Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book Reviews --- Do you have a system?

I recently read a great discussion on the B&B ex libris blog regarding "What makes a great book review" If you didn't have a chance to read the post -- and the follow-up comments, take the time to do so now. I found it very interesting and quite helpful for a newbie like me.

I do not want to duplicate the discussion, but rather deviate from it a bit. I am very curious HOW you go about writing book reviews. I know what I personally like in a book review and I try to deliver what I know I enjoy: very quick plot overview; character details; author's writing style (particularly use of words); major theme and/or purpose for the story; and personal thoughts associated with the overall rating. The issue with which I am having difficulty is coming up with a system. There are many times that I almost feel that I need to read the book twice before writing a review: once for overview and enjoyment; and again for details to include in the review. While this would be ideal, I simply do not have the time.

For example -- I have recently finished The Giver and The Bell Jar -- both rather deep, heavily themed books, and I am finding it very difficult to sort through all my personal thoughts on the subject. I always intend to take notes while I am reading to help me with this problem (I can't decide if the problem is old age, short term memory loss, or basic reading comprehension difficulties), but I become so engrossed in the story that I do not take the time to write notes. Then the time comes to write the review and I can't seem to recall significant details that I want to include. I also enjoy adding textual quotes to my reviews as I feel it adds to the credibility of the opinions being voiced (I constantly teach my students that you must support your ideas with text). However, I can never quickly find the quote I wish to use.

It would seem logical to keep a notebook handy as I read and jot down page numbers of significant quotes. Logical, yes - practical for me, no. The quotes that strike me as significant while reading are rarely the quotes I wish to use in the review.

Then there is the matter of detail. As I am reading the book I consciously think "I will certainly remember this -- there is no reason to take the time to write it down." But, you guessed it, when I want to recall the detail it has somehow vanished in the recesses of my mind. For example, as I was reading the Chocolate Chip Cookie Murders I recall that the protagonist had been working on her PhD when she felt the need to return to her hometown. I think the PhD was in English literature - but I'm not sure. I wanted to put that small detail in the review, but since I couldn't verify the fact without rereading the book, I chose to be very vague.

I am always so impressed with the reviews that I read on your blogs. Somehow you all - each in your own personal way - manage to succinctly recap the highlights of the novel without divulging any spoilers; you manage to adequately state your personal opinion of the story that either causes me to think that this is a story I would enjoy - or not (and you do so in a very diplomatic manner); and many of you select perfect quotes to support your opinions.

I would welcome any tips and/or advice that you would be willing to share to help me over this hump. Does it get easier with time?


  1. I think your reviews are fantastic! As for your question, some books are easier to review than others and some days the thoughts just seem to flow better. So, I'm not sure it's a question of time, but a question of what you're reviewing and when you're reviewing it.

  2. It does, for the most part, get easier with time, but Kathy is right, sometimes it really depends on what you're reviewing and what else is going on in your life that either motivates or distracts you.

    Here's my system: I'm a big believer in marking passages and making notes in books (though hubby thinks this practice is a total sacrilege), so I underline or put a star by passages I want to come back to, and when a thought hits me that I think I might want to share in my review, I write it in the margin or at the blank section at the end of the chapter. When I'm finished with the book, I sit down and flip back through it, writing down the underlined passages that I still think are important, making notes about theme, tone, etc. that I want to include, and synthesizing my in-the-book notes with my after-the-book perspective.

    That's what works for me, but it definitely took some trial and error to hit on it. Good luck!

  3. I underline and/or throw stickies on at all the comments, character names, whatever I want to remember. At the end of the book, I may have a LOT of stickies, but it's still easier than finding a thought or quote without them!

  4. I have a different approach to doing reviews. In fact, sometimes I feel quilty even calling my reviews a review. That's because they are very short, and not detailed at all. My theory is to say, in just a sentence or two, the gist of the story. Then say whether I liked it or not, and why. The main point being to give my basic, gut reaction to the book.

