DISCUSSION // How to write a book review

Today on the blog, I thought I’d talk about how to write a book review. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal reviewing process, which you can check out if you’d like to see a detailed explanation of how I approach reviews. But no two review writers or bloggers or critics are the same, so this is more about tips on review writing – and how to develop your OWN reviewing process (or just get through a homework assignment).

1. Ask yourself questions

Asking yourself questions about the books you’ve read is something you’re probably already doing – now you just need to know how to get them on paper (or keyboard, as the case may be). They can be simple: What did I like about this story? What didn’t I like? Who were the heroes? What were the big themes? Or they can be more complex: What was the writing style like? What were the character arcs? Why was this book written or published at this moment in time?

Try to figure out the difference between subjective (“what did I think of this book”) and objective (“what is actually going on in the pages of this book”) questions and responses. Think about the book from the perspective of the target audience. Maybe you thought the plot of this picture book was too simple, but would the three-year-old who just wants to look at animals?

The answers to these questions and more will form the substance of your review. You may find that certain elements  naturally go together, like linking heroes and character arcs, or big themes and topical relevance. Once you start reading in a way that prompts questions of it and yourself –  bam, that’s critical reading.

326020092. If you’re stuck, make things as straightforward as possible

Whether you’re experienced or just starting out, you’re going to get stuck sometimes. You’ll struggle to put into words why you loved a book so much, or how uncomfortable it made you feel, or struggle to explain the exact vibe a story gave you. You may not capture that feeling entirely – and that’s fine! Reading is an individual experience. But if it’s just a case of writer’s block (critic’s block?), writing a really straightforward sentence is one of the best ways to get started. You might cut it out at the end when you’ve said in more detail what you want to say, but there’s no harm in just explaining to yourself: “I picked this book off the shelf because…” or “I love this series because…”

The opening line of my review of Lisa Lueddecke’s first book is “A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages.” Early on in my review of Night Owls by Jenn Bennett is simply the line: “I was surprised by how much I liked this.”  Sometimes the only way to get to expressing more complicated ideas is start with simple ones. It’s also one of the best ways of keeping yourself honest.

3. Be conscious of developing your own style

If you plan to write more than one review, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own style. This can take a long time, but there are ways you can consciously aid the process. Figure out what kind of reviews you like to read (What kind of language do they use? Is it short and chatty, is it funny and clever, is it serious and sophisticated?). Look back over your own reviews a few weeks or months after you’ve written them and see what you would change. Experiment with new styles and see what you think of them.

9781471406829Everyone has hallmarks. I finish all my reviews with a short in-brief paragraph, string multiple adjectives together at the start or end of sentences, have a terrible propensity for alliteration, and find comp titles (specific ‘for fans of’ descriptions) very useful (“For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure”). I like a challenge, so recently I tasked myself with developing a more concise review style. I still occasionally write long reviews (check out this one for Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This or this one for Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain). My shorter reviews are still content-heavy (check out this jam-packed review for Morgan Matson’s Save the Date), but you’ll also find me writing reviews like this one for Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang). 

4. Practice

Again, this is mainly if you’d like to consistently write reviews (if you’re just here trying to figure out how to do your homework, you probably stopped reading at point #2), but there really is only one way to develop a style or a process – practice! You won’t feel perfect at it straight away, but you can have fun getting there!

Do you have any tips on writing book reviews? Are there any reviews you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

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Event Round-Up // YALC 2018

You heard it right, folks: this year, I attended London’s Young Adult Literature Convention!

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Though it was my first time attending YALC, I’ve been book event-ing long enough to have picked up some key tips:

  • It was 30+ degrees that week so light clothes, water and a fan were a must
  • Bringing your own food is useful (to save you the queues and expense of trying to find lunch in the venue and/or Kensington)
  • Wear comfy shoes (unless you’re in cosplay in which case… no pain no gain?)
  • Plan to do SOME things but not EVERYTHING (so you’re not rushing from one workshop/panel/signing to another or feeling disappointed if one runs over and affects your next event) and your day will be all the better for it.

I attended on Saturday. I had a dress with pockets, books to get signed, and I was ready to go (with a friend in tow with whom I could fangirl, obviously). There was so much going on – Tomi Adeyemi had a signing during the sci-fi panel, Lindsay Galvin had a launch party I didn’t get to, I forgot to bring All About Mia for the Lisa Williamson signing – and it was impossible to be in two places at once, but here’s what I did get up to…

10am: Growing Up In The Past, with Frances Hardinge, Keren David, Laura Wood and Lucy Adlington

We arrived about twenty minutes after this historical fiction panel had started, which was a shame, but at least meant a) we arrived after the entrance queue had dissipated and b) we had time to meander! We browsed, got a look at the layout, and, spotting that her signing queue was just winding up, I met Keris Stainton. I babbled because I’d only just got there and my coherent sentences were still somewhere on the Underground, but Keris is so nice and My Heart Goes Bang, her latest book, was my first purchase of the day (given that we’d only been there for fifteen minutes, this did not seem to bode well for my wallet). I also started another theme for the day which was FORGETTING TO TAKE PHOTOS.

Also, when I was perusing publisher stands, I was almost IMMEDIATELY introduced to another Irish person (shout-out to Roisin at Hot Key).

