Some thoughts on book reviews (and the cat’s progress)

By Grant Jacobs 19/06/2011

A quiet evening rumination mulling the need for reviewers to recommend who the book would suit and other things.[1] There’s also the cat’s progress while writing. Nothing to do with science, I’m afraid: just consider that these thoughts also apply to reviewing books with science themes.

Wine. Check.

Cat in basket on desk. Sort-of check.

She’s tried the basket but is preferring to sit next to the computer. Wants to take over my lap but seems very content to perch right next to and looking down over my keyboard, watching my fingers work the keys. The sort of thing that enthrals a cat.


I ruminate about everything. Sometimes I think it almost defines me.[2]

Originally had thought to name this blog Random Ruminations; if I let myself go it probably would be. (It’d be awful; don’t encourage me.)

A couple of review copies of books sit on the little cabinet next to my bed. There are plenty more besides on my shelves that I’d share my thoughts with you on – if I had time. I wish could invent extra hours or warp time. Don’t we all?

Aimee–my cat–is now trying investigate the inside of my vest by carefully stretching a paw out across me into it.[3] I suspect she’s attracted to the zip of the inside pocket. She likes to flick the slider handles. When she was younger her waving her paw around my crutch puzzled me until I realised she was after the my trouser zipper. Shiny things that move.

I’ve never studied how to review a book. Maybe I have in English at high school, but I’ve forgotten it. There are plenty of articles with suggestions and of course anyone who read books much has read plenty of book reviews.

So what makes a good book review?

A review ought to explain what the book covers, what it (seemed to) aim to cover and how well it met that aim.

I have what I suspect might be an odd opinion about this. I’m not sure for the review that the book didn’t meet it’s aims matters that much. In fact, unless it’s a scholarly effort I’m not sure it’s even worth delving too far into.

What I think is more important is what it delivers. Focusing on what it apparently aimed to cover is more a critique of the author than the product in many ways.

More to the point, I think that in addition to reviewing the book, a book review should recommend who the book might suit. It should do more than review, it should recommend.

Aimee has retreated to sit on top of the headrest of an arm chair, staring at me. I’ve no idea what I did to prompt that. Mysterious beasts.

Y’see I think that unless the book is an absolute disaster in every way[4] it’ll appeal to somebody. Purists will probably scream, but even lightweight ’trash’ has it’s place. The question for the reviewer then is to try figure out who those likely somebodies might be and show them it’d be a match for their interests.

The thing then is to understand the book well enough that you can suggest who it’d appeal to. That’s what I see as the reviewer’s real job. If they can’t deliver that, they’re not serving their readers.

Don’t get me wrong. Strong or clever critiques–while not always aiding a reader’s choice–can be excellent entertainment and the better crafted ones can lure a reader in. The problem, to me, is that the review portion of a book review is a personal impression of the work and other readers may not have that opinion. If the reviewer offers only how the book stands up to their standards, needs or wants, the reader of the review can be left trying to second-guess the character of the reviewer in order that they might judge through the person if the book is a match for their own interests.

Aimee has suddenly rushed onto the desk and into the basket. Is this appeasement? Not sure. She’s chosen to face butt towards me, scanning the row of books on the shelf behind my desk. Perhaps a cat‘s idea of book reviewing?

Y’know when you’re reading a scathing review and it grows annoyingly clear that you’re seeing the book through the eyes of a pretentious snob or a competitor? Or it dawns on you that the dismissive review of book on evolution is penned by a creationist. They’re extreme examples–for entertainment’s sake–but you get my meaning.

In a more ordinary example I’ve frequently run into reviewers of computing books failing to identify if the work is a reference book or a textbook (or a programmer’s cookbook), leaving you to judge which it is by trying to determine the reviewer’s personal aims.

Aimee has given up reading book spines, and has curled up in the basket, twisting her head upside-down into her body, paw over her eyes to hide from the light that shines on my desk. A cat’s version of sleeping masks. Knowing her, she’ll stay there until my bedtime in the wee hours. When she sleeps, she sleeps.

Like most readers, I dislike too much being said about the contents. No spoilers! You want to learn it’s general character, it’s approach and style. Excerpts help a reader judge the style (and more) for themselves, but unless you’ve a lot of space, they’ll be brief.[5]

The details of the book ought to be there. At least the title, author and ISBN number. Books can go by different titles in different parts of the world, and book titles and author names aren’t unique. If nothing else an ISBN provides an independent way of tracking a work down. Despite this it’s common to see reviews without an ISBN. I like to see the number of pages and if the book as other sections besides the main body of the text – it gives another clue to the nature of the book.

What would you want to see in a good book review? (I’m not intending my ruminations to provide a complete list, I’m sure there’s more that could be said.)


[1] I wrote this on Friday evening. I’m unsure if I should publish this as ruminations are invariably self-indulgent. As a compromise of sorts I’m letting it out on Sunday afternoon.

[2] Part of me. Of course, in my day-to-day work I have to do more pragmatic things like read molecular biology and genetics papers, write software and so on. And the daily chores and the daily chores. Reality intrudes in other words.

[3] I’m writing very slowly, straying off into thought (not necessarily about book reviews), so the cat has plenty of time to do things in between my scraps of verbiage.

[4] The books I’m currently reviewing are of a high standard; I’m writing generally here, not thinking about the particular books I’m currently reviewing! Besides, you’d think that books that bad wouldn’t make it to print, not too often. They’d be dodgy investments on the publisher’s part.

[5] For on-line reviewers: the time to type the quoted passage!

Other articles on books on Code for life (looking back I’ve written more about books that I thought I had…!):

Book review — The Poisoner’s Handbook

The best places to read

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

Explore ancient science books on-line

Science-y reading and open book thread

Making the most of lousy book reviews on Amazon

Looking for a book to read?

Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use?

0 Responses to “Some thoughts on book reviews (and the cat’s progress)”

  • What would you want to see in a good book review?
    Well, I’d like to know if the book’s well-written – no clunky, purple prose, doesn’t try to fudge the point, arguments hang together, good narrative flow. (I don’t read a lot of fiction, other than some sci-fi/fantasy & historical stuff, so I often don’t even read fiction reviews.) Is it all broken up into bitty bits that don’t hang together? Is there – lawks! – a pile of maths? (It’s not that I don’t like maths, but if I wanted to read it, I’d buy a maths textbook.) Is it informative and enjoyable? Will it add to what I already know? (Alright, I know the reviewer doesn’t know what I already know, but some indication of content will help me there!)

  • Hey, that’s long list Alison 🙂 Haha. Good thoughts. I suppose we could say “what might matter to a reader” is a lot of things…!