Writing@CSU Guide

Book Reviews

A book review addresses the subject matter of a literary work, and assesses effectiveness and value. Book reviews keep publishers and the public aware of what is being thought and written in a wide range of subjects. When a new book is issued, copies are sent to reviewers; subsequent reviews appear in literary magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and other periodicals. People everywhere depend on book reviews to direct them in their reading; many readers buy what commentators give particular attention. Competent reviewers are the best counselors for readers attempting to keep up with intellectual and aesthetic developments in the literary arts.

Scope: What a Book Review Is and Is Not

Book reviews vary widely. A review does not simply summarize book material, and should not be substituted for the original book. The purpose of a book review is to make known what a literary work purports to do and be, as a publication for both general and specialized readers. Essential components to be taken into account include concerns of subject matter and style.

A review is a critical essay, a report and an analysis. Whether favorable or unfavorable in its assessment, it should seem authoritative. The reviewer's competence must be convincing and satisfying. As with any form of writing, the writer of a book review is convincing through thorough study and understanding of the material, and opinions supported by sound reasoning; the reviewer achieves reader satisfaction upon by giving justice to the subject, the book being reviewed, and connecting it with vital human concerns.

A review may be limited in its scope due to length requirements, whether those are set by an instructor or an editor. How thoroughly and with respect to what aspects a book is reviewed also depends on instructor or editor preferences, or simply the attitudes and qualifications of the reviewer.

Essential Objectives

A book review should address three issues:

  1. Contents, or what is said in the book.
  2. Style, or how it is said.
  3. Assessment, or analysis of how true and significant the book is.

The most essential preparation for review writing is of course a complete, thoughtful reading of the book. After reading, the reviewer should have a sound, integrated idea of the book contents, and begin to develop attitudes toward style, purpose, and value.

As the reviewer forms ideas for the review, certain influences and motives should be considered:

  • The interests, general or special, of the readers: Are they looking to the review for an elementary, informational report? A more advanced, technical, scholarly address?
  • The reviewer's own particular interests and purposes: Does the reviewer want to remain primarily a fact-finding reporter? Or are there more specialized ideas and principles of art and ideology the reviewer wants to advance?
  • Contemporary social, economic, political, and aesthetic issues: Do one or more of these affect the aim or emphasis of the book review? How does the incorporation and interpretation of these issues in the book review further discussion of the book's contents and style?
  • Required treatment and length requirements: What requirements for the review, emphasis and length, have been set by the instructor or editor?

Material for the Review

As the reviewer decides the scope and content of the review, there are various critical considerations to keep in mind. In addition to content and style, information about the publication and category of the book, and the author and author purpose, may be helpful with analysis. Not all material needs to be included in the final review, but the reviewer should be aware of any relevant issues.

Bibliographical Data

Bibliographical data includes the publisher, place and date of publication, and book price. This information is important for readers who want to buy the book. It may also raise questions: Is the book newly issued? Or is it being reissued? If reissued, is it only a new printing or has it been revised? If revised, what is the nature of the revision? Answers to these questions often can be found in a preface to the book by the author. Consult the front matter of the book, the title and copyright pages, for basic publication information. Often, price, publisher, and page count are listed separately at the beginning or end of a book review; this is the case with the example reviews accompanying this guide.


There are various categories, or genres, to which a book is assigned: fiction, poetry, travel and adventure, mystery, children's literature, biography, history, and contemporary thought, among others. A reviewer analyzes a book's conformity to a genre with attention to the author's approaches, methods, materials and coverage, and the outcomes of the book as to information, judgments, or interest value.

For example, in her review of John D'Agata's Halls of Fame, Wendy Rawlings discusses how D'Agata experiments with the form of the essay: "If you're accustomed to reading essays organized around a clearly articulated theme and guided by a single narrative voice that signposts its intentions along the way, D'Agata's methods may frustrate. His essays are disjunctive agglomerations of excerpts from texts of all sorts (literary and otherwise), lists, transcripts from tape-recorded conversations, and, often, long passages of direct quotes from people he meets . . . Reading D'Agata's essays, I felt the strain of someone experimenting with the democratization of a form that, in America, has perhaps been colonized, or at least overpopulated by the ironic and the smug." Rawlings further compares and contrasts D'Agata's methods to those of David Foster Wallace, another contemporary writer of essays.

