Writing book reviews: how to get started

As book bloggers, writing book reviews is a core part of what we do. However, I’ve heard from lots of people who say that review writing is the most challenging or least fun part of blogging.

I’ve written posts in the past that set out some of the reasons that I personally find writing reviews difficult. There are a lot of times where I’ve gone to write a review but put it off – sometimes I can’t seem to get the thoughts in my head down on the page in a way that makes sense or think of the right phrasing, or sometimes just I draw a blank and can’t think of anything interesting to say.

Assuming that at least some other people out there also suffer from the same issues – I thought I’d share some of my experiences, processes and tips for writing book reviews.

I know that everyone writes their reviews differently and I’m by no means an expert! If you’ve been blogging for a while and already have your own style for review writing, this post might not be so useful for you!

However, if you are at all interested in hearing my thoughts and top tips for writing book reviews, please read on!

  1. Have some questions to fall back on:

Having a list of questions to consider when starting a review is so useful for teasing out content for a post, and I’ve found it can also really help with structuring a review and keeping my thoughts in order as well. There are a few questions that I always ask if I’m struggling to get started on a review, which I’ve included below in case they’re helpful!

  • Were the characters believable and did they develop over the course of the book?
  • Were there any plot points that I really enjoyed, or really didn’t enjoy?
  • Was the setting fully developed? Was too much or too little time spent on description rather than action?
  • Did the language flow and feel natural? Was there anything that jarred or didn’t work?
  • Were there any pacing issues? Did it feel like any parts of the book dragged or were interesting parts skipped over too quickly?
  1. Write about what you’re interested in:

Ultimately, when people are reading a book review they want to know what you thought of it – including why you liked it, why you didn’t and whether you’d recommend it. If you found a particular aspect of the book really unique, talk about it. If you hated it, tell people why. I’d always recommend trying to be balanced though and picking out arguments from both sides where you can.

  1. Mix it up a bit:

Don’t think that you have to stick to the same formula all the time. If you’re struggling to write a review, adapt your structure or approach. I read a lot of blogs who break up their reviews up with pictures, quotes, headings, gifs or page dividers, which not only makes reviews interesting to read but also helps to add a bit of visual interest to something that otherwise could be quite word heavy.

  1. Don’t always start at the beginning:

Focus on what interested you and work backwards from there. I always find the beginning of a review the hardest to write, so a lot of the time I start in the middle by writing down my thoughts on a specific plot point, character or niggling issue, and then I go back to the introduction when I’ve had some time to think through my arguments logically.

  1. Take a break:

If you’re struggling for inspiration, don’t stress about it. Take a break and come back to it another time. If it feels like pulling teeth to write a review, the chances are that it’s going to read like that too.

How do you write book reviews? Do you have a process for writing them? 

Are posts like this helpful and is there anything else you’d like me to focus on more specifically in another post? 

 

 

The White Road – Sarah Lotz

The White RoadThe story:

Simon Newman maintains a website for thrill seekers, posting videos of extreme or ghoulish situations online. When a caving expedition goes horribly wrong, Simon’s video of his near death experience goes viral. Chasing something big to follow up on this success, Simon finds himself attempting to scale Everest. But the more time passes, the more Simon is haunted by past events. As his present collides with the past, Simon begins to lose his grip on reality in while attempting to stay grounded in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on earth.

My thoughts:

Throughout the book, Simon struggles to deal with what happened in the caves and the morality of using the internet to gain fame and success at the expense of others. He has to deal with feelings of grief and guilt, but his reluctance to do so means that his feelings manifest into a self-destructive, wild obsession. He’s not a particularly likable character, but to me this made him feel more real.

Although this is primarily a psychological thriller, there’s a supernatural element that runs through the book. Simon is convinced that there is a sinister figure lurking just out of view, intent on causing him harm. He is haunted by the ghosts of his past and the things that he has done, which take on a physical manifestation that drive him slowly mad. As readers, we’re presented with the facts from his perspective, and we’re left to make up our own minds as to whether these things are really happening or if they are only happening in Simon’s head. Whatever we choose to believe, there is a pervading air of menace and madness that runs through the entire book.

