Monday, May 27, 2019

8 Tips to Write Powerful Book Reviews

image with books and text saying 8 tips to write powerful book reviews

When I started my blog, I had no idea what a book blogger was or that I'd become one. Fast forward 8 years, I'm reading and reviewing books by indie and published authors alike. Many don't even mind waiting a few months till I get their review published on my blog and Goodreads. They even understand that I can't post my reviews to Amazon because I'm not in a region where Amazon has direct services.

I've been reluctant to "disclose" what differentiates my reviews from others'. But if it helps others write better reviews and eventually help authors with their books, then why not?

In this post, I'll be sharing what I focus on when reading a book. Sometimes these points might not all work, like when I'm reading a short story or poetry collection. But that's another post to come.

For me, saying that a book is good or bad isn't enough. I feel obliged to say why. Possibly because I majored in English literature and possibly because giving a superficial 'yay' or 'nay' isn't my thing. 

This list will focus on fiction. I plan to write another post on non-fiction books, which I'm picking up more of now, and another on poetry. I'll update with links when I publish those.

So on to 8 main criteria that I focus on when reading fiction.

The first thing I focus on when I read is the narration. Is it first or third person? Is it clear or confusing? If it's in first person, is the main character and narrator interesting and funny? Or are they too talkative and self-absorbed? Because if are, I'm going to be bored to death and will probably drop the book.

Narration may include multiple points of view (POVs). Like having two main characters or two timelines. Are they easy to navigate? Is one view point slower or faster than the other?

I've read a book that had two POV characters, both were narrated in third person but one was action-packed, while the other was tortoise-slow, which had me skimming the slow parts and gobbling the quick-paced ones. This eventually had me docking off a star or two from my review.

Language and imagery
Is the language of the novel I'm reading easy or is it wordy? If it's wordy, can I understand or glean the vocabulary as I read? Or do I have to look up a lot of words in the dictionary? If you're thinking those I had to suspend my reading to check word-meanings for, got a star downgrade in terms of rating – you're definitely right.

I also focus on the smoothness of the language itself. Do I forget that I'm reading and become suddenly transported to the time and place of the book?

As for imagery, it's not a priority but books with imagery help with visualization and can generate ideas for me for poetry or short stories. Some books have great imagery, some don't and that's not a pain point for me. But some others weave their imagery in their text so well, you can't help but point it out in a review.

The 'Show Don't Tell' thing all writers are obsessed with, falls under the imagery. Done well, I point it out because the author has gone to lengths to show and not tell and they deserve to be applauded for it.

Note: In children's and middle grade books, I find it hard to show. So in these genres, you'll likely find a lot of telling – but don't take it out on the author. They are, after all, addressing a much younger audience.

If the book has memorable quotes or speeches, I like to point out those too. Sometimes they may include an image but sometimes they're just beautiful quotes worthy of mentioning. There were several beautiful ones in Isobel Blackthorn's The Drago Tree.

While I don't often directly comment on the setting, it's something I focus on while reading. Can I visualize the setting and events? Or is the setting ever-changing and I can't picture the house where most of the story is set? If I can't imagine the rooms right or if things aren't clear for me, I'll point it out.

Setting also includes world building, especially if the book is set in the distant future, alternate dimension, or a fantasy realm. Being able to see the setting, where the characters are moving and interacting is important.

Plot + Ending
We all focus on the plot or story line; does the story actually have a story within it. What's going on?

A lot can be said about this but the main thing I focus on is how I got from start to finish, were there unnecessary events or details in the text that shouldn't have been there?

The ending is part of the plot. If it's abrupt, was there a need for that? Or did the author make it seem like the lights went out in the middle of the movie? Also, did the ending satiate me as a reader? Or was it cliché or lame? All of this is part of the plot structure and plays a role in my reviews.

Of course, you'll notice that other points mentioned here, like setting, narration, characterization, contribute to the plot one way or another. But I chose to handle each separately since I focus on them separately in my book reviews.

Again an exception to plot movement may be found in book series. Something may happen in book 1 that would have an impact in book 3. It's tough but I know from my personal work in progress that some events that take part in book 1 will affect what happens later in the series. You may not find a direct effect but for me, there will one, I promise.

Suspense vs (Comic) Relief
One of the things I focus on regularly is the suspense and relief equation. Relief can be comic or it could just be a calm scene after a war or heated discussion between the main characters. The thing is, continued suspense will fry a reader's brain.

