Bocas Lit Fest

You’ve just raced through a page turning thriller, or groaned in relief as you finally finished a burdensome romance with far too much filler. Now, you’re bursting to tell someone your thoughts, good, bad, or in-between. You turn to the page or computer screen, then freeze: how to begin to say what you really mean?

Shivanee Ramlochan, who writes and has written book reviews for Caribbean Beat Magazine, The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, and The Caribbean Review of Books, shares five tips designed to make your transition into book reviewing a five-star experience.

1. Read the Entire Book, and Read It Well!

If this seems a little silly, you’d be surprised at how many would-be reviewers think they know what a book is like, long before they’ve finished. Be sure to read your intended review title at least once. What does it mean to read a book ‘well’? If you read with the anticipation that you’ll be reviewing this title, it’s best to pay extra attention: take notes, for instance, of passages that stand out to you, or trends in storytelling that you don’t like. You can even save your thoughts as voice notes or screenshots for quick reference when it’s review-writing time.

2. Summarize, but Don’t Spell It Out

A well-balanced book review should directly reference the story’s basic plot, setting, major characters and any other special, distinguishing features. However, be careful not to give away the book’s ending, or any huge, revelatory twists. Very few folks actually like spoilers, and it’s up to you to decide how much of the plot you want to make plain to your readers. A good rule of thumb is that a review leaves its audience craving an interaction with the book itself, and to do that, it’s best to keep some big, narrative elements hidden.

3. Got an Opinion? Back it Up!

Evidence is the root of making a compelling case, in any court of law: it’s no different with a book review. It’s not quite enough to say, “I loved this novel so much!’ or “Ugh, that short story collection was a waste of my time.” Enlighten your readers: tell them why a book either wowed or underwhelmed you. To do this, feel free to quote directly from, or otherwise reference, the actual content of the book. The more evidence you collect and display (while avoiding any gigantic spoilers, i.e. “I hated The Chronicles of Curry because the cows fly in the end!”), the stronger your review will be.

4. Include Author Information, if it’s Relevant

Was the author of your review book a cow farmer, which influenced her tale of life on a cattle ranch? Perhaps the novelist of your review title studied Political Science, and therefore had a clear insight into the lives of civil rights leaders? It isn’t necessary to give an author’s full biography and curriculum vitae in a review, but if you see a pertinent link between a writer and their work, feel free to draw attention to it. Remember, though, that an artist and her creations are rarely one and the same: ultimately, it’s the book you want to review, not the writer you want to hold in judgement or hero-worship.

5. Remember, All Work Takes Time (Even the Bad Stuff!)

Some reviewers take an almost savage delight in ripping a book to shreds. If this strikes your fancy, and you’re already poised for the kill, remember: even the worst novel, seemingly devoid of any merit, is a manifestation of the writer’s time, energy and devotion. This never means you must give a book an easy pass, but it’s always worth it to examine the roots of what we think is ‘bad’. If you can identify a ‘bad’ novel, you should be able to recommend what would make it better. If there are things worth praising in a book, always say so: there are no extra points for being stingy with applause.

Above all, practice reviewing, just like you’d practice any other skill, to hone and develop it. Read widely, examine what you’re reading, and review it thoughtfully: your opinion matters, and can help influence others. 

Check out the Bocas YA Critics Competition to start building your book review skills!

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