What makes a good book review?

I run a decently popular blog focussing on Unitarianism, among other things. A Unitarian author has written a series of books where some of the main characters are Unitarians and has sent me copies to review. I'd like to write a good and thoughtful book review and was wondering what you think makes for a good book review.

if you are reviewing something my client has written please feel free to use the following: this book will give you thinner thighs, a thicker wallet, and a longer happier life. In fact, the more copies you buy the thinner, thicker and happier you'll be.

I can't stand book reviews that are just a plot synopsis. I'm interested in a review that talks about craft, gives some context, places the book within a historical perspective, draws interesting connections or gives me thinner thighs, a thicker wallet, and less dog hair on the sofa.

I'm sure the Snarklings will have an opinion or two on this.

Have at it!

PS -You know why Unitarians are such poor hymn singers?
Cause they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the text.


Elektra said...

It seems like your readers would prefer a review focusing on how efective the Unitarian bits are, etc.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to read book reviews that do not provide the following:

1) Genre, premise, and what's so great about this book versus the other billion books for sale

2) Passion. If a reviewer goes gaga over a book, then I'm going to wonder what all the excitement is about. (I have no trouble promoting a book I love. "Good and thoughtful" just pours right out, along with "enthusiastic" and phrases such as "Even if you hate detective novels, you've got to read this!" or "This will have you crying and laughing at the same time!")

3) Thinner thighs, thicker wallet, and/or longer happier life

Anonymous said...

LOL on the Unitarian snark. Being one myself, I completely identify.

As for book reviews, I'm in your camp. Plot synopsis does not do it for me. You already get that from the publisher. When most reviewers only give a plot synopsis, it reminds me of those I was required to do in fourth grade to prove I read the book.

I want to know if the character was well drawn, if there are ideas I might be interested in pursuing further, if it takes place in some interesting time or place, and some sense of the reviewer's like or dislike of the book and why.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, this is off-subject, but you posted this at 11:37, it says. Weren't you at St. Marks Bookshop at midnight??? I was. You said, "Be there!" So I was. There were very few women there. There was a crazy lady; I didn't think it was you. And there was a woman with a neo-Peace button. Was that you??? I was hoping to meet you and KY. Oh well, next time....

Anonymous said...

A man dies and wakes up on a full bus. "Where am I?" He shouts.
The lady next to him says, "On the way to the afterlife."
Soon the bus pulls up to a gate marked 'Hell'. A large group in bowling shirts gets off.
"Baptists," observes his companion.
Next the bus slows for another gate marked 'Seminar on Heaven'. "Last stop before the Pearly Gates," their driver calls.
Several people get off.
"Unitarians," observes the lady.

Anonymous said...

A guy buys a brand-new Lamgborghini. He gets insurance on it, but he doesn't feel that's enough. As he's driving down the street, he sees a Catholic church. Squealing to a stop, he runs inside, stuffs a wad of bills in the offering box, and kneels before the priest.

"Father, will you bless my Lamgborghini?"

"Of course," says the priest. "Just one question first. What's a Lamborghini?"

Well, that's not good enough for him. So he goes outside in disgust. A little further on, he sees a Baptist church.

Running inside, he tosses some money in the collection plate.

"Preacher, will you bless my Lamborghini?"

"Of course, Brother," says the priest. "But just one question first: what's a Lamborghini?"

Still not good enough. So he goes down the street a little further, and finds a Unitarian church.

"Minister, will you bless my Lamborghini?"

"Of course, friend," says the priest. "Just one question first: what's a blessing?"

:D :D :D

Linda Maye Adams said...

I don't like summary reviews either. If I wanted a summary, I oculd go to Amazon and read the description from the publisher. I want to know why I should or shouldn't buy this book. What are its strengths and weaknesses? At the same time, I want to see the reviewer avoid silly sweeping statements or obvious putdowns.

Stacia said...

I can't stand book reviews that are just a plot synopsis. I'm interested in a review that talks about craft, gives some context, places the book within a historical perspective, draws interesting connections or gives me thinner thighs, a thicker wallet, and less dog hair on the sofa.

