Always give the author’s major theme, his or her motive for writing the book. You will most often find that motive in the preface, which you should always read.
Summarize the evidence the author presents.
Identify the author, but don’t waste time on needless claims about him or her. It is a cliché to say that the author is “well-qualified” to write a book.
Avoid lengthy comments on the style of the book. It’s fine to say that the style is good or bad, interesting or tedious. If a book is especially well written or incomprehensible, you may quote a sentence to illustrate a good or bad style, but don’t belabor the point.
Avoid passionate attacks on the book. It is always a mistake to launch an emotional attack on a book merely because you don’t like it. Scholarship isn’t always courteous, but it should be.
Do not feel compelled to say negative things about the book. If you find important inaccuracies, say so. If you disagree with the writer’s interpretation here and there, say that too. Do not feel that you are obliged to say something bad about the book even if you find nothing obvious to criticize.
Judge the book the author has written. You may wish the author had written a different book. But the author has written this book. If the book did not need to be written; if it adds nothing to our knowledge of the field; if it makes conclusions unwarranted by the evidence, say so. But don’t review the book as if it were another book.
Always remember that every good book has flaws. The author may make minor errors in fact or some questionable judgments. Even so, the book may be extremely valuable. Don’t condemn a book outright because you found some mistakes. Try to judge the book as a whole.
Try to bring something from your own experience—your reading, your thoughts, your recollections—to the book review. You should know more about the subject than the book tells you. Try to use that independent knowledge to explain the book and your attitudes toward it. If you know other books or if you might have thoughts about some facts the author may have overlooked, mention them in your review.
Avoid writing as if you possess independent knowledge of the author’s subject when in fact you have taken all you know from the book itself. Don’t pretend to be an expert when you are not.
Quote selectively from the book you are reviewing. Quotations give some of the tone of the original, and they may express thoughts in a sharp and pungent way.
Avoid too many long quotations. You must show your readers that you have absorbed the book you are reviewing. If you give too many long quotations, they may think that you are asking them to do the reflection and analysis you should have done yourself.
Adapted from: Marius, Richard. A Short Guide to Writing about History. 2nd ed.