How to Write a Book Review

How to Write a Book Review

As authors, we would like the general public to believe that book reviews hold little or no importance to us. We would have you think that such write-ups are minor side effects or consequences of our career as we get on with the real business at hand—writing. And of course that should be our real focus. But we can no more deny the real effects that book reviews have on us and our readers than we can the effect of an Academy Award nomination on the career of an actor.

People take heed to what is said. Once it is said or read we can’t undo the effects. The thing is, distinguishing a good, solid review as opposed to a bashing, venting or an out and out rant of the story or book.

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The purpose of a book review

When giving a good review whether you are a professional or just an avid reader, keep in mind the purpose of a book review: It is to inform potential readers of your opinion and to give merit as to whether a book is worth the read. As a reader of your review, I would hope that it is not biased, but objective based on your varied reading experience and knowledge of prose. For example, perhaps you are prochoice, but the protagonist in the book you have just read has a mission of destroying abortion clinics all over the country. Your review should be unbiased and not based on your beliefs for or against the subject.

Was the story well written?

Well written stories have specific and vivid detail. The wording is crisp, accurate and precise. You are drawn in to the suspension of disbelief. In other words based on description of characters, setting and dialogue you are able to step away, temporarily from your own experiences and believe in the plausibility of that story, for that time without judgment.

Also, does the story have a natural flow? Does it progress with great timing, not flitting here and there like a nervous bird as if the writer was not quite sure where he was going? If he doesn’t know, at this point, who does?

Was the story compelling?

Honestly, I have read books with rich, specific and colorful detail and that was the best part of the book. I was completely pulled in with anticipation thinking, this is going to be good, only to realize that the risk for the protagonist was minimal or not really a risk at all. There was no driving force.

A protagonist can be a complete jerk. You absolutely can’t stand him. But–his reputation is at stake. His life is at stake, or that of his family. You must know what happens to him. It is what compels you to keep reading. It is what causes you to pick it up during your lunch hour, read into the late hours of the night. You can’t wait for dinner to be over so that you can delve right back into it. A compelling story is tightly written. The main characters have taken a path, the path of least resistance but even that one is risky and could end badly. He could lose it all. He could fail and that would be to his demise. Ask yourself as you are reading: Were the reasons for not pursuing the other paths clearly given or at least implied?  Otherwise, you will read and find yourself saying, Well, if he would have just…he could have avoided this entire mess. But keep in mind that his chosen path is based on the character’s personality background, history. If he is naturally driven, then for him, turning back is not an option. But if his other options were viable, possible, less risky, then, that is a problem.

Secondly, did the story move too slowly with a lot of unnecessary details and you find yourself skipping over them just to get to the good parts? Or perhaps there are too many subplots and characters and not enough story to convince you that all are necessary or there are simply too many for you to care about.

 

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A rant is not a book review

What you want to avoid in a book review is a rant about how much you hated the book, or how the characters are stupid or dumb, without giving the potential reader of your review specific reasons for despising it so. Such descriptions are unproductive and they do not give the reader or the writer anything they can work with.

Ultimately, if you are writing a book review for the public to read, you want it to truly be useful and fair. Otherwise it is not a review in the true sense.

Book Review: Dancing Through Darkness by Ann Markham Walsh

Book Review: Dancing Through Darkness by Ann Markham Walsh

“Many will not want to know my story. For some, it is too painful…” Selma Engel begins in her memoir, Dancing Through Darkness, written by Ann Markham Walsh. And in fact this story is filled with so much tragedy it threatens to leave you breathless. But it is quickly shadowed by shafts of hope, courage and unrelenting love in the face of the impossible.dancing through darkness

Selma Engel’s (born Saartje Wijnberg) story begins in Zwolle, Holland where she along with her mother, father and three brothers lived their lives happily, ordinary. Her family owned and ran a quaint hotel in Zwolle and her parents worked diligently to provide a good life for the family. Selma was a sheltered girl whose needs were more than met as she helped out when needed but spent much of her time playing with friends. She was only ten years old when Adolf Hitler began serving as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. His nefarious plans for the Jewish people were completely unbeknown to this budding family.

Her life and that of her family were abruptly interrupted in 1942 when Nazi SS troops invaded the family’s hotel in Zwolle. They were ordered to take only what they could carry and forced to flee. By this time Hitler had already banished the Jews living in Germany, to ghettos. They were forbidden to use the libraries, parks and other public places.

