By Robert Neil Smith
I admire those who boast about not reading book reviews. They probably have the luxury of time or money, or both. They might also possess a surfeit of discernment, knowing the exact book to buy from those crowded shelves, or just not care; any book will do. Fair play to them. For the rest of us, however, book reviews are invaluable assistants in our relentless trawling for that next book we want or need to read. But what is a book review, who benefits from them, and why should we read, and write, them?
A good book review is not an opinion, though it might contain one or more. Rather, a good book review follows a basic formula written objectively preferably, but sometimes with an agenda in mind. The review will lay out the essential publishing details of a book: who wrote it, the title, the publisher, and where and when it was published. A brief introduction offers advice on the value of the book to the potential reader, the rest of the review should explain why. Content generally comes next with an overview of what is in the book and how the author has structured the work. The two sections that follow highlight the positive and negative aspects of the book. These observations are objective and subjective based on the reviewer’s background knowledge and authority, and sometimes their credibility. The conclusion of the book review summarizes the overall worth of the book and places it into its context, perhaps pointing to other books in the genre. A well-structured book review therefore answers a series of questions the potential book reader might have: a new book? Who wrote and published it? What is it about? What is so good about it? What are the drawbacks? And, of course, should I buy and read this book?
The basic formula for a book review is not a rule but a guideline. Reviews will deviate from that standard depending on the intended audience and the merits of the book. They slide up and down the academic scale, for example, sometimes bringing in other books or delving deeper into the arguments presented in a single book to create review essays. Reviewers also emphasize different aspects of a book, accentuating the positives of an important work or tearing apart a weak book from cover to cover. A book’s value may accumulate in various ways; not just in content, especially in these days of seemingly limitless information at our fingertips, but in the quality of the argument, if there is one, the structural coherence, and the quality of writing – the enjoyment of the book. And that is just the text! Then there is the visual element, particularly with military history. Colour plates are almost essential now in descriptive books of armies, and contemporary artwork supplies that period feel. I can also never get enough maps for campaigns and battles. And while you should never judge a book by its cover, an enticing image on the jacket can certainly set the mood.
The worst fate to befall a book must be to receive no reviews at all. The author receives no feedback for all their hard work or validation for their arguments. In twenty years of writing reviews, I think I’ve only discarded a handful as being worthless and refused to review them, though there are some topics I wont touch. Thankfully there is value in virtually every book, but when reading a review keep your weather eye open for faint praise and the subtle indictment, betraying the reviewer’s deeper reaction. Writing a review is made easier, of course, when the book comes from a trusted publisher and is part of a reputable series. The rapid rise of Helion’s various dedicated military history series in the last couple of years has helped my review workload considerably. These are solid historical works by serious historians and packaged with quality colour plates, and, yes, an attractive cover. Since I encountered these books in 2019, I’ve yet to read one that doesn’t tick all my boxes for a positive review. I have little doubt that this will continue, but in the meantime, I’ll go through the formula one book at a time.
Robert Neil Smith PhD is a full-time writer living in Scotland. His reviews appear in Wargames Illustrated magazine and on his Beating Tsundoku Facebook page.