What you need to know about Writing a good Book Review
Perhaps one of the most accessible forms of academic publication, a book review can be written by researchers at any stage of their career. Book reviews aim to provide information on a recent contribution made to the body of knowledge in a discipline, and evaluate that contribution for the use of an audience who may, based on the evaluation in the review, decide to access or purchase the item concerned. A book review is an opportunity to show your expertise in the field to an audience of sometimes very knowledgeable peers.
Initiating a book review
Although publishers usually approach an expert to review one of their recently published books (a practice known as commissioning), maybe offering a few of their own books as a reward, this is also a genre that you might choose to write. Certain journals often have a section at the back dedicated to reviews on books they consider most likely to be of interest to their readership, but there are also journals that dedicate themselves to book reviews. As with all academic writing, there may well be specifications as to length and style; so, you need to check the publisher-issued guidelines before you start.
Commencing a book review
Start by providing a broader context to the book under review. This contextualisation usually talks broadly about what has been done in the immediate field, before introducing the title of the book and identifying the specific contribution of the book in question. The opening may also provide some background on the writer(s) if they come from outside the discipline or are well known for something relevant to this new book, before setting out what the book aims to achieve.
Summarising the book
The first part of the body of the review will be largely summative in nature. It is useful if you can identify a structure or parts to the book beyond the chapters. It may be wise to also talk about the theory or methodology behind the book, if this is relevant, before describing the individual chapters in sequence.
Evaluating the book
Whether the review is glowing or damning, clear, logical evaluation is expected throughout the piece, and the final recommendation (or not) needs to be logically arrived at.
- If the book is excellent, there are likely to be positive comments, backed by your evaluation, throughout the review.
- If there are reservations or if the book falls short in some way, these aspects also need to be hinted at or even directly argued against, possibly throughout your review.
Note that usually, one starts by looking for the positive.
Some things to keep in mind as you review
This is a public document, and so the full information on the book is given, together with the reviewer’s name and affiliation.
Also, you may very possibly meet the author at a conference at some point since you share a common area of interest. However, as the reviewer, you are also putting forward your expertise in this field. So, bear in mind that your academic credibility is also in play here. Ultimately, you need to feel comfortable that the review really reflects your professional opinion. You therefore need to be able to envisage feeling comfortable meeting and defending your review to the author – or a poor academic who bought the book based on your review, at that future conference!
Some good book reviews
In closing, here are some good book reviews we have come across. By ‘good’, we are referring to the quality of the review and not necessarily that the reviewers have had only positive things to say about the books. Happy reading/reviewing!
Here (from EH.net) is a good example of a review where the author tries to be generous and look for the positive although he ultimately finishes understandably negative. Hints at a negative come constantly, possibly even from the ‘describes’ in line one. Note numerous ‘sets out to’ suggesting possible lack of arrival or completion. The introduction also sets up the eventual negative.
This review (on Taylor & Francis Online) is fairly standard. It offers a good contextualisation at the beginning before going through the book systematically, but grouping where possible. It does bring in some negative criticism, and offers other literature the book might have consulted before coming back to recognise the overall strength of the book, which fits appropriately with the commentary that precedes it.
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