When analyzing a writer's approach to form, some questions to consider are: How does the book differ from previous works in the same field? Has the author written previous books, in this genre or others? How has the author changed or developed? To what extent does the book being reviewed offer anything new its genre? How might it influence later works in the same genre?

Author and Author Purpose

Depending on the genre of the book, the background and purpose of the author may be relevant to the analysis of the book. Refer to the book jacket and biographical notes on the author. Further research may be helpful; read interviews, essays, and, if available, previously written biographies.

In John Calderazzo's review of Ken Lamberton's Wilderness and Razor Wire, biographical data about Lamberton proves relevant: "Lamberton had an uncommon resume for someone doing serious jail time: no grinding poverty, no drugs or violence. He grew up in Arizona as an avid collector of wild things, a self-taught naturalist . . . He earned a bachelor's degree in biology, married Karen, a fellow lover of the wild, had kids, and decided to share his passions for science and nature in the public schools . . . He became infatuated with a student and, incredibly, ran off with her to Colorado. Soon someone from Mesa recognized them in Aspen and called the police." This background information provides the reason for Lamberton's incarceration as well as the basis for Calderazzo's discussion of the writer's "microscopically detailed prose" and "the single-mindedness of his gaze."

The following is a list of possible biographical data about an author to reference in a review:

  • Race, nationality, and origins-social, cultural, religious, economic, political, environmental.
  • Training and affiliations-literary, scholastic, religious, political, etc.
  • Schooling, travel, or other formative influences.
  • Personal experiences-general or specific.
  • Career and/or professional position.
  • Other literary or scholastic works.
  • Stimulus or occasion for writing.
  • Special writing aids-illustrations, photographs, diagrams, etc.
  • General attitude-objective/subjective, formal/informal, authoritative/speculative, etc.
  • Purpose-as described in a preface or other formal statement, or in some key phrase.
  • Audience-who the writer hopes will read the book.

Subject Matter

The subject of a book is what the book is about, an idea or ideas explored in the book's contents. In a nonfiction book, the subject should be fairly explicit, in the author's own words. With fiction, however, a reviewer must interpret the subject through analysis of character, setting, plot, and symbolism.

A discussion of the subject of a book might begin with its title: From where did the author derive the title? What is the title's meaning or suggestiveness? Is the title an adequate heading for the contents of the book? Or is it ambiguous or false in some way?

Other questions regarding the exploration of a book's subject by its author include: What areas of the subject are covered? (In fiction, areas of subject may be considered character concerns, setting, and plot.) What areas of the subject are left uncovered? Is this intentional, or the result of oversight or failure, on the author's part? To what degree is the author thorough or negligent in addressing the subject?

In his review of Wilderness and Razor Wire, John Calderazzo comments that writer Ken Lamberton avoids discussion of personal motivation: "Perhaps to spare his wife further humiliation and pain, Lamberton has decided not to belabor his motive for his one act of insanity. He talks vaguely of immaturity, but that's about it . . . [T]he single-mindedness of his gaze [has] implications he either doesn't recognize or won't fully discuss . . . Fixating on the near at hand may be a necessary metaphor and an undeniable fact of prison life, a way to cope with an existence that certainly scares the hell out of me. Maybe, though, Lamberton's fierce gaze derives from something he'll always carry within him: this edgy and impulsive but obviously grateful husband who knows he's not free to teach again for a living . . ."


The contents of a book revolve around the subject, and develop one or more central ideas. For nonfiction, a reviewer analyzes how well the contents of a book address the central idea, the strength or weakness of supporting ideas, and the relevancy of collateral ideas or implications.

In fiction, themes develop through character, setting, and plot; a reviewer evaluates the relative success or lack thereof of these fictional elements. Think about these questions: What is the setting, or place and time, of the story? Does the setting reflect or contrast with characters and plot? Are characters fully or minimally developed? Does character development increase or deteriorate as the action proceeds? Is the plot sequenced chronologically, or otherwise? Does tension build or deflate as the story progresses?

