How to Write Book Reviews

Since I haven’t finished either of the two books that I’m currently reading, I thought I’d step back and put together my thoughts on how to go about writing book reviews.

The first part of this is deciding which books to review. I read mostly science fiction and fantasy, so that is what I feel most comfortable reviewing. I do read in other genres and review some of those books, but in many cases, I’m not the right audience for those types of stories. My reviews may be less helpful to potential readers than a review by someone who actively reads in the genre. So generally pick a genre that you like and are familiar with.

Finding Books for Review

Once you decide more generally what to review, you also need to have books to read. I purchase a lot of them myself, but as you get more experience doing reviews, you may be able to sign up for a site like Net Galley, or get on lists from publishers where you will be sent advance copies. I’ve picked up bags of books at conventions – mostly World Fantasy Con or New York Comic-Con. Sometimes a few minutes spent chatting with a vendor will result in books for you! I also receive email offers for books to review, as well as having friends who will ask me to review their books. I’m never out of books to read!

Books

All that being said, if you accept a book for review, you should really try to read it and review it. Net Galley tracks your percentage of books reviewed and shows it directly on your profile. This also relates to whether you choose to write negative reviews. Different book review sites will generally have a policy about this. If you’re reviewing on your own blog or web site, then you need to decide this for yourself. If you aren’t going to write negative reviews, then it’s okay not to post your comments on a book that you didn’t like.

A Bit on Negative Reviews

I will write negative reviews, but when I do, it’s important for me to explain why I didn’t like the book. It shouldn’t be an attack on the author, but a professional and well thought out critique. Instead of:

This author’s ideas about space travel are stupid and I thought the plot was boring.

A different way of writing this could be:

The explanation of the faster-than-light travel was unbelievable to me, and the plot lacked tension because I never believed that the characters cared about their goal.

An example from a review that I published:

The plot never went anywhere either, and this may be a personal tic of mine. I prefer a plot-driven story, or at least a character-driven one in which the plot has some motion. I kept waiting for the antagonist or some conflict to appear. There were some interesting revelations near the end of the book, but their impact was minimal to me because I had stopped caring by that point.

What to Include

I don’t think that there is only one way to write a book review. I’m just going to explain my process here. You can write longer or shorter reviews that I do. You can go into greater detail about the plot or delve into symbolism and themes. Here is what I try to include:

  • Set the scene: I list the title, author, and any relevant associations, such as whether this book is part of a series, has been made into a television series or movie, or my history with the author’s other books. If I listened to the book as an audiobook, I usually make note of that because I find that the experience can be a bit different.
  • Picture of the cover: I put a picture of the book cover somewhere near the top.
  • Plot summary: I give the basics as far as genre, main character, and the conflict. Try to avoid spoilers. For a later book in a series, this can be tough, so give a warning if this is the case. The length of my plot summary will vary based on the size of the book and the number of point-of-view characters.
  • Likes/dislikes: At the end of my review, I’ll put some of my personal thoughts about the book. What was my favorite aspect? What was I most excited about? Was there an aspect of the setting or the magic that I found particularly unique? You can compare the book you’re reviewing to other books in the same genre.

That’s about it! In general, think about why you’re writing a review. For myself, I’m trying to write something that will help prospective readers decide if this book is something they’d like.

Have you thought about writing book reviews? Do you run an active book blog? Tell me what and where you review in the comments!

Book Review – Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is Book 2 in the All Souls Trilogy and is one of the books that I recently picked up at New York Comic-Con about 2 months ago. I had read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, back in the beginning of 2015, but with the recent release of the television show based on this series, I wanted to get back to the books.

First of all, I read the opening pages and realized that I had no memory of how the first book ended. I found some plot summaries online and was quickly up to speed. With the way that this book begins, it’s going to be impossible to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the first book, read on at your own risk.

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night is set in Elizabethan England (and other parts of Europe). At the end of A Discovery of Witches, Diana Bishop and her new husband and vampire Matthew Clairmont must flee the modern world. Diana needs time to find a teacher who can help unlock her powers of witchcraft, and their relationship is forbidden by powerful creatures who are trying to hunt them down.

One thing that Diana does know is that she is a Timespinner–a witch who can travel through time. She takes herself and Matthew into the past in an attempt to avoid their enemies, find herself a teacher, and to search for the mysterious alchemical book that started it all: Ashmole 782.

Once they arrive, Diana and Matthew meet with his friends from that time. This turns out to be a blend of historical figures and a few imagined characters. While they attempt to blend in at first, it is quickly apparent that they must divulge their secrets to this group. While it is safe for Matthew’s friends to know that version of the vampire is from the future, he must go on playing his established roles in Elizabethan society.

Diana’s relationship with Matthew meets several challenges as she learns about the secrets he has been hiding. In fact, much of this book’s secondary plot revolves around the growing relationship between the witch and the vampire. She must also deal with trying to figure out Elizabethan dress, manners, and etiquette. Danger also follows Diana, with historical witch trials taking place in nearby Scotland and a constant suspicion of anyone new or unusual.

