LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Writing Book Reviews

Many folk baulk at writing book reviews, so below is the structure I use, plus some of my own thoughts (focussing on the need for positive criticism) in the hope that they will help. Comments/suggestions welcome!

1. An overview (optional)
2. What you liked about the book
3. What you didn’t like about the book – be kind!
4. Conclusion (including something else positive)
5. Keep your review about the story/writing, not about binding/delivery, etc!

My take on star-ratings:
5* = loved everything about it
4* = really liked it, but contained one or two aspects I struggled with
3* = liked it well enough, but was hard work in places
2* = didn’t like it and struggled to finish
1* = really didn’t like it and/or did not finish

1. Brief overview (optional)
This doesn’t need to be long, even just a single sentence is enough. E.g. “Natalie is struggling to rebuild her writing career after moving to France, when she lands an exclusive interview with a reclusive film-star”. That’s honestly all you need to say, and in fact, you don’t need to say anything – the blurb will cover the overview, as will other reviewers, so skip this bit if you can’t face the paraphrasing.

2. What you liked about the book
Think of parts of the story or writing that moved you, made you laugh, made you cry, made you want to visit the location. E.g. “The scene setting was so good, I felt like I was actually in France.” Comment on the characters: “Being both passionate and nervous about her chances didn’t mean Natalie couldn’t also stand up for herself. I liked that.” Try and show the author how s/he got through to you.

3. Anything you didn’t like about the book
There isn’t anything I didn’t like about the book I’m using here as an example, so I would say exactly that. But in other circumstances, I might comment on unlikeable protagonists, plot holes, or unrealistic situations, etc. Remembering it’s possible to do so KINDLY! See “On the Subject of Kindness” below!

On the Subject of Kindness
I’ve seen some pretty nasty critiques recently, e.g. a whole thread of snidey 3* reviews left by a self-published author for other self-published authors. This is nuts, imo, because all we want is more good books, right? And the best way to get them, surely, is to help writers improve (which is not achieved by making them feel lousy about themselves or their writing). To this end, I try to stick to phrases like “I felt that…” and “this didn’t work for me because…” and “I noticed a few gaps where…”, etc., so the author doesn’t feel personally attacked – hopefully s/he’ll be inspired to fix things instead. (And you never know what’s going on in other people’s lives – your clever 1* appraisal might hit an author on the anniversary of a loved-ones’s death.)

This is not to say I’ve never let rip (e.g. 1* and 2* reviews I’ve left for commercial non-fiction here and here), because, as @jschwartz63 remarked, “readers spend their money and time hoping for some form of emotional response” and, like everyone, I hate being disappointed. But I feel we owe it to the self-publishing community to be supportive, particularly when not enjoying a book. This doesn’t mean saying you think it’s brilliant when you don’t; it means being nice about saying you feel it could be improved – and remembering your opinion is subjective! As @MikeWalters60 points out, the book might have qualities that just don’t happen to appeal to you, or don’t appeal to you at that moment, depending what’s going on in your own life. This is why I will often choose not to review a book I really didn’t like (which is not to say I disliked everything I’ve failed to review); but here are times when I’m just too tired to find the words I want. This might seem hypocritical (if I’m so keen to support authors), but I reckon that’s better than saying the wrong thing.

Also, and this should go without saying, if you already know you don’t like a genre, please don’t read a book in that genre then leave a review that says, “I don’t know why I’m still reading this rubbish,” or “typical of its kind: over dramatised, weak, full of typos”!! Please don’t look for excuses to be unkind to authors (as it appears some people do). Filter your reading list!

4. Concluding your review
Finish by saying something else you liked (thereby “sandwiching” any negative comments between positive comments), e.g.: “This made me laugh out loud in public – my daughter kept telling me to be quiet” or “can’t wait for this author’s next offering” or “I can’t stop thinking about the characters” or even just “I’m glad I read it”.

Some folk also like to add a recommendation, e.g. “this book will appeal to readers of [author of a similar novel]”.

5. Physical properties of a book
Please don’t use your review to slate the production or delivery of the book. Commercial authors have zero control over binding, paper quality, cover design/lamination, delivery time/cost/method, etc. Write to the publisher instead.

For self-published books, the author usually will have control, but might be new to publishing, so again, be kind. It’s probably best to message her/him in private. Keep your public review about the story/writing itself.

Please review whenever possible, even if you only leave one or two lines. Authors truly value (thoughtful) reviews, and – as well as providing a service to the wider reading community – you can make someone’s day by writing something kind about their book.

@2019 Leigh Forbes | Published: 27th March 2019