11am: Careers in Publishing with Chloe Seager, Alice Natali, Lucy Richardson and Sarah Stewart

Of all the agents’ arena talks of the day, Careers in Publishing was the one I most liked the sound of (I’ve never seen any similar panels specifically for YA and kidlit here in Ireland). I appreciated the variety of roles represented: Chloe Seager is an agent and author, while Lucy Richardson is in publicity at HarperCollins, Sarah Stewart is in editorial at Usborne, and Alice Natali is in translation rights at ILA. They spoke about the day-to-day (publicists are people-facing and usually extroverted) and things people find surprising about their jobs (you don’t have to speak multiple languages to work in rights).

The panel also spoke about how they got into publishing; commonalities seemed to include having a degree (though not always in English Lit) and working in different departments to get a foot in the door, but there was also acknowledgement that some people need full-time jobs rather than unpaid internships. There were shout-outs for things like Penguin’s paid internships, the Society of Young Publishers, and Ink Road Books, Edinburgh’s shiny new YA imprint. I like to make myself ask one at every event I go to, so when it came to the Q&A I asked what the panellists thought about the prospects of the publishing industry moving beyond London, as that’s such a hot topic at the moment. It was also fab to see a professional, industry-focused panel entirely made up of women.

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L-R: Chloe Seager, Lucy Richardson, Sarah Stewart, Alice Natali

12pm: Lunch and signings

In the interest of taking my own advice, this hour was essentially free, so I ate and then popped along to see Sara Barnard (one of the most genuinely lovely humans in YA, if not the world) and meet the fabulous Non Pratt (I’d remembered how to speak in sentences at this point and was able to talk about how much I love her difficult second child Remix)I also dropped by Ink Road to see my friend and newly-minted publishing professional Sarah, and, of course, take part in their Harry Potter in Scots quiz.

1pm: Amongst the Stars, with Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Lauren James and Sasha Alsberg 

This was the panel my sci-fi mad bestie was most excited about, so it was one that we absolutely had to get to – our only mistake was heading in with about five minutes to go only to find the seating almost full. Luckily we found half-decent seats from which to hear a calm and collected Samantha Shannon ask some great questions, Becky Chambers extol the benefits of having come from a scientific family and Lauren James combine effervescent fangirling with real sci-fi knowledge. There was some controversial talk of pop culture icon Star Wars being science fantasy rather than science fiction, which my friend and I had just been discussing days earlier, but let’s not mention the war(s)…

This panel was the scene of an Irregularly Scheduled Momoa Moment, as he appeared through a nearby door to a ripple of delight from the audience….

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Panel L-R: Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Sasha Alsberg, Lauren James

2pm: Samantha Shannon signing

Ah yes. This was the longest queue I had to wait in, and I was probably still in the first third or so. The line stretched back behind us that I heard later that they cut off the queue and sent people away, rather than giving tickets as they did near the front. Bloomsbury had announced a proof giveaway for Samantha Shannon’s 2019 book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, and well done that publicity team – the lure certainly worked!

While waiting I managed to get a bite to eat, drop in to the fab Lauren James’ signing line, visit some more publishers including Chicken House Books where I met publicist Jazz and a surprise Kiran Millwood Hargrave (I would have brought my books if I’d known – it’s YALC, not MGLC!), and bump into book blogger and #boybandlit creator turned kpop stan Sal, after ages trying to spot her red shoes!

When I finally got to meet Samantha Shannon, she was absolutely (you guessed it) lovely. I’d lugged my massive copy of The Bone Season all the way over from Ireland, and got to chat about my favourite moments of The Song Rising (you can read my review for more info here!). It can be tough for readers and writers (and fans of anything really) when signing queues are so long, and it really seemed that she was taking the time to talk to everyone – as fresh and polite as if she’d only been there for twenty minutes, rather than an hour and a half (though if you’re interested in events with big-name authors but more laidback signings, maybe DeptCon is for you…)

4pm: Loud and Proud, with Simon James Green, Josh Martin and Keris Stainton

This panel was informed, fun and undoubtedly the funniest of the day. Simon James Green, the moderator, writes funny fiction for the slightly younger end of the teen spectrum (you’ll no doubt recognise the cover of Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never), while Martin writes fantasy and Stainton is an experienced writer of fiction from to teen to adult. They talked about personal experiences, the issue of identity, the difference between UK and USYA, and a whole plethora of LGBTQ+ recommendations from current YA, including shout-outs for Alice Oseman and Becky Albertalli. There was also another sighting of a Lesser Spotted Jason Momoa, which caused a bit of a stir…

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L-R: Keris Stainton, Simon James Green, Josh Martin

I think there were a couple more events after this, but we had to get going. I took notes at the workshops and panels, but I’m convinced I’ve forgotten some details – trips to Waterstones, the vibrantly decorated publisher posters and stands, people I met, cosplays I saw (including a TINY Wonder Woman), prize draws entered… Still, I’ll end this here on my swag haul – it’s probably on the small side for YALC, but I did have a luggage allowance to consider…

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Did you go to YALC? What were your favourite panels? Do you think there need to be more YA book events outside of London? Let me know in comments below!

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