A Simple-Talk book-review should give a clear picture, in around two thousand words, of what the book is really about. After reading the review, the reader should have a pretty good idea what the book is really trying to say.
Most reviewers try to dive into the detail and turn the review into nothing more than a list the contents in remorseless detail. The best reviews give a good summary of what is in the book. That is their prime function, but this is only at a high level. Of course, your views about whether the book explains things well etc is useful, but book reviews tend to be read for the same reason that people leaf through technical books in shops: to get a feel for what the book is going to explain, and whether it is pitched at the right level.
For example, if you are reviewing a book about ‘Lifting Rocks’ you might write
‘You might have thought that lifting rocks was just a matter of grasping rocks with your hands and heaving, but you’d be wrong. As the book ‘Lifting Rocks the Microsoft way’ explains, there are good and bad ways. You can of course, attempt just to be a human crane and lift them as if you were lifting a waste-paper basket, but there is more subtlety to it if you wish to avoid injury. For a start, there is the lever, which has held technical sway in the rock-lifting business for millennia. This is fine if you don’t then need to move the rock too far, or if you are merely raising it to put it in the boot of your car, but otherwise, the sack barrow is a godsend. … ‘
Yes. This is fine. You’re getting a good helicopter view of what is in the book
We’re rather against the fashionable ‘it’s about me’ technique of talking too much about the reviewer. This sort of review doesn’t get read much, and they are hard to write interestingly
‘I found this book, ‘Lifting Rocks the Microsoft way’, a joy, because I have a lot of rocks to move in my garden and I couldn’t find a man to do it for me, no matter how hard I tried. I sat down to read it on Saturday, and by Monday, I was ready to try out the ‘keep the back straight’ approach that they recommended for manual lifting. I felt that the car-jack approach they mentioned might be difficult since I didn’t have a car jack and after page 100 I lost my glasses so the end of the book was a bit blurred. …’
Some authors tend to get too getting carried away by the marketing spin that Microsoft use
‘once more Microsoft re-imagines the whole world of Rock-lifting, by describing the immersive experience of leverage. The series of actionable descriptions of the use of winches provides a powerful best-practice solution for people lifting rocks, driving the lifting task, thereby helping you to cut training and maintenance costs, save time and effort, and focus on higher priorities. …’
It is fine to criticize occasionally, though this must be reasonably balanced. In general, books are the result of a lot of effort, and Technical books tend to rely less on making you laugh, cry and empathise than most fiction. The reader will be able to tell from your ‘helicopter-view’ description of what is in the book whether it is right for them. Quotations from the book are fine, and can often act as powerful ways of getting your opinion about the book across without being too heavy-handed with criticism. If you hit technical errors, it is fine to point those out, but without the ’emotive’ language that one so often sees. ‘I recoiled in disgust at seeing that the ‘unit of work’ of levers when lifting rocks did not take into account the weight of the lever itself’ would be better as ‘ I believe that the ‘unit of work’ of levers when lifting rocks ought to take into account the weight of the lever itself’
At Simple-Talk, we really want to experiment with different techniques for reviewing books, but we will always aim for the result that the reader will be better informed about the technology covered by the book’s contents after he’s finished reading the review, yet with a twinge of eagerness to read the book.