Note how David Milofsky discusses the effectiveness of the contents of Reynolds Price's Noble Norfleet: "Although there are spots of lyricism-and for the first third of the book, Price's narrative has the drive and tension of some of his better work-overall, Noble Norfleet sags beneath its unlikely premise and even more unlikely hero . . . It seems likely that Price was trying to say something here about the relationship between sexuality and madness, about the necessity not only of nursing others but of caring for oneself, of showing Noble as some kind of paradigm, hence his name. But, sadly, the novel succeeds in none of these aims."

Remember that details about the plot and characters in a book are revealed by the reviewer only to support the purpose of the review. Certainly, a review should not give away a book's ending, nor should it be a simple summary of events and characters. The reviewer's job is not only to report highlights but also to respond to the ideas and techniques evident in the book.


Style refers to how an author relates content through writing. This is an important aspect of a book to review. While initially reading the book, and in any subsequent reads, a reviewer should mark passages of particular resonance and reflection of the author's style. These passages help the reviewer form ideas as to whether or not the style is effective in conveying content, and pleasing to the reader. One or more of these passages may be cited within the review itself in order to both exemplify the author's style and provide basis for the reviewer's response.

The following is excerpted from Wendy Rawlings' discussion of John D'Agata's poetic, associative essay-writing style in Halls of Fame: "Juxtaposing so many voices and kinds of language . . . can allow the reader to create exciting associative links between texts and ideas, but it can also, when overused, begin to feel somewhat arbitrary. In the book's title essay, for instance, single sentences and sentence fragments form choppy narratives composed of statements that seem, at times, cruelly separated from each other by the portentous silence of white space. This narrative strategy prevails throughout most of the twenty-four sections of the essay, and as a result, the sentences take on a stilted self-importance, like a poem written by someone as yet unschooled in enjambment." A passage from the essay follows this description.

When responding to a literary work, consider these aspects of style:

  • Tone, or narrative vein.
    • Logical and reasoned (objective), or imagined and emotional (subjective).
    • Dramatic and gripping, or pedestrian and level.
    • Epic and far-reaching, or lyrical and infused with personal poetic emotion.
    • Solemn and serious, or comic and entertaining.
    • Spiritual or vulgar or both.
  • Approach.
    • Formal, or familiar, informal.
    • Simple, or complex.
    • Broad, or specific.
    • Abstract, or concrete.
    • Direct, or implicational.
    • Figurative, or literal.
  • Technique.
    • Use of detail, sense appeal-the look, sound, smell, taste, feel.
    • Balance, parallelism, and contrast of exposition, scene, and dialogue.
    • Allusions, quotations, aphorisms, etc.
  • Fitness of style and tone.
    • To the subject.
    • To the purpose of the author.
    • To the reader.

Form and Technique

An author carefully chooses the form and various writing techniques to use to develop ideas. A book reviewer decides whether or not these choices are appropriate and effective. Do certain techniques aid or impede the author's purpose? What passages from the book best exemplify these techniques?

Form and Technique in Nonfiction

  • Exposition (provides information)-facts and interpretation; intellectual appeal.
    • Use of source material and authority.
    • Use of definition; illustrations and examples; comparison and contrast; cause and effect.
    • Use of generalization and subsequent conclusions.
  • Persuasion (forwards an idea or plan)-a stance on an issue; proposed solution; call to action.
    • Tone; authority; approach to subject and audience.
    • Degree of convincingness.
    • Worth of proposal; practicality; need.
    • Comparison with other possible policies.
    • Costs or difficulties involved.
    • Ultimate promise, solution, or plan
  • Argumentation (presents points and draws conclusions)-appeal to reason and logic.
    • Tone; authority; approach to subject and audience.
    • Methods of deduction or induction.
    • Synthesis; formation of separate elements into a coherent whole.
    • Syllogism; major premise, minor premise, and conclusion.
    • Dialectics; arrival at truth through conversation involving question and answer.
    • Casuistry; determination of right and wrong by applying generalized ethics principles.
    • Fallacy; begging the question, ignoring the question, etc.

