Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Five-Step Book Review Form for Fiction

Recently, several people have mentioned to me that it's not always easy to know what to put in a book review or how to write one. Authors cringe when a reviewer gives away the surprises of a well-woven tale, in the mistaken belief that a book review is the same thing as the old book reports of our school days, when teachers wanted us to prove we had read the book by spilling all the details.

A good book review doesn't spoil the story for readers to come. There's no need. Instead, there are five major components of a good book review:

1. Plot
2. Characters
3. Setting
4. Pacing
5. Tone

What's the easiest way to review a book? Take these five categories and give them 20 points of weight each. When you complete your review and add up the points you've awarded the book, you will have 1-100 points.

Specifically focusing on these components of the novel, force yourself to think back. What worked for you in the book? What didn't work? What really stood out as fascinating, amusing, maddening, or even frustrating? Rate each of the five categories in doggie terms, with "1" being an absolutely mangy, skunk-sprayed mutt who just tipped over your trash can, "10" being a pooch that doesn't bite the hand that feeds it, and "20" being this year's "Best in Show" at the Westminster Kennel Club.

Don't be afraid to list the five categories in your review, so fellow readers can see where you're coming from and why. For example, here's my fake review for the oft-mentioned, absolutely non-existent book produced by the cantankerous Lionel Hardcastle of "As Time Goes By" fame. Mind you, I've used humor here to amuse you, right down to the poor cover design, but as a reviewer, keep in mind that it's not always best, or fair, to be a wise guy:

My Life in Kenya: A Coffee Farmer's Personal Memoir
by Lionel Hardcastle
Alistair Deacon Press

1. Plot -- 12 points

Author Hardcastle talks a lot about his coffee plantation, and it's as scintillating as watching paint dry. The beans take forever to ripen, and then they must be collected by the workers, before being roasted. Not much happens. Pick the beans, bag them, drop them in the shed. It's not like a big cat chases the workers all over the place. That kind of detail would have improved the story considerably, especially if the cat was a lion and he bit the author in the hind quarters. Rainy season. Dry season. Gin-and-tonic season (I'll have a double!). Still, the author did explain the difficulties of managing a coffee plantation and offered some insight into why coffee beans grown in the African climate are some of the richest, most flavorful in the world.

2. Characters -- 9 points

This guy is B-O-R-I-N-G! He has no real life. He married the only available woman in a 100-mile radius. Her less-than-sparkling personality and wit mirrored his. They don't seem to like each other much, judging from their recounted conversations. I would have preferred a better accounting of the behind-the-scenes action. Why did he really move from the UK to Kenya? Was he running away from some torrid love affair? Or was he booted out on a technicality, that he brought down too many Brits with his overly-dry wit? The guy needs to get a life. Or a girl. Or both!

3. Setting -- 18 points

The only time the author seems to have any moxie is when he describes the beauty of the country and its people. His descriptions of the land and its challenges are the only interesting part of this overly-long book. When he shares the secrets of the fertile soil in bean production and talks about the impact of coffee farming on the local population in Kenya, he exposes his passion in a way that makes you feel like you're right there. I only wish he had done more of this throughout the book.

4. Pacing -- 7 points

The story plods along like Old Bess, the mule that kicked Hardcastle back during his military service in Korea. One wishes she had kicked him a little harder in the backside, to get him moving faster. His sentences seem bogged down at times by too much irrelevant personal information and dry facts that seem to disrupt the flow of the interesting bits. By the way, I noticed a number of grammatical errors and typos. It really made it difficult for me to follow the story, because I had to keep trying to figure out what he meant by "...the big, bucksome women who danced necked in the sir kill."

5. Tone -- 6 points

Ever had a history teacher who lectured in a monotone and you used on his class as naptime? Mr. Hardcastle uses a similar delivery technique when describing his life as a coffee farmer in Kenya. In fact, I briefly flashed back to my teenage years as I read, thinking he would spring a pop quiz on me at the end of the book. Thank heavens the shoe is actually on the other foot, and I am grading him. Personally, I had a lot of trouble connecting with him on a human-to-human level. I felt that he never quite reached me as a reader, nor made me care about his story. His heart never really seemed to be invested in his coffee plantation in Kenya, nor did he ever come across as an expert in coffee beans. Rather like finding a jar of instant coffee in your Christmas stocking, when you asked Santa for some Kenya AA -- a total disappointment.

Total points for "My Life in Kenya" -- 52 out of 100

How would this translate into stars, for review purposes? Consider this:

90-100 points = 5 stars
This is a book that's almost impossible to put down, because you're so engrossed in the action, the dialogue, the roller coaster of emotions, the passion of the story, it grabs you and won't let you go

80-90 points = 4 stars
This is a book that holds your interest in between reading sessions and draws you back to it during your free time, because the characters capture your attention, you feel connected to the story in a meaningful way, and you need to know how it all comes out in the end

70-80 points = 3 stars
This is a book the pulls you along because it's a pleasant way to spend some time, but you don't have trouble putting it down to do other things

60-70 points = 2 stars
This is a book that doesn't capture your imagination or emotions in a way that sparks your interest and motivates you to continue reading it

1-60 points = 1 star
This is a book that had no real meaning for you, and was spoiled with author errors, poor handling of subject matter, or lack of technical skill in weaving a believable, interesting tale

Why only one star for a book that falls below 60 points? Who wants to read a dreadful book when there are so many good ones out there?

Then again, if you find you've awarded a book less than 60 points, reconsider your review. Were you being fair to the author when you tore it apart? Sometimes those numbers are an eye-opener when we revisit them. Was the book really as bad as your review suggests? Let your conscience be your guide.

And yes, I realize that Lionel Hardcastle would receive only a single, miserable star under my review system. Perhaps that's why the fictional TV character was so frustrated with himself. After all, he should have come home from the Korean War and married Jean. Instead, they remained parted for decades, until they fortuitously stumbled across each other once again and "Pooh" found her honey. That was the story he should have written, should have lived. It's what made him a lovable curmudgeon when he finally did, surrounded by all those vibrant and funny women, and why Alistair, the oblivious doofus with the dough, was such a good foil.

Do you post a review for a bad book? I've only done it once for a work of non-fiction, and that was because the material was so incredibly flawed, and the author promoted it as factual, it would have been irresponsible not to address the disinformation promoted in the book. In general, ask yourself your motivation for sharing your insight on a book with the general public. Are you looking to glorify your own work? Does your opinion seem at odds with other reviewers? If you genuinely feel your insight is of value to potential readers, and you have valid points to make, by all means do so. But if your only intent is to make yourself look good, stop yourself. A book review is not about you. It's about the experience of reading for pleasure and sharing that love with fellow readers.

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