A book review is a summary, evaluation and critique of a book. It shows how the book fits into an existing narrative or debate, stakes out new ground, and moves the discourse forward. There are two approaches you can take: the first a conventional review largely contained within the territory the book itself stakes out. The second is a book review essay which sets the book in a wider context.
Each approach draws on similar questions, which I have set out below. Each question asks you to assess the book’s contribution to the theoretical or research problem it is part of. Depending on your approach the balance will change between them. For example, if you were reviewing the memoir Spare you would not just summarise what it says but ask what it tells you about monarchy, and about how insiders write about it. How is the book’s perspective both enhanced and limited by that? What effect does it have? How does it shape our public discourse about monarchy in general and the British royal family in particular? You would also want to assess how it achieves its aims. Is the writing convincing? Does it reveal more about the author than he intended? How does it fit into a particular idiom? A book is always part of a bigger project or discourse, is more than itself.
How do you start a book review? Reading the book might be a good way to go. But a book is very big. You want to begin with a reading template, a set of keywords or concepts you will look for in the book. Identify themes you will look out for, keywords that trigger your interest. As you read, note points you want to return to to clarify or check against later claims. If the book sets out hypotheses early on, then see that they are met later on. Develop a reading template, a plan of points to look for in the book. For example, for the book Rahman M (2019) Homicide and Organised Crime: Ethnographic Narratives of Serious Violence in the Criminal Underworld I have prompted you to look for what it has to say about masculinity and habitus, so look for where he discusses those themes, note down both what he has to say and how he says it. Note the contexts he refers to and the kinds of masculinity and habitus in evidence. You can show how these concepts connect to each other. How might different ideas of masculinity relate to each other and to violence?
Another template you could use is to categorise the types of narrative the book uses. Some books are very narrative driven, and others let the argument flow through the evidence. In an academic book not all the content has the same purpose. Some of the writing establishes the authors’ bona fides, while other sections demonstrate and elaborate on their argument. The questions I have set are to help you do this, to give you points to look for throughout.
When writing it, ensure you cover these points:
- Start out with a bit about the author or authors
Say who they are. Look at their Google Scholar profile. Have they written other books or papers on this topic? Are they known for taking a certain angle? Do they belong to a theoretical school that shapes what they say? Often they will say this in the introduction.
If you are taking the book review essay approach you will want to highlight the problem or question the book tackles more than what the book itself claims.
- Summarise the book.
What are its aims and agenda? What is it aiming to do? What problem does it want to solve? What evidence is it producing, if any? Some books aim to be theoretical or thought leader contributions. They want to shape the debate on this topic and set an agenda. They say what should be. Others are reporting on research projects and so are more like a statement of what is, and what matters. How is the book structured? Depending on how you want to write the review, you might spend more or less on this part.
- Situate the book.
Each book is part of a bigger conversation happening in its field. Usually you will know this because it will tell you a lot. What kinds of debates is it influence, what problems is it addressing? Find who else has intervened in this debate and from what perspectives. Is the author arguing against them? Books usually comment a lot on existing research and you might want to say how effectively they have done that.
- Evaluate the book.
Say what you liked about it. How did you feel while reading it? What does it contribute, what are its strengths and weakness. Does it meet the challenges it sets? Look at how it gathers and uses evidence. Are there limits there? Think of common strengths – a wide selection of cases and a desire to look for evidential counterpoints shows a willingness to disagree and reflect. It makes for a more resilient set of findings. Limited case selection might indicate limits to the argument. Make a critical reading of the text. Authors often use terms inconsistently, to mean different things at different times, which can make the meaning hard to pin down, but illuminating.
For instance, a book that examines masculinity and crime: does it define masculinity in terms you are convinced by? Is it consistent? Does it understand how masculinity evolves sociologically? How is the term applied in relation to the empirical evidence it uses? Let us say the study is looking for manifestations of masculinity, are you convinced by how it does that? Use other framings you have come across in the course. If discussing organised crime, does it rely on police definitions of what organised crime is? Outline the limits of doing that.
Say what concepts are being used incidentally but need to be thought through. Gangs is one we see often in the research. The concept has a lot of assumptions build in as to what gangs are, who belongs to them and how they function. The book index is useful here.
How does the author know what they claim to. What sources are being used and how should they be evaluated? What are the limits of Rahman’s ‘dashcam ethnography’ for example?
Was there anything you did not like? Did you feel the book addressed you well as a reader? Is there anything missing from its agenda or approach?
When reading the book be guided by your response to it. You will respond to any academic text intellectually and emotionally, and in my view we cannot separate those elements. How you read the book matters as much as what it says, and what it says to you matters as much as what it says to the topic of criminology or whatever it might be. Your response is a valid good guide to what it is saying – are there parts that are intriguing, or recognisable, or captivating, or alienating? Did anything make you laugh? Always say why that was.
- Look ahead
A good way to end is to suggest where we might go from here. Is it worth pursuing the agenda they lay out and what might be needed to do that?