Form and Technique in Fiction

  • Description (gives impressions, creates mood)-imagination and aesthetics; sense appeal.
    • Dominant impression; vividness of final impression.
    • Selection of details to support a single effect.
    • Appeal to sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel; imagery.
    • Directness; implication and suggestion.
  • Narration (relates characters or events in time)-often chronological.
    • Point of view; first, second, third; limited or omniscient.
    • Establishment of setting.
    • Smoothness of transitions in time sequence.
    • Use of flashback.
  • Characterization (develops characters)-types; individuals.
    • How presented or introduced.
    • Motivations; sources for feeling and/or drives to action.
    • How described; direct or implied; revealed through description or dialogue.
    • o
    • Purposes; heroic or villainous; tragic inner flaws; revealing traits.
    • How credible and consistent.
  • Plot (develops characters and action)-movement; tension.
    • Opening situation and/or conflict.
    • Obstacles and complications.
    • Tension and suspense.
    • Turning point, or climax.
    • Resolution.
    • Degree of inventiveness and/or plausibility.
    • Final philosophy or view of life derived from characters and action.

Depending on the author's purpose, a book's realism, or truth to life, may need assessment. If a book of fiction is meant to be realistic fiction-is it? Is it logical, natural, plausible? To what extent does the author rely on coincidence or accident to propel the plot? Is there adequate evidence of character motivation? Or a lack of sufficient urges and drives? Is the story infused with a quality of normalcy, or abnormality? Remember, if a book of fiction is to be successful according to a reviewer, it is not necessarily realistic fiction; a book's realism, or lack thereof, need be addressed by a reviewer only as it compares to the author's intention for the story.

See here how David Milofsky addresses the realism of William Trevor's novel The Story of Lucy Gault: "It seems unlikely, to say the least, that longtime residents of a place (going back several generations, we're told) would cut off contact so completely as the Gaults do, but, of course, if this isn't the case there would be no novel. Similarly, it's hard to believe that the lawyer wouldn't be able to contrive a way to contact the absent parents . . . It's a tribute to Trevor's genius that these objections are largely overridden and storytelling takes over."

Form and Technique in Poetry

  • Forms and Types
    • Received (given) forms; sonnet, quatrain, villanelle, sestina, haiku, etc.
    • Free verse forms.
    • Lyric; narrative; dramatic; prose; ballad (folk, literary, popular).
  • Voice (who is speaking and how)-similar to a narrator in fiction.
    • Point of view; persona or apparently personal.
    • Dramatic monologue.
    • Tone; irony, satire, etc.
    • Intensity, atmosphere, mood.
  • Diction (word choice)-associated with imagery, sound, rhythm.
    • Concrete or abstract.
    • Denotation, connotation, implication.
    • Vulgar, colloquial/informal, formal.
    • Syntax, or sentence structure.
  • Imagery (concrete representation of sensory experience)-sense appeal.
    • Amount and type of sensory detail.
    • Metaphor; simile; personification; allusion.
    • Synesthesia; describing a sense impression using words that normally describe another.
    • Hyperbole or understatement.
    • Metonymy; substituting one word/phrase for another, closely associated word/phrase.
    • Synecdoche; using a part to refer to the whole, or the whole to refer to a part.
  • Sound (vowels and consonants)-appeals to the ear, contributes to meaning.
    • Alliteration; repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase.
    • Assonance (repetition of vowels) and/or consonance (repetition of consonants).
    • Onomatopoeia; using a word that is defined through both its sound and meaning.
    • Euphony (smooth, pleasant sound) vs. cacophony (rough, harsh sound).
  • Rhythm (pattern of beats in a stream of sound)-appeals t
  • the ear, contributes to meaning.
    • The line; end-stopped (self-enclosed) or enjambed.
    • Feet; iambs, trochees, anapests, dactylics, etc.
    • Meter; mono-, di-, tri-, tetra-, penta-, hexa-, etc.
    • Repetition.
  • Rhyme (corresponding terminal sounds)-appeals t
  • the ear; associated with form.
    • True; words sound nearly identical and rhyme on one stressed syllable.
    • Slant (near/off); words do not exactly rhyme, but almost rhyme.
    • End rhyme (at end of line) and/or internal rhyme (similar sounds within one line).
    • Masculine (lines end w/ stressed syllable); feminine (lines end w/ unstressed syllable).