    When I read reviews, I will skip over all the details, first, because I'm scared of spoilers, second, I will want to discover some things on my own (theme, quotes, etc.) and third, I don't have time to read long ones! So, I will skim over it all just to see what the reviewer thought. If they say simply, "I LOVED this book." or "RUN out and buy it now!" or "Eh, it was okay." that's all I'm really looking for as far as recommendations go.

    And I would never want the stress of reviewing to ruin the enjoyment of reading.

    So basically, I think of my reviews as what I would say if a very good bookish friend said to me, "So, what's this book about anyway? And, do you like it? Do you think I should read it?"

    But... I could be totally missing the point. I often worry my reviews are lacking, but then I decide that it's okay. They work for me and don't cause me any stress writing them at all!

  5. Sometimes I feel the same way when writing my reviews. I had to stop reviewing last year or the year before that because of school. I am just now getting into it again and I am rusty. I have sometimes skim the book again to find quotes are things that make you think. 1984 was a very hard book to review. I had to figure key features and points too. I am still trying to figure out how I will review Women in Love. Since to me it really has no plot.

  6. I am a Post-It junkie--I have big flags, little flags, arrow flags, and probably every size write-onable pad. Usually, I just keep a packet of flags as a bookmark. If I feel the need to interact, I'll keep stickies to write on at hand.

    In the end, I seldom use notes I've made, but they do help to organize my thoughts and dismiss the things I don't want to write about (a lot of my notes are lit crit, grad school kinds of notes--things most people don't want to read about. I figure that if I ever decide that I do want to write about them, I'll write a paper. (I haven't yet, but I kinda miss writing papers. Such a geek.)

  7. I keep a business sized envelope in my books.. I use it to jot down notes and the envelope holds a pencil because putting a pencil in a book and having it smear a page would cause seizures. LOL.

    I have to take notes now. I always think I can remember but I never can and as much as I love post-it notes, I can't stand them flopping around while I read.

  8. WOW -- thank you all for the great comments! They are very helpful.

    Bermudaonion and Shannan: It is nice to know that even a seasoned reviewer finds some books easier to review than others!

    Rebecca: I write in my books all the time, so I take no offense at this suggestion. I find that either I do not underline/highlight/notate enough OR I do too much. I need to find that happy medium. It is comforting to know that trial and error worked for you -- because I think that is what I am going to have to do :)

    Rhapsody and Jenna: I love the concept of post-its (I have bought tons in my lifetime) but I haven't used them to their fullest potential. I think I just need to make myself sit down and try it for myself. I color code everything -- so to use different colored post-its for different aspects of a book review would be great.

    Suey: I LOVE your blog. I think there is definitely something very intriguing about the concise book review. I wish I could do that, but I think I like to write too much and sometimes don't know when to stop :) Don't change your method -- it works!!

    Ti: I really like your idea of using a legal size envelope. I had thought a 3x5 index card might be good for me (allows me to take notes on a bookmark) - but the fact that you can store a pencil in an envelope is pure genius!!

    All these are ideas and exactly what I had hoped to read. Please keep them coming :)

  9. I'd say yes, it absolutely gets easier in time.

    One thing I do that is both fast and easy is to keep a pencil on hand. When I read something I want to remember, I simply pencil the page number inside the cover. At the end, I return to those pages and find that it's easy to remember what originally sparked my interest.

    I also find it very difficult to review established classics, so I generally do a "fun" write up instead of trying to pretend I have something new to say about it :)

  10. I have recently discovered your interesting blog, Molly. I,too, have a book blog. Recently I read an article by the late John Updike about reviewing books which had some wonderful ideas ("advice"); while there are no hard and fast rules, he suggests that reviewers include a quote from the book, and really try to understand what the author's trying to say. I don't think there's only one way to review a book (how boring it would be if that were the case!) but think well and write well.

  11. I love your reviews Molly!

    I just have my basic format--challenges met, pages of book, when I finished, first and last lines (last line only if it doesn't contain a spoiler), usually a plot summary found on amazon as I have such a hard time summarizing succinctly, and then my thoughts about where I liked it or not. I have also begun putting favorite quotes in also, if I happened to mark them. I don't always like reviewing a book and those ones tend to be very short!
    I really admire blogs like yours where the reviews are more in depth--I just don't seem to have the time or patience to analyze too much.

