Anatomy of a Review
What are the different sections of the review? What emphasis should be given to each one?
At the top of the review, just after the title of the book under review, comes the key information. This should give you just enough data to make a decision about the book's suitability if you're in a hurry. It consists of two sets of information: a summary of key points which are likely to be important to parents concerned about a book; and a pair of traffic-light sliders indicating the scope of the attitudes and styles to be found.
This section is necessarily brief but is designed to give an immediate heads-up about the key issues in the book -- good and bad. It's also the only aspect of the review which is included in the summary lists. The traffic lights were a late addition to the site and they still cause me concern, because a book is usually much more complex than, say, a film which is where these kind of flags are common. For that reason, each indicator has a sliding scale so that you can see, for example, that while a book might contain issues of concern, it has also positive elements. There's only so far you can go with this kind of visualisation before it needs an instruction manual so we don't try to indicate, for example, whether the book's broadly good with one untoward incident, or a mass of corruption with one redeeming point.
In the case of a quick review this may be the only part of the review which appears. This would usually be because a new book is significant enough to merit a review quickly, hopefully followed later by a fuller analysis.
The intention of this section is to give you some idea about the attitudes of the book from the actions and intentions of its characters. It's always in danger of spilling over into a synopsis of the plot or an analysis of the attitudes within. But if you see that there's a character who struggles to help others in the face of some adversity then you will understand that the book is different from one where the characters are shallow and self-serving.
To some extent the main body of notes in each review will assume that you've read -- or can refer back to -- this section so won't bother with explaning again character relationships which have been covered here.
The first sentence of this plot synopsis is what appears in the summary lists, along with the key information noted above. (That's why it's sometimes a little forced as it tries to fit a useful outline into one sentence). The rest of the synopsis might be shorter or longer according to the complexity of the storyline. It will try to avoid direct spoilers, although the notes (cf below) may include some if needed to make some point especially clear. By and large it's assumed that the readers of these reviews are parents or others who are unlikely to be reading the book themselves but want to know about it on behalf of someone younger. So there's more emphasis on saying what needs to be said and less on avoiding giveaways which might spoil the story.
Some more recent reviews will include a full plot synopsis. If this is present, it will appear as a link under the shorter synopsis. It is preceded by a warning that it will contain spoilers. goodtoread.org is intended, broadly, for parents and educators who want to know what's in a book being read by the children in their care and it's assumed that they're unlikely to read it themselves. For that reason it doesn't seem unreasonable to provide more detailed information than a film or a book review which is aimed at the piece's target audience.
Some of the reviews cover an entire series in one review. In some of these cases, individual stories are also covered (Alex Rider, for example). In other cases, all the stories are covered in one review (Swallows and Amazons). In the former case, the synopsis may not be present at all; in the latter case it will briefly cover all the books in the series.
This is the heart of the review and, together with the Key Information mentioned above, constitutes the differentiator for this site. Exactly what goes in here is down to the individual reviewer, and you can get some idea of our criteria from other articles: About goodtoread.org and Rationale of a Review.
The themes mentioned here are considered to be likely discussion points once a youngster has read the book. A book, for example, may touch on a sensitive or difficult issue and adults may want to discuss what a child has understood of the matter. Or the book may make some points very well which merit going over. Or there may be an historical setting or some other interesting context which could be expanded on once the book is finished. Some books don't really furnish much material for this section, which can be an indication of a certain lack of depth.
A quote included here should give some indication of the style of the book. It's not intended to be a back-of-the-dustjacket blurb. Reasonably often it's a section the reviewer finds particularly rewarding to read, because you have to choose something and it may as well be something you've enjoyed. Occasionally it's an excerpt which reflects a positive or negative point made as part of the review above.
Wednesday 27th April 2011