View of Life

It is common for an author to express a view of life through ideas and themes developed in a book. A reviewer identifies and comments on the author's stance. Does the book hold to and/or further develop views apparent in past works? Or make a new statement? Below is a list of popular attitudes, or schools of thought:

  • Idealism-emphasis on enduring spirituality as opposed to transient values of materialism.
  • Romanticism-focus on emotion and imagination as freedom from the strictly logical.
  • Classicism-intellectuality; dominance of the whole over its parts, and form over impulse.
  • Realism-adherence to actualities, the logistics of everyday life; objectivity.
  • Impressionism-intuition; sense responses to aesthetic objects.
  • Naturalism-humans as part of nature; adaption to external environment.

In response to Wilderness and Razor Wire, John Calderazzo discusses the importance of nature in Ken Lamberton's life and writing: "[I]n the prison of his days (to paraphrase W. H. Auden), Lamberton is helped . . . by nature, by the winds and dust and sweet-smelling raindrops that blow down from the nearby mountains, which he sees framed in barbed wire. This is nature unbound, not just out there beyond the walls but slipping in through the bars, swirling around his cell, penetrating even his skin . . . [Swallows] migrate, then return to raise new young in their mud-packed homes, lending solace-and spice-to the impossibly slow turning of the seasons . . . The swallows and many other break-ins from the natural world are also resources of rehabilitation, which Lamberton says is absent from all other aspects of prison life."

If comparisons are to be made between a book being reviewed and its predecessors, a reviewer should be familiar with the basic forms and techniques prevalent in works expressing similar viewpoints. Further research and reading are necessary for the reviewer to form intelligent analysis of views of life expressed through writing.

Value and Significance

Often a book review comments on the significance of a new work. This value may be measured in relation to other books in the same genre, works addressing the same subject matter, past and contemporary authors with a similar style, and/or previous works by the same author.

In his review of William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault, David Milofsky compares the novel to Trevor's past works, and comments on its place in literature in general: "[Trevor]'s been called the Irish Chekhov, but that's not really adequate, since Chekhov never really wrote novels. The truth is that Trevor is sui generis, in a class by himself. While his stories (collected a few years ago in an omnibus volume) are brilliant, novels like The Old Boys and Felicia's Journey are lasting contributions to our literature. He's a literary treasure and never less than interesting reading . . . The Story of Lucy Gault may not be the most accomplished novel of Trevor's distinguished career, but that still places it far beyond most of the fiction that will be written in English this year. It's highly recommended reading."

Value is also determined by the universality of application-how and to whom the work applies. Are the book's contents of universal interest? Or does the subject matter limit the book's appeal to a narrow field of individuals? Determining the value and significance of a book depends largely on the knowledge and subjectivity of the reviewer; familiarity with comparable books and authors is required to draw conclusions of this nature.


A book's format, or physical make-up, reflects the ideas of both its author and its publisher. A book reviewer might mention characteristics of format, in relation to suitability and aesthetics. Is the book's size convenient? Is the binding durable? Is the print type legible? Do illustrations, diagrams, and maps, if any, aid the reader's understanding of the material? Is the index correct and complete? Are bibliographies and reference lists present?

In response to artwork present in Ken Lamberton's Wilderness and Razor Wire, John Calderazzo comments on both the exactness of the drawings and the possible meaning of this detail-orientedness to Lamberton's life: "[J]ournal entries and small essays [are] complemented by drawings of tarantulas, conenose beetles, horned lizards, and other desert creatures in almost photo-realistic close-up. This is why I suggested that Lamberton may not find himself any closer to 'nature' when he's finally free. How can he get more intimate? . . . All of his drawings, in fact, are rendered in extreme close-up, like visual infatuations writ large. Nothing seems to exist in the distance, which makes me wonder if anything ever does for Lamberton, or ever will."