  12. I'm new to reviews too, and also struggling with the same questions.

    My first "serious" review was much, much harder to write than the previous ones, and it really took me by surprise.

    I also keep thinking I should start taking notes as I read. I haven't come up with a good system yet, though. I really haven't tried, I guess.

    I particularly am trying to figure out what to do about reviewing audiobooks, where I can't go easily go back and check on something, and taking notes as I go along isn't compatible with many of the things I'm doing while listening-- like driving. I have to resign myself to the potential of less detail in my audiobook reviews.

    One thing to remember is that no one reading knows what else you might have put in. We're all happy with what you have!

  13. Hi Molly,

    Certainly these are wonderful and honest reviews... Thanks a lot for sharing this wonderful resource...

  14. I'm a little late to the game but I use sticky notes to mark passages and as a place to jot down thoughts. I'm usually marking interesting passages, important plot points, or descriptions of characters (ages, or something I might want to say in a review). If I begin to see a theme I start marking passages that support my thoughts.

    If I'm listening to a book, I just jot down notes on whatever is handy and stack the bits of paper in a handy place.

    I like to write my own plot summaries, and I try really hard to avoid spoilers. Then I write my thoughts. This section can be light and short or deep and full of the themes or symbolism that I found. Then I try to remember to write a summary paragraph with my recommendation.

    I hope people can find the parts they want in my reviews -- plot summary, thoughts and meaning, general recommendation -- or (better yet) read the whole thing.

    If I can't review without spoilers, I make a point of saying so right at the beginning. I hate spoilers and I know others do too.

  15. Hi Molly, great discussion. I have a real hard time with reviews, especially knowing what to cut out and what to put in. I take notes along the way but in the end don't use a lot of them. If I want to quote a few sentences, I just put [] and page # in notes and it will jog the memory.

    I have another award for you. Stop by when you get a chance.

  16. I really enjoy your reviews. This is how I get my quotes from the books I read.

    I stash a bunch of post-it note tabs inside the book cover or on the title page, and when I read something that strikes me, I stick it to the page, right above where the section starts. I usually end up with 10 or so in a given book, and when its time to write the review, I can use those tabs to not only refresh my memory about the story, but select from the cream of the crop for quotes to use in the review.

    I hope that helps. I never remember to take notes or have a notebook for books I'm reading, but these tabs are the greatest inventions. And you can unstick them and move them to the next book you are reading...I've got some I've used in the last 5-6 books...I like that aspect too.

  17. First of all I think you are too hard on yourself, Molly - your reviews are terrific!

    But, that said, I found reviewing got easier (and I got better at it) the more I did. I am also a post-it junkie (as Jena said!) and often when I'm done reading I have dozens of post-its. I can jot notes on them, or simply tag a page that resonated with me. Often that is enough to jog my memory when it comes to writing a review (and I can easily find passages to support my thoughts).

  18. Interesting post, I enjoy your book reviews!

    With every book I read, I begin a blog post, and as I read the book, I log on and type in notes under the post, I keep it all saved until i'm done reading the book. Then I finalize the review and post it live at my blog. This way I don't forget any details in my reviews. I have a short memory and will definitely forget the details of the books I read.

    I also like to include a photo of the author and the book in each review. As well as a star rating. I like visuals.


  19. Bibliolatrist: I also keep a pencil nearby but I LOVE the idea of keeping track of significant page numbers inside the cover! That would take less time than writing the quote -- but gives me a reference for the review.

    Suko: oh my -- you can't get much better than John Updike for advice :) It does seem that trying to understand what the author is trying to say is significant and probably worthy of more time than plot summary or character desciptions.

    Kim: you are always so sweet! I wish I could write more concise reviews (and posts, for that matter). I seem to have an over-abundance of words that I need to use in a day. I have noticed that some bloggers allow Amazon to do the summary - and they spend more time on their impressions. I think I need to try this.

    imbookingit: good point about audiobooks!! I have really only enjoyed two (just started book 3 in the Harry Potter series), but I can see where textual quotes would be very difficult. I have no suggestions -- but would be interested to know how others overcome this obstacle as well.

