I tried to get into reading novels in Japanese years ago, and took a long break because the novels I was trying were too hard for me to read smoothly. Since joining Natively a few weeks ago, I’ve read 3 novels and a manga volume in record time. It’s been so invigorating to my studies to discover that I can actually pleasure read in Japanese! And it’s all thanks to being able to browse books by levels and read other users’ reviews.
I recently finished クロエマ 1 | L27?? and was the first person to grade and write a review for it. And that got me thinking about what makes a helpful book review. The other books I’ve read recently already had multiple helpful reviews on Natively, so I felt free to just add additional perspective. But if your review is the only one on there so far, it carries a lot more weight!
So, I wanted to ask you all: what makes for a good book review in your opinion? How much synopsis is too much/too little? What counts as a spoiler? What details are helpful to know about a book in terms of entertainment and language learning? I am eager to learn how to make my book reviews as helpful as possible!
For me personally, it’s helpful when someone writes about what they liked and didn’t like about a book. (What might be someone’s pet peeve, might be my favourite trope.)
In regards to language, some people are really good at noticing grammar and vocabulary and placing a book into the approximate JLPT level, but it’s also helpful to know if there is a lot of dialogue (tends to be easier) or a lot of long descriptions (tends to be harder), if the setting is very fantastical (harder) or grounded in reality (easier), etc.
And last but not least, content warnings behind spoilers, are good to have.
I consider anything a spoiler that is not in the あらすじ but in particular, anything that is not happening in like the first chapter or so of a book or where the information is part of a plot twist.
For me personally, I really appreciate seeing a summary/overview of some kind of the plot. Nothing with spoilers necessarily, but half the battle for me for picking a book is just knowing what it’s about, and 75% of the time I’m too lazy to read through the JP summary on Amazon or wherever. Doesn’t have to be a huge amount, and often I find that user summaries are more informative than book blurbs anyway.
If it’s a book of short stories, a quick blurb about each story I always appreciate, since the content can vary so widely.
For spoilers in particular… Hmm. I guess I’ve never really thought about how far in a detail would need to be before it’s considered a spoiler. Maybe something that pops up 1/3 to 1/2 through the book, depending on the book? Some, like 告白 | L34, you can’t really do that, while for an isekai I feel like there’s a bigger range of what’s acceptable to me personally, since so many share a lot of common plot lines.
If it’s a higher level book (L36+ for me generally) I do appreciate a breakdown of what makes the book so difficult, either vocab and/or grammar, but it’s not something I necessarily look for in lower level stuff. This is coming from someone who feels comfortable going into lower level stuff blind, though, so I might be in the minority.
If the book strays in any significant way from 標準語 (i.e. heavy accents or something) that’s good to know for me regardless of level.
Looking at the review you linked, I like how you set it up: clearly defined sections, a nice summary of the story. I also appreciate how you gave a general comparison to another work by the same author.
Thanks for your reply! It’s good to hear perspective about what makes a spoiler. Sometimes I get stuck trying to express what I liked/didn’t like about a book without feeling like it’s giving too much away. For example, I struggled in my review for クロエマ with whether to share that the main character’s dynamic reminds me of two Jane Austen characters, because that might be too much info. I ended up keeping that in but leaving it kind of general.
I find it most helpful when reviews talk both about entertainment and language learning aspects. And using the star rating system for both of those things too, not just the main star rating! It helps me know whether a book is highly rated for its content or just because it’s easy to read.
Knowing a bit about what it’s about and whether the reader enjoyed the content (and why!) is valuable since it lets me decide if I’d even be interested in reading it in the first place. I like to know things like themes, whether the characters are well-developed, etc. And of course a general idea of what the book’s about.
For language learning, it’s good to know what exactly made the book easy/difficult. If there’s anything like dialects/archaic language/hard to read fonts/flowery language/etc, that’s also helpful. I also like it when you get an idea of the kind of vocab there is. For example, is there a lot of cooking vocab? A lot of legal terms? Will I learn all about shogi or boxing? That kind of stuff.
If there’s already a few reviews, I try to add important info that might not already be there.
(likely unpopular opinion!!) tbh I don’t find info about furigana all that useful (unless there’s something unique about it in the book you’re reviewing), but that’s just because I don’t pay attention to furigana when reading. And also because you can mark a book as having full furigana in the Where to Find section anyway. I know many people are grateful for furigana info in reviews, so I think there’s still value in talking about furigana in reviews, but this is just my opinion on what’s helpful to me.
Hmm it’s hard to think about what counts as a spoiler, especially since it’s different for everyone. I agree with the “if it’s not in the first chapter or the synopsis” sentiment, but I’ve also spoiler-marked things from a first chapter if it came as a shock to me. If you don’t feel like spoiler-marking things, you could always write a bit more vaguely. I guess think about whether you’d want to know about it from a review or whether it’s best discovered as you read.
I love reading your reviews! They’re always very detailed and give me a great idea of whether I should read a book or not. Even when I don’t plan on reading the book I always look forward to seeing “cat wrote a review” in my feed
Ooh, style is definitely a good thing to think about. Flowery versus matter-of-fact, etc can make a big difference. I’m not always great at knowing how to describe style, so excerpts sound like a helpful way to give people an idea.