Planning and Writing

A book review should meet the requirements of any good composition. Clarity, correctness, readability, and interest are very important. A review should give its readers not only an understanding of the reviewer's intellectual response to a book but also an awareness of the basis for this response, through example and analysis. Specific passages from the book are used to exemplify the reviewer's points regarding elements of style, form, and technique.

There is no strict pattern for writing book reviews. Guiding the book reviewer's writing process, however, are the three essential objectives of relating what is said in the book, how it is said, and how true and significant it is. As with the planning of a composition, make a list of possible material to use in the review-ideas, responses, information, examples. Study this material to decide what to include in the book review and what proves extraneous. Put the items to include in a suitable order-for instance, from greater to lesser importance. Once the material is organized, a controlling idea for the review emerges; this controlling idea may form the topic sentence of the review, and provides guidance for achieving coherence and focus throughout. Use the topic sentence, in varied forms, in the beginning and end of the review.

Once the book reviewer has chosen the proper and adequate material, organized this material effectively, and decided on the main idea and focus to be developed, it is time to write the review.


Like writing the introduction of a composition, there several possible strategies to use for beginning a book review. One type of strategic beginning is prompt definition-assigning meaning to terms in the title of the book, for example, or giving the scope of the review as it relates to the subject and the reviewer's response to the book. Another effective approach is to highlight the origins and past history of the subject treated in the book; this technique may also be used to introduce ideas about genre, style, or view of life, depending on what the reviewer has chosen as the focus of the review. A statement of exclusion shows what will not be addressed in a review and focuses attention on what really will be discussed.

At the beginning of his review of Reynold Price's Noble Norfleet, David Milofsky uses a comparison between Price's newest novel and his previous works: "It would be nice to report that Reynolds Price, the distinguished author of more than thirty books, including A Long and Happy Life and Surface of Earth, has added significantly to his oeuvre with his new novel, but such is not the case. Not by a long shot."

A reviewer might also quickly catch reader attention by appealing to human interest-perhaps a personal reference or brief anecdote. The anecdote should connect to or exemplify the main focus of the book review.

Note the anecdotal technique Wendy Rawlings uses in the introduction of her review of John D'Agata's Halls of Fame: "While on a recent trip to England, I witnessed a cultural exchange that struck me as emblematic of John D'Agata's book of essays, Halls of Fame. An American friend who has spent the past year tolerating a chilly flat in a London suburb for the sake of his British fiancée wanted me to guess the height of the World's Largest Pencil. 'I don't know-eight, nine feet tall?' I said. 'See? See? I knew it!' my friend shouted. He explained that when asked the same question, an English friend had guessed the height of the world's largest pencil to be 'perhaps a foot high, or two.' His modest expectations compared to my great ones (I could not but visualize the World's Largest Pencil as at least a foot taller than an NBA All-Star) represented to my friend something essential about the differences between British and American sensibilities."


The primary focus of a book review is supplied in the beginning paragraph. After this main idea is established, it needs to be developed and justified. Using an organized list of material, the reviewer details the reasons behind the response to the book. References to past history, causes and effects, comparisons and contrasts, and specific passages from the book help illustrate and exemplify this main idea. Personal philosophy and moralization should be kept to a minimum, if included at all; the reader of a book review is interested in unbiased, thoughtful, reasonable, and well-developed ideas pertaining to the book in question.

The bulk of a review consists of the development of the reviewer's main idea, the response to the book and the reasons for it. In each of the example reviews that accompany this guide, the reviewers develop their ideas through references to comparable past and contemporary works, analysis of aspects of form and technique, and inclusion of notable passages from the books being reviewed.


The conclusion reflects the focus of the rest of the review, and leaves the reader with a clearly articulated, well-justified final assessment. A restatement of the topic sentence is better than a cursory inspection of less important matters like book format and mechanical make-up. Main emphasis should remain primarily on the qualities and materials of the book being reviewed.