I agree. I don't want a couple of lines about the plot and then a "This was good/bad"--I want to know why the reviewer did or did not like the book. Was it too slow-paced? Did the characters not feel like real people? Was the language clunky? Or was it smooth and sparkling, did you miss the characters when the book was done?

That's one thing I like about Amazon, is being able to see what other books a reviewer has reviewed. It gives me an idea of their tastes.

Sam said...

I don't ever read reviews - they're just personal opinions and everyone has different taste in books.
I want the plot summary to see if there is something new or if it's about something that interests me.

Kate Thornton said...

I read book reviews so I don't have to read *every* book that gets published.

I like to see a bit about the plot - to see if it's my kinda book - and a thoughtful report on why the reviewer felt compelled to keep on reading or had to slog through it. If the writing stinks but the plot is brilliant, show me. If the plot stinks but this author can write like crazy, lemme know. If it is another Atlanta Nights - well, less said the better.

For non-fiction, has the author either covered the subject in depth or come up with a new way of seeing it? These are things I want the reviewer to tell me - also, mention the essentials: title, author, publisher, page count, cost, availability, formats.

Anonymous said...


For dog's sake NO SPOILERS.

Someone did that for one of my books. He posted a glowing review on Amazon, then gave away the big plot point--the one I'd just spent 400 pages to build up to! (It was on a level with someone blurting out what Rosebud meant during the first reel of Citizen Kane, who murdered Roger Ackroyd, and posting the lastest pic of Norman Bates's mum.)

I've repeatedly asked Amazon to take that one down and why. They listen to the thought police at PubliSHAMErica, but not to me. Sheesh.

:walks off grumbling:

Anonymous said...

I love reviews. I especially love starred reviews. Many, many starred reviews. Short of that, I like to see some enthusiastic praise for the craft involved. Short of that, fan letters are nice. :)

Anonymous said...

When I review, I try to have a nice grabby first sentence (just like a good book!) that gives the reviewer a sense of the essential conflict in the book.

The key, I think, is to try to have analysis in almost every sentence. Don't summarize the plot and then review; mix it up. And yes, don't give away the ending. Look for vague ways to hint at it: "...an unexpected visitor brings news that will turn his world upside down", and the like. Only maybe less cheesy. :)

As others have said, since you have some subject expertise, you can look at the books through that lens. Do the characters ring true as Unitarians, in your view? What will Unitarians get out of the books?

Word verification: aavkfu. Aardvark kung-fu?

writtenwyrdd said...

Miss Snark, there is a reason we Unitarians don't have to read ahead. We have modified our hymnal! LOL. BTW, at my UU, we have added or changed lyrics as a group and pasted them in the books, furthering the trend.

In terms of book reviews, when I do a review, I try to post a spoiler alert if I make a spoiler comment. Otherwise, I just talk about the reason I liked the book, which is to discuss the craft of the book.

I also don't write about a book (yet) unless I actually liked it. I don't feel the need to trash someone else's work. If I were ever to be horribly offended or really hate a book (Eragon) I might write a review...

Anonymous said...

I hate reviews. The reviewer always manages to let one word slip which mundanely gives away the climax.


Anonymous said...

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who goes door-to-door with nothing to sell. Ba-dum!

In talking with reviewers about their craft, I've come to use/see four required sections for a good, standard-length (~500-word) review: plot, style, author, and context. These four can appear in any order and can overlap, but all four should be present:

1. Plot: Provide a brief, non-spoiler plot synopsis.
2. Style: Describe the writing style and rhetorical decisions such as the book's structure.
3. Author: Provide background information on the author, including their previous books--and briefly discuss one of the prior books if it sheds light on the book currently under review.
4. Context: Give an account of the book's context--What authors have written books in the same vein? What is the political, cultural, or academic situation into which the book inserts itself? What are your, the reviewer's, more personal connections or thoughts on the book?

Anonymous said...

I believe Mort Sahl said during one of his early routines (paraphrased a bit):

"The KKK burned a cross on the lawn in front of a Unitarian church, but the congregation didn't know what it was."