I had this issue with J.K. Rowling's last installment in the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was shocked and I kept stopping in mid-chapters (something I abhor doing). But I literally couldn't keep reading. There aren't a lot of books that do that but it's important to remember that relief is essential in the makings of a story.

In some novels, the main character is sarcastic and/or funny, which allows the author to sprinkle humor, and relief, throughout the book. One of those I recall was The Secret of the Lost Pharaoh by Carolyn Arnold, where one of the characters was hilarious so even when things were suspenseful, Arnold added a little humor to lighten the mood. And I loved it (and the book).

Possibly the most important aspect in the entire novel, or of equal importance as the plot, characterization involves both the whole cast and protagonist's development. Are the characters likable? Are their flaws and positive aspects balanced? Do they start out as scared but then build courage and end up being stronger than they started? Does the novel begin with a character who is too emotionally-controlled but end with them being able to share and communicate what they need? All this is character development. And it's super important for me.

I've read a few books where the main character wasn't likable. And honestly, it was terrible. I couldn't stand the protagonist and barely made it to the end of the book. You can imagine these books didn't rank very high on my list.

I must note that character development is slow or rare in two instances, mystery books (which often have installments) and book series. The characters need to develop both on the course of a single book and the whole trilogy or series. If you're looking for character progression in a mystery book, you won't find much. Or so I've noticed in the dozens I've read.

So, if you're reading mystery or starting a series, don't take it too hard on the author, they need a larger space to develop their character.

Depending on the genre(s) of the book I'm reading, I might point out to other aspects. For example, if it's a horror novel, I'd say it gave me goosebumps or I couldn't sleep because of it. If it's a science fiction novel, I often comment on whether the sci-fi aspect was understandable or over the top and so on.

I noted this in my review of Hero: The Hero Rebellion Book 1 by Belinda Crawford. I was afraid to pick up the book because of the sci-fi element but Crawford made it seem easy. Well, easy for me to read but she put a lot of hard work into the setting and world building.

Again not one of the things I regularly comment on but I do point out a gorgeous cover when I see one OR when the cover doesn't reflect the content of the story.

I recently read a novel where the main character was an elderly knight but the cover indicated a much younger knight. I felt that it was a discrepancy because, let's be honest a lot of people can pick up a book based on its cover. If the cover is misleading, many may feel cheated.

So, these are the main aspects I focus on when reading and reviewing a book. I write down mini notes as I go and add bookmarks.

What do you focus on? May be I can consider it in my next work of fiction.

Also, if you're an author or book blogger, tell me what you think of this list.

Check out my book reviews page for the genres I've read and I'm currently reading. 


  1. What a great list. I enjoy reading a wide range of genres, I like it when deep point of view is used to flesh out characters, they always feel rounded and well developed.

    I'm put off a book that info dumps through descriptions or dialogue.

    Ultimately I like to feel like I have disappeared into the story and am there with the characters.

    1. Hey Rosie,
      I totally agree with you. Info dumps are especially painful and boring. The same with events that don't lead anywhere. I also love it when I'm reading and disappear into the world of the book.

      Thanks for reading the list and commenting. I highly appreciate it.

  2. This is a fantastic post! Thanks for sharing the ways you write your reviews. I mostly focus on the characters and plot, but characters are a big factor in making me like a book. I usually also briefly touch upon narration and writing style. Most of the time though I focus on how the book makes me feel overall ��

    1. Hi Dini, thank you for reading and leaving a comment. I highly appreciate it. Without character, there is no story. The whole story revolves around them and personally if I can't like the main character, it's hard for me to like the story.
      Glad to see we have similar reviewing styles.

  3. Fantastic post! A great list and I do some of them but I've never really thought about my reviewing process - I think I will with the next review I write.

    Lovely blog!

    Jules -

    1. Hey Jules
      It took me a while to figure out my process, then I wrote a few points down. For the list, I mentioned all those I covered over the years. I don't always comment on covers for example unless they're gorgeous or in a recent case didn't represent the content of the book.

      Thank you for reading the post and commenting - I highly appreciate it


  4. Such a great list! Show don't tell is SO important! I couldn't realize why I didn't feel connected with the last book that I read until I realized that everything was being told to us and nothing was really shown, making the whole thing feel really superficial.

    It's interesting looking through this because while I do comment on some of the same things, my list of review points looks a little different than yours. I think this is a great place to start, but I also love how everyone writes reviews differently. Thanks for sharing the things you tend to mention!