This, combined with the extreme settings that the Simon finds himself in over the course of the novel – from being trapped underground in tunnels that are slowly filling with water, surrounded by the dead and the cold, dark rocks and to scaling the world’s most deadly peak, oppressed by the cold, the altitude and the barren snow swept landscapes – make for an atmospheric and unsettling read. The situation is threatening and claustrophobic – both in reality and in Simon’s head.

In conclusion…

I’ve read other books by Lotz in the past and I’ve found them similarly hard to categorise. I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as horror, or as a straight up thriller, but it definitely has many of the elements of both. The White Road is a very different read from everything else I’ve read this year, and although it was creepy and sometimes unsettling, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.

Discussion post: Books that I’ll (probably) never read

Books I'll never read
This post is a tough one for me to write, as the fact that I own a large number of books that I’ll probably never get around to reading is never something I would usually admit to.

Looking at the stats…

It’s time to face facts. There are currently 184 physical unread books currently on my bookshelf, along with 109 unread books on my kindle and 11 in my audiobook library. That’s a total of 304 unread books (and yes, counting up all of these was slightly horrifying and took forever!).

Despite the fact that I already own almost enough books to open my own private library, only a paltry 5 of the 50 books that I’ve read so far in 2017 are books that I owned prior to the beginning of 2017. This means that the vast majority of the books that I’m reading are either new releases, review copies or books that have been otherwise bought or borrowed by me in the last six months.

What does this all mean??

These statistics really doesn’t bode well for the piles of books that have accompanied me from house to house for years but haven’t yet got around to reading – some of which I don’t even remember buying!

Looking at it mathematically I’m on track to read about 90 books this year – as long I carry on at the rate I’ve been reading for the first seven months. At this rate, finishing all the books I currently own without adding any in new books at all would take me almost 3 and a half years.

If I carry on my current rate of reading on average 10 books from my backlist every year (which is far more likely, given my obvious weakness for new releases, Amazon ebook sales and second hand bookshops) working through the books I currently own will take about 30 years.

What am I going to do about it? 

All of this makes the chances of me ever finishing the books I already own increasingly unlikely! But even though I know this is the truth, I just can’t bring myself to get rid of my unread books. Every time I do a clear out and read the back covers of long neglected books, I’m reminded of why I thought I’d enjoy it and I remain convinced that soon there will be a day when that particular book will be perfect for my mood.

However, in an attempt to try and tackle some of the backlog of books that have steadily been piling up, for the next six months of this year – and beyond that as well – I’m going to make a real effort to attempt to read at least one book a month that I’ve owned since before Christmas 2016.

I’ll also make an effort to donate some books to charity, including those that I know that I can’t see myself reading anytime in the near future – such as biographies or titles that I’ve had for a while but I now know from experience that I’m not a huge fan of the author.

Does anyone else have this problem? Are there any books in particular on your bookshelf that you think you’ll never get around to reading?

My recommendations: If you liked… (Part 2)

One of my favourite things about book blogging is getting new book recommendations, so I’ve pulled together some of my top recommendations based on other popular books out there. These are all books that I’d recommend based on my own experiences and similarities in theme, writing style or general feel. This is part two, which looks more at general fiction.

Part one, published a few weeks back, looks at fantasy and dystopian, and I’ll also be doing a part three shortly which looks at crime and thrillers.

  1. If you liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, try How to Stop Time

Both of these books play with the idea of time. Both feature characters that mean they’ve lived longer lives that most, and these books both focus on how life and loss affects us as individuals. They also both have great main characters, unscrupulous villains and just the right amount of drama.

  1. If you liked A Place Called Winter, try The Museum of Extraordinary Things

I loved A Place Called Winter for its unique setting and historical perspective on topics that are still very relevant today. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is similar in themes. I loved the setting of turn of the century New York, the contrast of the old and new and the family dynamics.