The story takes them to other parts of Europe, and the details from this time period felt very accurate to me. That only makes sense, because the author is a historian who studies and teaches European history and the history of science at the University of Southern California. This book was a lot of fun to read, and has several sections that deal with different aspects of the story. The overarching plot to find a teacher for Diana and search for Ashmole 782 is often in the background, but I don’t think that the book suffered for this, as the other events were entertaining on their own.

I’m hoping to get to book 3 in another couple of weeks and then watch the television show. Have you seen any of that yet? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Find my other book reviews here


Book Review – Dragon’s Code

I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books sometime in the mid-1980s.* These were some of the first science fiction books that I had read after first becoming enthralled with the genre by Heinlein, Asimov, and Tolkien. I believe that I found the first few Pern novels on my parents’ bookshelves. I re-read my Dragonrider books (and The Lord of the Rings) because I wasn’t aware that there were other books with dragons and fantastical places out there. My library kept the science fiction and fantasy section in the adult area of the library, so I hadn’t discovered this on my own yet.

With every trip to a book store, I asked for the next Dragonrider book, gradually collecting the entire series. By the time that All the Weyrs of Pern was released in 1991, these were my favorite books, and Anne McCaffrey my favorite author.

I read through everything else that McCaffrey had written, with her Crystal Singer books and Planet Pirates series some of my other favorites. After reading All the Weyrs of Pern, I think I read maybe two more of the Dragonrider books. But after the way that Weyrs ended, the books were no longer the same to me. Weyrs had ended the series in a satisfying way as far as I was concerned.

I have been hesitant to delve back into any books set in Pern since then, but when I see a book offered on Net Galley, sometimes I can’t resist requesting it. Dragon’s Code is written by Anne McCaffrey’s daughter Gigi and is set in the same time period as the original six Dragonrider books.

DragonsCode

More specifically, this book is told from the point-of-view of journeyman harper Piemur, a favorite secondary character, and is set alongside the events in The White Dragon. As I read Dragon’s Code, many details of the books resurfaced in my memories. I think that this would not be the best entry point to the series, but anyone not familiar with Pern could still read it and follow most of the story.

Piemur has lost his childhood soprano voice, and with that, a portion of his identity and confidence. Harpers in Pern do more that provide music and entertainment, however, and Piemur is sent to the Southern Continent to spy on the exiled Oldtimers, a group of dragonriders who have clashed with the rest of their people. Piemur knows that a few of the Oldtimers are up to no good, but he can’t get close enough to figure it all out.

As Piemur reports his suspicions, we get to see some old favorites once more: Masterharper Robinton and Menolly, in particular. This book is more about Piemur’s journey to regain his self-worth than it is the details of the plot that unfolds in The White Dragon. Readers of the other books will know what has taken place, and in the scope of Dragon’s Code, that crisis is over fairly fast. The plot meanders, with some exciting action segments, obligatory Threadfall and dragons, and a sentimental conclusion that is appropriate for this type of story being told.

Despite my reservations about returning to Pern, I truly enjoyed this book. I don’t think that it will be for everyone, but I feel that Gigi McCaffrey has done her mother’s legacy proud with this one.

* I remember having Dragonsdawn in hardcover, which was published in 1988, so I must have read Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon, and the Harper Hall Trilogy  (and probably Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern) all before that time.


Book Review – A Plague of Giants

I’m nearly caught up with my backlog of reviews, but I’ve noticed that I seem to be developing a bad habit where I read the first book in a series and then move on to a different author and series before finishing the one I had just started. In the next few months, I’m going to make an effort to go back to finish some series that I’ve started so you’ll see a lot of book 2 and book 3’s here. But first… another new series:

I recently read the first book in a new series by Kevin Hearne that I had received as an advance copy at New York Comic-Con in 2017. Yep, 2017, that’s how far behind I am in the to-be-read pile.

Plague of Giants Cover

A Plague of Giants is Book 1 of the Seven Kennings series and takes us to a fantastic realm filled with humanoid races, each having an associated kenning, or magical affinity to something in the natural world – fire, water, air, earth, or plants. At the opening of the novel, only five kennings are known, and I think that the search for other kennings will be part of the ongoing story.

This book is several tales woven into one, and is told as a story within a story. The bard Fintan uses his kenning to take the form of each important character in the development of a recent war and tells their story to the city of Pelemyn. While the people there know how their own city has managed in the war, Fintan entertains them with details from other parts of the world. At the same time, he instigates some political drama, with all of this part of the book being told by a historian sent to record the bard’s tale.

Fintan’s story follows several point-of-view characters through a time when two separate catastrophes strike. The action begins when Tallynd du Böll, a tidal mariner from Pelemyn, defends the city from an approaching fleet of strange ships. Her kenning gives her the ability to breathe underwater, swim at incredible speeds, and manipulate water. Tallynd detects an invading army of bizarre giants approaching the city, and they are clearly aggressive.

The tidal mariner surges into action to defend the city, using water to swamp the ships and drown the giants. She manages to single-handedly defeat most of the enemy, but at a cost. When a kenning is used to perform great feats, it ages the user relative to the power exerted.

