With over 50 years as a book critic and 40 years teaching humanities at university, Elaine Newton knows a thing or two about being an engaged and critical reader. Critical in the positive sense of that word.
In a recent talk called ‘Between the Covers’, Elaine offered advice on how she goes about preparing a thorough book review. She refers to her approach as “unpacking books for her audience”. By the way, she reads every book three times in preparation for one of her book review lectures.
- Choose a worthy book. Elaine suggests that if you aren’t engaged after 50 pages or so, you should feel free to walk away from a book. Included with this tip were suggestions like: beware of the herd instinct of best seller lists; don’t forget the classics; trust professionals; keep an open mind for new topics, styles and settings.
- Take notes. Elaine exhorted the group to write in the margins, underline meaningful passages along with a note on why you found it interesting, keep track of key characters and events, make notes on style – in essence, make the book your own.
- Consider narrative voice. In particular, ask who is telling this story and, even more importantly, why.
- Look at structure. Is a story told chronologically, back and forth in time, through linked stories that eventually come together? Consider how the past influences the present. Consider chapter structure, plot twists, crucial scenes, and subtext.
- Examine the opening scene very carefully. Ask yourself why the author chose to start the story at this particular point and what is the meaning of that point in the context of the story. If there’s an epigram or piece of poetry at the beginning, what does is tell you about the deeper meaning of the novel.
- Examine the ending. Does it provide resolution? Is it ambiguous or a shocker ending? What does the author wish to convey and why?
- Review the book’s style including syntax, symbols and motifs. Is it poetic or not? Is it dialogue heavy or not? What sort of vocabulary has the author chosen and why? What about humour?
- Examine the characters. When did they appear and how did they make their entrance? Did you empathize with them or not? Are you aloof from them or embedded in their lives? Why do things go wrong for that character? What do they contribute to the story?
- Examine key relationships in the novel. Are they functional or dysfunctional? What happens to the relationships? Look for the doppelgänger, and for the ‘otherness’ lurking within the novel. Look at the relationship of the novel’s world to the world we live in.
- Find out about the author. The author’s life may inform the book.
Stir the mix together to discover what a given book means to you and what truths it illuminates for you.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.