  1. If you liked Americanah, try We Need New Names

Both of these books tackle some really interesting questions around identity and culture. They also offer an insightful view into experiences of immigration and feelings of displacement.

  1. If you liked The House of the Spirits, try The Son

I love anything that’s described as a sweeping family epic. I also really enjoy reading about different cultures and settings from my own native UK. The House of the Spirits is a classic, spanning multiple generations and set in Brazil. The Son uses a similar concept, but starts in the frontier lands of the American west in the mid-1800’s and takes us all the way through to modern times.

  1. If you liked Life After Life, try The Light Between Oceans

Life After Life has a really unique format, taking us through many versions of the same life and exploring how one small action can cause a butterfly effect, putting us right in the head of the central character as she navigates the world. The Light Between Oceans is very different in subject matter – although it is still historical fiction – but is also very character driven and raises interesting questions around morality and right and wrong.

What do you think about this list? Do you have any books that you’d recommend to me that are similar to any of the above? 

July wrap up

Books read: 7
In July I finally got around to reading A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – which might just be my favourite read so far this year. I don’t know why I waited so long to read it, but it definitely lived up to expectations. I also really enjoyed The Heart Goes Last. I wasn’t at all sure about The Butcher’s Hook though.

  • A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
  • The Owl Always Hunts at Night, Samuel Bjork
  • The Butchers Hook, Janet Ellis
  • Frostblood, Elly Blake
  • The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood
  • The Good Daughter, Karin Slaughter
  • The Diabolic, S. J. Kincaid


Books acquired: 24
This month I made the mistake of looking through the Kindle books selection on Amazon, and there far too many deals on books that I wanted to read. I also received a number of ARCs that I’m looking forward to reading this summer and took some out of the library – which given how many books I’ve acquired this month wasn’t a very sensible idea!

  • The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams
  • The Word is Murder, Anthony Horowitz
  • Red Sister, Mark Lawrence
  • Artemis, Andy Weir
  • The Readymade Thief, Augustus Rose
  • Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman
  • The Hating Game, Sally Thorne
  • Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
  • The North Water, Ian McGuire
  • The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
  • The Magicians, Lev Grossman
  • The French Promise, Fiona McIntosh
  • Frostblood, Elly Blake
  • Walking the Lights, Deborah Andrews
  • Not Working, Lisa Owens
  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
  • Death is a Welcome Guest, Louise Welsh
  • Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
  • New World Rising, Jennifer Wilson
  • The Diabolic, S. J. Kincaid
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
  • Days Without End, Sebastian Barry
  • The Good Daughter, Karin Slaughter


Blog posts published: 7
I posted more reviews than anything else this month. The most popular posts were my review of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and my round up of the books I’m most looking forward to reading this summer. I also had some really great feedback on my discussion topic last week – which was about focusing on a particular genre for a book blog.


TBR for August:
This month I only managed to read three of the seven books I was hoping to get to. In August, I want to finish all of the books I’d planned to read in July, plus a couple of others. I’m really looking forward to The Word is Murder, as I really enjoyed Horowitz’s recent mystery, Magpie Murders. I also can’t wait to read Red Sister, as I’ve loved other books by the author.

  • Darien, C. F. Iggulden
  • Behold the Dreamers, Imbolob Mbue
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  • Three Days and a Life, Pierre Lemaitre
  • The Word is Murder, Anthony Horowitz
  • Red Sister, Mark Lawrence


Challenge progress:

Goodreads Challenge: My Goodreads reading goal is to read 50 books this year, which I’ve now met! This was a conservative goal which I was always confident I’d achieve, but this challenge was mainly about tracking how many books I’m reading, as I’ve never kept count before. Everything from here on out is a bonus. (50/50)

Beat the Backlist Challenge: The Beat the Backlist challenge is all about knocking off titles that have been on your TBR for a while. Books need to have been published prior to 2017, and I’m only including books that I actually bought before 2017 and that have been sitting around waiting for me to read them – so no new purchases or library reads. This month, two of my reads qualified, so my total is now five books towards a goal of twelve. (5/12)


How was your July? What was your favourite read? What do you have planned for August?

