I’m not too happy about.

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    • I skimmed through the reviewers article, but if you’re not too happy about it, I better take it off my to-revisit link. Welcome back!

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  2. Surprised to learn you like the longer reviews, Angus. Whenever I encounter those I just read the first paragraph then scroll all the way down to the last. Hehe.
    Those bullet points all scream “professional” to me. I think good reviewers don’t necessarily sit down with a list of criteria in mind but when they’re done you’d see some of those qualities in their work. You can usually sense if a reviewer tries too hard (for reference look at mine. haha!)

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    • I think the “professional” part comes into play when you research the context of the novel. I never bother to research those, but they could help in further understanding the book. And yes, I agree that good reviewers don’t have a list; it’s like something that comes naturally. Bad reviewers like me would find a list helpful to guide us. :D

      A trying hard reviewer for me is one who uses too many adjectives that belong to book blurbs.

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  3. With those standards, then I guess the posts I do aren’t actually book reviews, much more good one s at that haha! I still would want to refer to them as book reviews, though, for lack of a better reference. :D

    I have few standards when it comes to following book blogs containing book reviews: the posts must not contain spoilers as much as possible, or at least give spoiler warnings; they must be concise and short because I would want to read a book review and not a novel; and most of all, I love posts that are honest and no, I don’t mind subjective rants or raves. :)

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    • Spoilers are my major flaws. Just because I don’t mind them doesn’t give me the right to go on writing them. I’m trying my best not to do that anymore (for major plot spoilers, at least).

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  4. Excellent list. I would only argue that sometimes blog writers write reactions to books that are not “reviews,” but are extremely interesting nevertheless. This list applies well to traditional reviews and would also be appropriate for print and professional journalism. Blogs allow writers to reinvent the form — and sometimes that means a more personal reaction, a sassier or more conversational tone. I like reading these too — and sometimes they lure me into a book in a way that a more traditional “review” does not.
    I also often read “reviews” after I have finished the book. In this case I don’t mind spoilers and I am looking for analysis– a way to frame the reading.

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    • Thanks for the input. I must add that nonreviews become more interesting thanks to the individual styles of the bloggers (also on the list). And we are similar in reading reviews after finishing the books. I do this so that I can see other interpretations of the book.

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  5. Great post! Really helpful especially for beginners like me. I also visited the original post, thanks for sharing. I will keep these pointers in mind. :-)

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  6. Those pointers certainly sound right for constructing objectively good reviews, but my personal preference is for reviews that have personality. I read so many reviews, far more than the number of books I will ever read in full, so the pleasure for me is more about enjoying someone’s writing than discovering an endless list of books to read.

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    • You have a point there, but I’d still expect a review of sorts. There are reviews that are propped against the back drop of a book review, but they are 95% musings regarding the bloggers’ personal lives. I don’t mind the personal inputs, but I do mind the imbalance.

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  7. The article is spot on. I remember Updike’s rules and I think, if professional book reviewing should ever have a standard, it should be this one and Updike’s.

    I’m guilty of the adjectives though I’m trying to lessen them.:D Even though I don’t want to be a good reviewer, I will try to keep these pointers mind so that my reviews (“review” here is used in its the loosest meaning) will be interesting.:D

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    • It’s hard not to like Updike for his rules although I haven’t read any of his novels yet. Regarding the adjectives (and adverbs), it’s sometimes hard to resist them especially if we have very strong feelings about the book.

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  8. This list sets a high standard that I know I can’t match. I try not to do the obvious such as just describing the plot but no way could I be said to write rigorous appraisals as suggested here. There isn’t really enough scope to do that without making the post very long. Do agree though about avoiding superlative.

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    • It does seem demanding, but maybe we can try cover some, if not all of them. I think the appraisals will bulk up the review, and we really don’t want to focus there.

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  9. Mabel says

    I think that sometimes bloggers are simply journaling their reading journey — and “personal” posts in response to books are sort of a memoir in reading. This is very different from reviewing, and I think there’s a lot of confusion in the blogging world about there being a difference between the two blog genres, and about the validity of both ways of discussing and reacting to literature. I wrote on this recently (if you’re curious.) :)

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    • Hello there. In the case of reading journals, I think these pointers wouldn’t all be applicable because, as you mentioned, they are different. The reader must be able to discern the difference. I think it’s pretty easy to do so if the readers do bother to read.

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