A book review is both a description and an evaluation of a book. It should focus on the book's purpose, contents, and authority.
Scan the Book's Preliminaries
Before beginning to read, consider the following:
Title - What does it suggest?
Preface - Provides important information on the author's purpose in writing the book and will help you to determine the success of the work.
Table of Contents - Tells you how the book is organized and will aid in determining the author's main ideas and how they are developed - chronologically, topically, etc.
Read the Text
Record impressions as you read and note effective passages for quoting. Keep these questions in mind:
What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it? (Use outside sources to familiarize yourself with the field, if necessary.)
From what point of view is the work written?
What is the author's style? Is it formal or informal? Does it suit the intended audience? If a work of fiction, what literary devices does the author use?
Are concepts clearly defined? How well are the author's ideas developed? What areas are covered/not covered? Why? This helps to establish the book's authority.
If a work of fiction, make notes on such elements as character, plot, and setting, and how they relate to the theme of the book. How does the author delineate his characters? How do they develop? What is the plot structure?
How accurate is the information in the book? Check outside sources if necessary.
If relevant, make note of the book's format - layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there maps, illustrations? Do they aid understanding?
Check the back matter. Is the index accurate? What sources did the author use - primary or secondary? How does he make use of them? Make note of important omissions.
Finally, what has the book accomplished? Is further work needed? Compare the book to others by this author or by others. (Use the listing in the bibliography.)
Consult Additional Sources
Try to find further information about the author - his/her reputation, qualifications, influences, etc. - any information that is relevant to the book being reviewed and that would help to establish the author's authority. Knowledge of the literary period and of critical theories can also be helpful to your review. Your professor and/or reference librarian will be able to suggest sources to use.
Prepare an Outline
Carefully review your notes and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the purpose or thesis of your review. Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis. Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner.
Write the Draft
Skim your notes again; then, using the outline as a guide and referring to notes when necessary, begin writing. Your book review should include the following:
Preliminary Information - the complete bibliographic citation for the work ie. title in full, author, place, publisher, date of publication, edition statement, pages, special features (maps, colour plates, etc.), price and ISBN. Example:
Under the Dragon
Travels in a betrayed land
London: Harper Collins, 1998
0 00 257013 0
Introduction - Try to capture the reader's attention with your opening sentence. The introduction should state your central thesis, and set the tone of the review.
Development - Develop your thesis using supporting arguments as set out in your outline. Use description, evaluation, and if possible explanation of why the author wrote as he/she did. Use quotations to illustrate important points or peculiarities.
Conclusion - If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new material at this point.
Revise the Draft
Allow some time to elapse before going over your review, to gain perspective.
Carefully read through the text, looking for clarity and coherence.
Correct grammar and spelling.
Verify quotes for proper foot-noting.
Check the following links, which discuss the elements essential to a good review.
For further writing assistance, consult Writing Critical Book Reviews, published by The Writing Centre at Queen's. To learn more about book reviews, look at examples of ones in The New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement to see how professional writers review books.
Barzun, Jacques and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1985.