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The PowerThe story:
When teenage girls all over the world start developing the ability to give electric shocks, the men of the world immediately start to worry about how they can be controlled. When it’s revealed that they can also pass on this knowledge to older women, they start to panic. As more and more women discover ‘the power’ – societies all over the world start to fall apart and reform as something completely new.

My thoughts:
In this reality that Naomi Alderman has created, women dominate every aspect of society – from world politics to religion to the criminal underworld. Powerful older women can have their pick of eager young men hoping to impress them. Teenage boys are encouraged to carry rape alarms. Women form the backbone of elite military troops. For the first time, women are now inherently stronger than men, and this causes a huge upset on a deeper level.

There are a few key characters followed throughout the book – Allie, a foster kid abused by those charged with her care, Roxy, the unwanted daughter of a London gangster, and Margot, a politician ready to exploit every opportunity to rise. Each of these women use their newfound power to create a new life and build a new reality. World news is reported through the eyes of Tunde, one of the few sympathetic male characters, who travels the front lines of war torn countries to record history in the making.

There are some moments that make for uncomfortable reading. In her position of political power Margot takes full advantage of young aides eager to please, and there are scenes of extreme sexual violence against men. On a less extreme scale, armies are now female to take advantage of their natural aggression, while negotiators are male as they are inherently less threatening. But what makes this book even more disturbing to read is the realisation that all of these situations described have happened, and are indeed still happening, to women all over the world.

The fact that these ideas are so alien to us as readers, in a society claims to value gender equality and equal opportunity, is perhaps the most shocking thing of all. This is classified as sci fi, because of the powers that women develop, but the upheaval of gender politics is the thing that really strikes a chord. It makes you realise how deeply gender stereotypes are ingrained into society.

While there’s no doubt that this is a feminist novel, power and what we do with it is at the heart of this novel. The events shine a light on how those who currently hold power are abusing it, while also suggesting that if the situation was reversed it would be no different. That power corrupts is presented as a simple fact.

Discussion post: Focusing on a particular genre

Focusing on a genre

Today I’m going to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a while – whether not focusing a specific genre for a book blog is a positive or a negative, or whether it can be both.

I read a lot of different genres depending on my mood and what I’m feeling like at the time – and my blog has evolved naturally as a result of this. I quite often have a few different books on the go at once. For example at the moment I’m listening to a crime/thriller audiobook while I’m out and about, reading the latest fiction release as an eBook while on my commute and reading an epic fantasy in paperback at home.

I’m enjoying each of these equally, and sooner or later they’ll all pop up as reviews on this site. However, I’m conscious that for some people, they might be primarily interested in just one of these genres.

I have lots of wonderful followers who are kind enough to read and comment on my posts, no matter what the subject matter. However, I’ve often wondered if my blog would do better if I focused more on one particular genre or topic.

A lot of the blogs I personally follow have a clear identity and have carved out a real niche for themselves in the blogosphere – and this is something that I see as a real positive. For example, I follow a lot of blogs that are mainly focused on YA, on crime or on fantasy or sci fi. I love that there are bloggers that I can come back to time and time again and know that the books they’re reviewing are ones that I know I’ll be interested in.

On the other hand, I also think that not having a specific genre can help to attract a wider audience. I also follow a number of blogs where not all of the reviews are necessarily of books I’d read, but I know that when there’s a book review I’m not personally interested in, I can always skip down and read a discussion post, Q&A or review that does interest me.

Plus, sometimes reviews of books I would never have thought I’d be interested in pop up on my WordPress Reader that sound great, so I’ll add them to my TBR and potentially discover something new.

I’m really interested to hear what you guys think about this one – so please do comment and let me know!

Do you have a primary genre for your blog? Is this because you’ve made a conscious decision that this is the area you’re going to focus on for blogging, or simply because it’s the genre you’re most interested in as a reader?

Do you prefer to read blogs that are mainly about a specific genre, or are you happy to skip past the reviews that aren’t for you if there’s other interesting, non-genre specific posts for you to read?