Saturday, September 6, 2014

How to write a book review by Brian Henry

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis
from Pajama Press (2014),
reviewed by Susan Thomas here
Most journals prefer relatively short book reviews. For Quick Brown Fox, I like reviews under 700 words. But I'm flexible, so shorter is fine and if you've written a great review that happens to be 1,000 words, that's wonderful – as long as you really need all those words.

A standard review – and the kind of review I want for Quick Brown Fox – is meant to be interesting to read for its own sake, whether or not the reader is interested in the book itself.

A good review does the following:

First, a review includes publishing information. For Quick Brown Fox, I also like to include information on where to buy the book on-line. For example: 
Pajama Press (2014), 223 pages, paperback $12.24 from Amazon

Fields of Exile by Nora Gold
reviewed by Brian Henry here.
Second, a review briefly tells what a book is about, without giving a whole synopsis or listing the content and without revealing spoilers.

Third, a review judges a book’s overall quality and where it's strongest and weakest and may suggest which readers will like the work (and which won't).

Fourth, a review gives the book some context. For Quick Brown Fox, writers often place a book a personal context; for example:
As a child I remember being stunned into silence by even the simplest sleight of hand or familiar illusion.  It wasn’t the trick per se, or even the enticing exuberance of the trickster, as much as it was my desperate hope that magic was real and that one day I too might master the mystical ways of the enchanter.  I had forgotten that delicious sense of wonder until I recently came across the novel Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. 
- From Sandra Ziemniak’s review of Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (see here).

To give another example:
Approximately three percent of all live births are twins. My own fascination with twins began in grade one when I encountered Tyler and Kyle, identical boys who spoke their own language which neither the teacher nor any of us were able to comprehend. In order to communicate with them, we resorted to body language. It was somewhat effective, but we knew that we singles were really outsiders, and frequently the butt of Tyler and Kyle’s private jokes. We called them by one name: the twins. Though individuals, they functioned as two halves of one person; simply put, they were, intriguing.     I was reminded of Tyler and Kyle while reading Cutting for Stone...

 - From Bonnie Bouwman’s review of Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (see here)

I like that factoid about 3% of births being twins. In general, literature is meant to instruct and delight, so feel free to instruct.

Alternatively, the context may compare the book to others. For example:
The story of a young woman’s coming to maturity through trials of love, kinship, economic deprivation and a struggle with faith rings through classics such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Like those other great writers, Buchanan includes the natural world, Niagara Falls, as a background and symbol for her protagonist’s personal crisis. 

- From Charlene Jones’ review of The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (see here)

Or you may put the book in the context of current events. For an example, see my review of Fields of Exile by Nora Gold. I place Nora’s book in the context of current events and do so partly with a personal anecdote. See here.

Or you can put a book in any sort of context at all. Often this aspect of the review is where the reviewer makes his review a work that's worth reading for itself, regardless of whether the reader is interested in the book being reviewed.

A review may leave out context, but still be a good review if the author can engage the reader with her distinctive voice and entertaining phrasing. For example:
If you were to cross Marie Curie with Nancy Drew, the result would be Flavia de Luce; a precocious child in the post-WWII English countryside with a passion for poison and a propensity for mischief.

- From Michelle Greenwood’s review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Fifth, a review ends with a brief About the Author (i.e., the author of the review), which you use to promote yourself.

If you want to submit to a particular publication, read a few of their reviews to get a feel for what they want. I’m always looking for book reviews for Quick Brown Fox and the brand new Ottawa Review of Books is looking for reviews, too. For information about submitting, see here.

See my schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Oakville, Orillia, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond. 

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