All good stuff! I feel like I think of these things sometimes, but it’s really nice to gather all these ideas in one place so I can remember and take notes while I’m reading.
I never understood how I’m supposed to rate for language learning. Would 1 star mean I learned nothing and 5 that I learned a lot? I just don’t get how it’s supposed to work. Don’t we learn from everything we read anyway?
I do try to include difficulty info in my reviews, but I’m never even sure that what was easy or difficult for me would be easy or difficult for everyone. For example people tend to say that dialogue is easier, but I often find it harder to parse than descriptive sentences (audiobooks help a lot with dialogue, as you can tell a lot by the tone of voice, but still). Dialogue for me just means less text on the page, not lower difficulty. Similarly, unusual vocabulary doesn’t faze me as much as others, because I read digitally and use the dictionary liberally. If I read on paper it would be entirely different of course. So many factors.
I view it from a broad appeal perspective. If a book is a lot of archaic language I don’t necessarily consider it good for general learning. Or if it’s a shounen manga with a bunch of punks speaking weirdly it’s not necessarily good either. Certainly very hand-wavy and subjective though.
As someone who writes really bad reviews:
Personally, I write whatever pops into my head and hope it’s helpful.
I feel like, if something is bothering me, it’s worth noting.
If I enjoyed something in particular, it’s worth noting.
If a book made me cry, it’s worth noting.
In theory, I know what a good review looks like, but I can’t do it. I don’t know what grammar is studied at what level. I don’t know if certain vocabulary is specific to a certain level or even time period. I don’t know about literary styles in German or English - let alone literary styles in Japanese literature.
There’s lots to consider, and I struggle with this too. For example, I’ve gotten a lot of great vocab from Sword Art Online books, but there’s also a lot of fantasy MMO vocab (some of it only specific to SAO) that’s not really useful elsewhere. Otoh I find the writing style very straightforward for its level, even when it’s abstract internal monologue. So I gave it a 4.
Most of the time I rate 4 or 5, but one book 彼女も彼女 I gave a 3, bc I found the dialogue disparately hard to parse, and often couldn’t tell who was speaking. (Interestingly the other 3 people who rated its Language Learning gave it 4 or 5 stars)
Something like ロード・エルメロイII I would give a 3. I found a lot of the sentences very dense, and there’s a lot of really abstract, academic, magic vocabulary that’s only useful for that series (moreso than other Fate-related manga). The subset of people that will help is kinda small.
This gives the reader an idea of relative difficulty, but also a way to gauge where I’m coming from, and whether my perception is reliable for them. It also gives an idea of other titles they might be interested in.
I don’t think your reviews are bad - those are useful things, aren’t they? We tend to have opposing views on books often enough but over time I’m figuring out which of the things you hate are the things I love (ex: おいしいごはん type characters) and which types of things we overlap on (告白) so I personally like the detail
That’s like how I didn’t think ア、秋 | L35 was that difficult compared to some of the harder books I’ve read, but that was me treating it as the 5 page short story it is. If I had to read 200+ pages of that it probably would have been more difficult than anything else I’d read.
I think it’s best to keep reviews as simple and direct as possible.
Did you think the book was worth reading? Why, or why not?
How hard did you think the book was, and what specific aspects of it made it hard (or easy) for you read?
A synopsis is a nice bonus, because I too am far too lazy to Google book jacket descriptions. But certainly not necessary.
That’s it. I think that plus honesty and a non-judgemental attitude are all you need to write a good review that is useful to others.
How much synopsis is too much/too little?
About two sentences is good enough:
The first sentence sets up the protagonist and/or settings’s starting situation (and hints at why you should care about said protagonist/setting by describing what’s unique, likable, relatable, or intriguing about them).
The second sentence introduces the first revelation, upheaval, or conflict that occurs (or is about to occur) to make the protagonist or setting’s situation more interesting and more difficult than it was before.
The vast majority of popular fiction can be summarized in this way; the more highbrow/literary a book is, however, the more it resists being forced into that formula. Still, it’s a good place to start.
The key to remember is that the synopsis’s purpose is to advertise what makes this book worth reading. Is it the lovable protagonist? The doki-doki romance? The unsolvable locked-room mystery? The magical and exotic setting of a fantasy world? That’s what the synopsis needs to talk about. The rest of your review discusses whether or not the book delivers on what the synopsis promises.
What counts as a spoiler?
If it’s not in your two sentence synopsis, it’s probably a spoiler.
Based on this if it is in your two sentence synopsis it’s probably a spoiler.
Personally I’m very spoiler-averse. I’d rather a review focus on the style and feel of a book than the synopsis (I can read that on Amazon if I want). But if there is a synopsis, anything not in the Amazon blurb better be behind spoiler tags. I get that sometimes it’s necessary to mention those first revelations to convince people it’s worth reading, but personally I want to be convinced without that information so I can enjoy the early reveal or plot twist. Like blurbs (in summary or reviews) that reveal the twist at the end of the first chapter of がっこうぐらし! (series) | L26 or 【推しの子】 (series) | L30 (to name two examples) just takes away from the experience. Hence why I feel stuff like that should be behind spoiler tags if included.