How do you review several hundred pages of someone’s blood, sweat, and tears in just the 500 or 1,000 words? Of course, it depends on the book—novels, anthologies, nonfiction, and reference books all have different constraints. But there are some general principles that will make reviewing something you can look forward to.
1. Leave yourself plenty of time, so that you can read the book a couple of times
Give it a quick skim, then a careful perusing, carefully reading a chapter a day and taking notes. That gives you plenty of time to form an impression and think your evaluation through.
2. Your job is to create a relationship between the reviewer, the book’s author, and potential readers
To do that, you need to establish some context for the book. The best reviews quickly situate a book against some social, scientific, cultural, or disciplinary backdrop. What important ideas or questions does this book address? Who would be interested in the book and why? A good review can amplify
that background for readers and may even cause the author to think about the work in a new way.
3. As you summarize, try to fit the best examples from the book into the review, rather than just relying on a retelling of an author’s points
Try to refer to the material that brought the book alive for you, juxtaposing different examples to reinforce your reading of the book.
4. Summary, however it is handled, should be combined with your evaluation of the book
This is your honest judgement of what parts of the book are the strongest and the weakest. Where does the writing sparkle? Where does it lose its way? What might there be more of, or less? What is innovative and what is missing? Give the reasons for your judgement, insofar as you can, and avoid being snarky
5. Book reviews are the time to practice the art of brevity and to polish your own writing
You will probably only have a few hundred words, so make each one count. Engage your readers by getting their attention and winning their confidence, by moving briskly through what you have to say, and helping them to decide if they want to read the book for themselves.