Anonymous said...

I don't want to find in a review the words, "...and there's a surprise twist at the end that the reader totally doesn't see coming."

Well, now they do.

ORION said...

Reminds me of the time long ago that I bought Robin Cook's book COMA when it first came out.
The nineteen year old clerk looked at it dispassionately just before he put it in the bag and said,"Oh yeah, this one is about stealing bodies for organ transplants...it's pretty good."

Anonymous said...

Being a Unitarian, I found your PS hilarious.

But, Miss Snark, poodles don't shed. What's that all about?

Anonymous said...

I don't like reviews that give away the ending. Hints, sure. But not an actual plot give away. I try not to do that in my reviews (mostly fiction magazines so far). But I don't want just a long list of glowing paise and no reason why either. And for gods sake be honest. If you didn't get something or didn't connect, or didn't like it, say so. That doesn't mean you have to brutalize it, just say so.

Miss Snark said...

last anon--
Killer Yapp hosts the weekly card game you may have seen immortalized in "Dogs Playing Poker".

Anonymous said...

dear miss snark,

pls forward title of thigh-thinning book as well as terms for bulk discount.

- a friend

Tina said...

So . . .

How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?

We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if, in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb, and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

For you non-UUs who want equal time, more at http://mosaicmiami.blogspot.com/2006/08/lightbulb-jokes.html

Rei said...

Q: How do you drive a Unitarian out of town?
A: Burn a question mark in their lawn.

Mario Bruzzone said...

I respectfully disagree with some of the above posts w/r/t what makes a good book review. Partially this is because we don't separate or even acknowledge a difference between a “should-I-read-this” review and a critical essay. A "review" that scopes a writer's oeuvre an finds a new book excellent (or wanting) is not so much anything as a critical essay about the author. A review, however...well, a true review does something else entirely.

My guiding principle for writing reviews is this: That the reader should know whether she would like the book regardless of whether I liked it. So my approach tends toward long quotes—a paragraph or so—to give a feeling of the author's writing. Saying writing is "luminous" or "choppy," in all honesty, actually says very little, and my (meritocratic) preference is to let the author make her own case. (That is, to the extent possible.) I also tend to synopsize a fair bit; when I'm reading reviews, the plot synopsis gives hints whether I'll enjoy—or learn from—the book. I am not usually a fan of conceit-heavy science fiction, for example, so if a reviewer tells me—or even clues me in—that a certain novel is an allegory for (say) the plight of intellectuals in the United States, I will know to pass.

I find that the hardest reviews are for books that are not bad so much as, if I may use an execrable word, “done.” These are books that rely on subject matter, rather than narrative skill, to keep readers interested, and there are a lot of them. Writing a novel is hard, and consistency can be extremely difficult. But a literary novel focusing on a woman with 30 cats or 100 gerbils is not enticing anymore, and even if the author is not bad, it's hard to write an even-handed review. If I say, for instance, “John Smith is a talented writer, but his subject matter has already been treated by Russell Banks to greater effect,” it looks as if I'm slamming him. But a reader who doesn't get lots of free books in the mail might not even know who Russell Banks is, much less have read Trailerpark.

In the end, I am still na├»ve enough to give the most honest review I can. I think that's a fan's response more than anything—because, to me, a great book is a magical thing.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

ah, well, Unitarians aren't you know. I mean they aren't unitarians anymore.

What ever happened to Joseph Priestly? Or, better yet, and closer to my own soul, Thomas Emlyn? These were the heart and soul of real unitarianism....

Ok, so how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Well, first you'd have to know whether it's a fluorescent, an incandescent, or a halogen bulb, but even then you may have made a false assumption because not all Unitarian Universalists find lightbulb illumination useful, or even believe in Electricity or the Electric Company.

It seems sad to me that Ermina C. Stray and her ilk have a more honoured place than Thomas Emlyn, who was a real saint.

None of this means a thing, other than to me, does it? Yet, aren't you just a tad surprised that Pixies know about Thomas Emlyn and Ermina C. Stray? Just a tiny bit? Huh?