    Beth F: Well, speaking of audiobooks, I think you are the queen bee in this category. My problem with jotting down notes on paper is that I typically listen to the CD in the car and writing is a real issue.

    GREAT point about spoiler alerts! and it looks as though I need to by stock in post its :) I thin don't use them to their fullest advantage. I am so busy trying to discover significant quotes that I fail to take notes on such things as plot points, description of characters, etc.

    Kaye: I think whatever note system you use -- it is working! and....I will stop by your blog asap. Thank you so much :)

    Serena: that is a GREAT idea! Instead of an entire pad of post its -- just stick a few in the front cover and use as needed. I like it.

    Wendy: I think I am noticing a trend here :) I can't be stingy with post its and I need to treat them as a reviewer's best friend!

    Naida: You are VERY organized. I actually really, really like this idea. My only concern is that it is not terribly comfortable reading at my dining table (my office). Do you have a comfortable area where you can read and blog??

    These answers are ALL wonderful! I would be glad to read any other comments!!

  20. Sorry this has nothing to do with your post but I just wanted to stop by and say (1) thanks for being a follower and entering the contest and (2) that's funny we had the same idea for our 100th follower and (3) the Melissa on Natasha's blog wasn't me, lol :-) But still, great minds!! ;-D

  21. Hi Molly, Great post and great discussion. It's great to read how everyone else is doing it. I'm a big Post-it person too because I know I won't remember those details that are important to me. I also stop about half way through a book and write a plot summary - just a short one. It's a game I play with myself to see if my assumption half way through is right.

  22. My way of writing reviews has heavily undergone some changes lately. Mainly because I felt that the way I was doing it before was kind of boring.

    Now I'm just writing a brief over view of what happened, from my perspective. I find that doing it this way makes the reviewing process go a little big quicker. Some of the tips shared here I will attempt to implement because they seem like they might help.

  23. I just finally settled on a system for my reviews lately: General Overview, My Thoughts and then The Bottom Line. Sometimes I include excerpts. BUT, I found that not all books deserve such a thorough review ... I usually do long reviews for books that I get for free -- I feel I owe them a professional review.

    On other books (those I buy myself) I will do shorter ones that are much more casual.

    And I'm kind of a fly by the seat of my pants reviewer. I don't take notes, and if I feel I need a detail, I'll see if I can get it online. Sometimes I'll fold back a page to remind me if there is phrase that I want to reference or a quote.

    I think it does get easiser ... but I've found myself sitting on books where the review was hard for me to come up with. I have to let it percolate a little before I feel I can write it. : )

  24. I think there are as many ways to write a review as there are people who write them ... and that there is no "right" or "wrong" way.

    I used to take notes when I read (in a separate notebook, never in the book!), but this isn't always handy. I've taken to marking pages with whatever is handy - often a corner from the newspaper my husband is reading :) I could use some of those Post-It tabs that others have mentioned!

    I do like to include a passage or two from the book, to give people reading my reviews a sense of the writing style, or examples of what I'm talking about.

    Keep reading; keep writing; have fun!

  25. I've been meaning to comment on this post for a while but time has just gotten away from me. I wish I could read what everyone has said to see if I'm even adding anything new, but time doesn't permit. :(

    I think as you continue to blog you'll find a rhythm to your reviews--at least I have. Actually, sometimes I feel like my reviews have become a little formulaic. And opening paragraph, a short summary paragraph, how the book affected me, what I didn't like and what I did like and sometimes who I would recommend the book to.

    I think you need to write your reviews for you first of all and then with an audience in mind (another idea for Sunday Salon...audience!). I say write them for you first because all of your readers will take away something different. When I read reviews I skip for what the person liked and didn't like (usually don't even read the summary), but I include a summary in my reviews because I like looking back and remembering what I read.

    Latley I've been keeping a pencil in my book to mark passages. A big no no with most bloggers but I guess it goes back to my grad school days.

    Such a great question--I'll have to remember to come back to read some of the answers.


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