Someone asked me the other day how do I write a book review?
The reviews on Sitting in the Stacks that I would label my “best” all have two things in common – an emotional connection to the book and discussing more than the book’s content.
It’s not surprising that emotion and depth are the two themes in my better reviews. My initial goal for Sitting in the Stacks was to offer “personable reviews.” The personable part appears to be my experience with a book, exploring how it affected me.
And that, dear readers, is where I start when writing a review.
What was the impact?
When sitting down to write a review I jot down all the thoughts and feelings I had while reading. Usually these can be combined into one or two themes for a review and, more often than not, the first idea I write down is how the book impacted me. It’s the nugget of feeling that I will carry as a memory of that book.
For Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom that nugget was a deep contemplation about the complex emotions of depression, exploration, and hypocrisy. This can be summed in one of the concluding sentences of that review.
“Like the characters in the book, you won’t know whether to be happy or miserable after finishing Freedom.”
Sometimes the effect of a book is the inspiration one can draw from the story. Susannah Cahalan’s narrative about her battle with a rare autoimmune disease envelops you in the terror of losing your mind. That sense of fear sticks with you after the last page.
Writing about the emotional impact of a book and the topics you thought about provides insight into the possible reading experience someone can expect. And isn’t that what we actually want to know when we ask someone – Is it good?
Commenting on style
The impact of a book does not always have to be emotional. Sometimes the narrative style or writing or a book is what you remember long after reading. This was the case with The Boys in the Boat.
Daniel James Brown’s account of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team beautifully integrates material from interviews and archival searches into a flowing narrative. Quotations and Browns’ writing blend seamlessly that it can be easy to forget that The Boys in the Boat recounts historical events and isn’t fiction. Brown’s distinct historical narrative style will remain with the reader.
We’ve all found a beautiful phrase that captures us that we cannot forget. We’ve also probably all been enthralled with a book simply because of the author’s writing style. Readers continually interact with a writer’s style while reading. It is the foundation on which the plot and character development are built.
“It takes a strong author to recognize when he does not have the words to properly express a sentiment. Brown, in his use of quotations, epitomizes this writing talent.” – excerpt from The Boys in the Boat review
That is why any review should comment on style as well as the emotional impact of a book. I attempt to reflect upon a writer’s style more than stating that it’s good or bad. Exploring the use of quotations in The Boys and the Boat is one example of a more in-depth analysis of style. Another example is the methodology Cahalan used to reconstruct her hospitalization since she cannot remember that entire experience.
I believe the best way to describe my review style is as a more relaxed, more journal-like English class essay. Tropes and symbolism can be important to note, as in the To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman reviews, but that borders on the overly academic and esoteric review style of some publications. My reviews seek to engage a reader at the experience level of how someone will feel while reading a book.
How do you judge a book after reading it? Do you have a review style?
Top 5 reviews
Here are five reviews I’ve written since 2009 that I believe are the “best” on Sitting in the Stacks (not listed in any order).
- The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
- Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Calahan
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
- The Holy Thief by William Ryan
- Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire
Do you think these are the top five reviews on Sitting in the Stacks?
Do you have a favorite review or post?