Over the years the brutality of Hitler’s actions, and the commands carried out by his army have been well documented. But this is not a documentary. It is one woman’s story. It is one account. It is personal.

In 1943 Selma was sent to a death camp in Sobibor. It was there she met Chaim, a young, Jew from Poland. Their meeting was through the humblest of circumstances; hungry and weak from days without food, they were forced to dance with each other for the sport and amusement of German soldiers. What could have proven to be an embarrassing time by two young strangers turns out to be a moment where love fills the heart of both and soon after the two become almost inseparable, (careful of course to remain under the radar of trigger happy guards whose wrath could be inflicted anytime for almost any reason). The atrocities that these two witnessed weakened their resolve and threatened to break their will, but the hope that they would one day have a beautiful life together outside of the walls of death empowered their will to survive. Regardless of this hope there were no exit strategies for those sentenced to death camps.

Selma recounts on more than one occasion that Chaim almost lost his life. On one occasion, every man in the camp was lined up and every tenth man was shot. Chaim was number nine that night. Another time, on the night of the unlikely and dangerous escape from Sobibor, Chaim was forced to kill a guard, because another escapee
became too afraid to; it was either kill or be killed.

Ms. Markham Walsh deftly injects historical facts which, coincides with Selma’s experiences. Much of Selma’s diary has been transcribed and included as well as love letters the couple wrote to each other. Many of the diary entries were written while in hiding after her and Chaims’s escape from Sobibor; and Selma’s pain can be felt with each entry. Many times it sounds hopeless, but such is the reality when all has been stripped from you—except your resolve to survive.

The story is candid and frank as Selma shares her thoughts on those who deny the atrocities ever happened; and of those powers that claimed they weren’t aware of what was being done to the Jews. She also lends her thoughts on granting forgiveness to the man who was the overseer of the annihilation of more than six million human beings. Her story is a reminder of the humanity and courage of others. It is a story of how love can conquer in the direst of circumstances, and that hope is always possible.

Book review: Drop Out by Neil D. Ostroff is not about hopelessness

Book review: Drop Out by Neil D. Ostroff is not about hopelessness

When I first came across the novel Drop Out by Neil D. Ostroff I knew I’d get around to reading it eventually. Although the subject matter was a bit heavy the cover indicated to me that it wouldn’t leave readers feeling hopelessly dismayed. And I was correct.

Drop Out is the story of Nathan Cruz a young man who has been living reclusively in Key West since the events of September, 2011 when he was tragically trapped in one of the Twin Towers and badly burned as a result. Nathan was able to help many to safety, but could not save his family.

For more than ten years Nathan has live a life void of as much human contact as possible. All of that changes upon meeting Miriam Kanter, in the midst of a hurricane. Their friendship is altogether desperate, unlikely and lovely.

I was immediately impressed with the details that Ostroff lends to describe the events of September 11. He writes with detail but neither pity nor debasement, the struggle of thousands of people clamoring to get out of the building alive.  It seems, even though we watched from the comfort of our homes on television, we were spared much of the torturous desperation of the victims that day and the sense of immediacy that only comes from being there. Well, Ostroff takes you there.

The specifics in the book give  new brilliance to the tragedy and the transformation of ordinary humans into desperate souls fighting for their own existence. With unflinching detail he describes from Nathan’s point of view bodies plunging  to their death in an effort to escape a certain fiery demise. The specifics in this case I believe were necessary in order to get a sense of the load of guilt and agony the protagonist has been shouldering since that day. You empathize his plight. You understand his withdrawal from society. In the wake of so many deaths you get why Nathan feels like neither a hero nor a survivor. He is simply existing. Miriam, on the other hand, challenges Nathan on every front and causes him to look again at his summation of his life. Miriam sees him differently than he sees himself: “She turned and looked at my face but not at my scars.”

My major issue with this book is that some parts seem rushed. And it could have been lengthier. It could have gone into broader detail, the depth of his relationship with Miriam and perhaps the commonalities they had with each other beyond their physical limitations and small talk. I would’ve loved to have seen deeper character development throughout. Overall, this was a good read and I am excitedly anticipating Ostroff’s next work.