At the end of Wendy Rawlings' review of John D'Agata's Halls of Fame, Rawlings summarizes previously stated ideas: "When D'Agata doesn't find the balance, the lyricism borrowed from poetry seems not quite, yet, to fit. I don't wish for D'Agata to join the legions of the smug and ironic, but at certain moments, I begin to wish for authorial presence that will assert itself less forcefully in terms of the arrangement of words on the page, which are often blasted into squadrons separated by asterisks, white space, or unhelpful section headings, and more forcefully on the level of the sentence, as D'Agata does in 'Notes toward the making of a whole human being . . . ,' a five-page essay composed of a single, breathtakingly constructed sentence."

The conclusion statement cements the reviewer's recommendation, or lack thereof, of the book. Clearly, this is David Milofsky's aim in the conclusion of his review of Reynold Price's Noble Norfleet: "Even with a failure, it is interesting to read as accomplished a writer as Price, but his new novel cannot be recommended on any other grounds."

The final sentence of a review should be both memorable and thought-provoking to the reader. As at the end of John Calderazzo's review of Ken Lamberton's Wilderness and Razor Wire, this final thought might be put in the form of a question: "[R]eading about Lamberton's flawed but exhilarating life makes me wonder about temptation and impetuousness. In light of losing everything, how many of us are still tempted to pursue, just once, some nearby object of desire? And will this constant risk be the prison of all of our days, our lives a landscape of wilderness and razor wire?"

Reviewing Specific Types of Books

The type of book being reviewed raises special considerations as to how to approach the review. Information specific to the categories of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry can be found under the "Form and Technique" heading of this guide. Below are further questions to consider, based on a book's category:

  • Biography/Autobiography
    • Does the book give a full-length picture of the subject? Focus on only a portion of life?
    • What phases of the subject's life receive greatest space? Is there justification for this?
    • What is the point of view of the author?
    • Are idiosyncrasies and weaknesses omitted? Treated adequately? Overplayed?
    • Does the author endeavor to get at hidden motives?
    • What important new facts about the subject's life are revealed in the book?
    • Is the subject of the biography still living?
    • What source materials were used in the preparation of the book?
  • History
    • What training has the author had for this kind of work?
    • What particular historical period does the book address?
    • Is the accound given in broad outline, or in detail?
    • Is the style that of reportorial writing, or is there an effort at interpretation?
    • Is emphasis on traditional matter, like wars, kings, etc.? Or is it a social history?
    • Are dates used extensively and/or intelligently?
    • Is the book likely to be out of date soon? Or is it intended to stand the test of time?
    • Are maps, illustrations, charts, etc., helpful to the reader?
  • Contemporary Thought
    • o Who is the author, and what right does he/she have to be writing on the subject? o What contributions to knowledge and understanding are made by the book?
  • Travel and Adventure
    • Is the author credible? What is the author's purpose for writing the book?
    • Does the book contribute to knowledge of geography, government, folklore, etc.?
    • Does the book have news value?
  • Mystery
    • How effective are plot, pace, style, and characterization? Strengths? Weaknesses?
    • Is the ending worthwhile? Predictable?
  • o Children's Literature
    • o What is the age/interest group for which the book is intended?
    • o What is the overall experience/feeling of reading the book?
    • o Is the book illustrated? How? By whom?


There is a good market for the newcomer in book reviewing. Many editors, including those of big-name magazines, do not like to use the same reviewer too often, and this means unknown, unpublished reviewers have good opportunities to break into the field. Send query letters to editors to find out what their publication needs are. Try smaller, special-interest publications first (ethnic, feminist, religious, etc.); if the reviewer has knowledge or affiliation relevant to the publication, it may increase the chances of a positive response from the editor. Stay current with new books, and read other book reviews. Once an assignment for a review is given, produce timely, quality work, specific to requirements set by the editor. Build publication credits with a variety of periodicals; pursue possibilities of starting a regular column for a single newspaper or magazine. Book reviewing is not generally a highly profitable venture, but money can be made, depending on a reviewer's qualifications, reputation, and dedication to the field.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Cress, Janell. (2003). Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=49