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Top Tips for Writing a Book Review


Our book review network is now open for applications! If you're interested in joining, but not sure where to start when it comes to reviewing translated fiction, some of the translators and editors we've been working with for the Writing Chinese project have shared their advice. First up is Nicky Harman, award-winning translator and one of the brains behind Paper Republic, with her top tips for writing a book review, as well as links to some examples:

  1. Do start with a summary of the story, but keep it short.
  2. Do consider your book as a work of fiction (or essays or poetry, or whatever it is). Does it work as a novel for you? If not, why not? (Unlike a news report, a Chinese novel’s main aim is not to explain China to the reader, though it may do that as well.)
  3. Do compare the book to other novels you have read. The one you are reviewing may be similar, or it may be completely different, but comparisons help to put your book into context for the reader. If you know something about the author, and/or have read their other books, say that too.
  4. Don’t be afraid to express personal opinions: your reactions, visceral or reasonable, will make your review come alive.
  5. But if you do criticise the book, do find something positive to say too. At least two people spent a long time working on it, the author and the translator!
  6. Do mention the translator because s/he is, after all, the author of this new version of the book. Add a comment if you want to, for instance that it reads smoothly or that the way they dealt with the names annoyed/amused you. (Don’t worry, there is no need to talk about the accuracy of the translation if you don’t know Chinese).
  7. Do read reviews of other translated books. There are some very interesting ones out there. Reading them will give you ideas, and the confidence to write your own review.

Here are some links to book reviews to get you thinking. One is from Italian, one from French, the rest are from Chinese. In no particular order:

Class, Reviewed by Vincent Francone.

I like the way the review begins. It’s a teaser: “I don’t know what the hell to think about [this book], yet I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Wen Yiduo: Stagnant Water and Other Poems Reviewed by Anthony Tao

Tao comments: “… his poetry [is] both a challenge and a thrill, one that a new generation of readers can now tackle thanks to the work of poet-translator Robert Hammond Dorsett…” thus neatly bringing in the translator, and making us want to read on.

The Four Books (Yan Lianke), The Explosion Chronicles(Yan Lianke), The Seventh Day(Yu Hua), Reviewed by Ian Johnson as Novels from China’s Moral Abyss.

An unusually long and ambitious review, giving loads of information on three separate novels and their authors.

Iron Moon: Anthology of Migrant Worker Poetry, reviewed by Megan Walsh. Walsh says: “…When reading Iron Moon you realize how intimate and personal these young migrant writers can be,” and makes even non-poetry-lovers like me want to read the poems.

Black Moses, reviewed by Emily Lever.

Six out of the eight paragraphs in this review are devoted to summarizing the plot, but the last two paragraphs convince me I ought to read this novel.

Crystal Wedding, reviewed by Ruth Finnegan.

This review, of a novel I translated myself, won my heart because the reviewer has clearly understood what the writer is trying to do and expresses her own reactions to reading the book beautifully. It helps, of course, that she liked it – this is the kind of review that authors and translators dream of.

And here are three literary websites focusing on books in translation, with a reviews section:

Three Percent

Words without Borders

Asymptote Journal (click the Criticism tab)