The invasion of the Bone giants is half of the book’s focus, alternating with a second group of troublesome giants, the Hathrim.

The giants of the Hathrim clan live on the slopes of an active volcano and have long known that their days of safety are going to come to an end. Their part of the story opens when the volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate. The Hathrim had prepared for this eventuality and managed to get many of their people and supplies loaded on their famous glass boats in time to escape.

However, instead of seeking refuge with another clan of giants, their leader, Gorin Mogen, dares to lay claim to a piece of land along the southern edge of Ghurana Nent. The Nentians see through the giants’ claims that they are only there temporarily, but since the Nentians lack a kenning, they are forced to use political and unaugmented military strength against the fire-wielding Hathrim.

As the plot unfolds, Fintan relates the stories of numerous point-of-view characters, and there is truly no singular protagonist in the book.

The plot came to a more satisfying conclusion that I would normally expect from the first book in a series. One main plot thread is concluded while hinting at further problems from that quarter. However, many lesser political intrigues are just emerging, so I expect that aspect to play a greater role in upcoming volumes.

I had fun reading this book and the world and magic was easy to understand. I read an advance-copy which did not include the map, but I found one on the author’s website to reference. I like to have a visual reference for where different nations are located in regard to each other. Looking at maps also helps me to remember place names at the outset of a book.

I’m not sure when the next book in the Seven Kennings series will be out, but I’ll be sure to pick it up.


Graphic Novel Review – Monstress Volume 1 (Awakening)

I picked this graphic novel up at New York Comic-Con last year (2017) and only got around to reading it now. Fortunately, I was able to get the second volume at this year’s event, because this was a beautiful, albeit dark and violent, book. Monstress Volume 1 – Awakening is written by Marjorie Liu with artwork by Sana Takeda.

Monstress 1

I was first interested in this graphic novel because I loved the artwork. The mixture of Egyptian and steampunk themes on the cover and opening pages was enough to draw me in. When the book added demons, cats, and a dark and compelling protagonist, I was hooked.

Monstress tells the story of Maika Halfwolf and initially switches between glimpses of her past and her current scheme to infiltrate the stronghold of the human witches who are experimenting upon the Arcanics (her people). Maika doesn’t remember much of her past, having mysteriously survived the catacysmic end of a great battle between humans and the Arcanics.

As the plot unfolds, I was immediately sympathetic toward Maika because of her mistreatment at the hands of the humans, and the nature of their cruel experiments. When Maika discovers herself to be inhabited by a demon, she gets a pass for what she is forced to do to survive because she is not wholly in control of her actions. She both uses the demon against her enemies, and fights against it, in her journey to find revenge against the humans and relearn her past.

There are definitely some dark moments in this story, ranging from the murder of children to questions about cannibalism. However, cats feature prominently and bring some levity to the rest of the book.

While Monstress definitely isn’t for everyone, I enjoyed it and will be reading Volume 2 in the next few months.


Book Review – How He-Man Mastered the Universe

This was a bit of an unusual read that I picked up through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The book had actually been sitting on my Kindle for quite a while, but I’m trying to do better to catch up on my backlog of reading, so I picked it to read in the week leading up to New York Comic-Con.

HeManCover

I grew up watching the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, so I thought that I might like How He-Man Mastered the Universe by Brian C. Baer, and I was certainly familiar enough with the cartoons and toys, even if I could no longer remember the names of every single character. This book was fun to read, but is probably only of interest to fans of the television show or toys, or to people who like to learn about film history, as a good portion of the book discusses the making of the 1987 movie, Masters of the Universe.

The first section of this non-fiction book was a little slow and repetitive, but I did learn that He-Man was a toy (with mini-comics) before he was a cartoon. Toy company Mattel developed the He-Man line of action figures in response to the success of the Star Wars toys by rival company Kenner. When the He-Man toys were a success, the television show was created and brought directly to local television networks at a time when Saturday morning cartoons were just starting up.

The book details several key episodes of the cartoon before delving into the history of the Masters of the Universe movie, produced by the notorious Cannon Films. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book, and I wish I had had time to go back to watch the movie recently, now that I know much more about how the casting, story development, and special effects were all created under the shadow of a failing production company.

HeManMovie

After the movie failed in the box office, a few additional cartoon spin-offs were released, but none of these ever achieved the same level of pop culture success as the original cartoon and toys. Overall, this was a reasonably fun non-fiction book to read, but the subject matter may limit its appeal to fans of He-Man.

 

Book Review – The Dreaming Void

I listened to the audiobook version of The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton. I had formerly listened to a lot more audiobooks because my commute was long, but with a job change, I didn’t have to drive nearly as much, so my audiobook listening sort of fell by the wayside. I’m making a focused effort to get back to listening, even when I don’t have huge chunks of time for it now.

I had read the author’s earlier series: Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained (also as audiobooks), and really liked the tale of the Starflyer War. I hadn’t realized that the Void Trilogy was set in the future of the same world.

Dreaming Void

While The Dreaming Void takes place 1,500 years after the Starflyer War, it isn’t apparent right at the outset. This book jumps forward in time and features different characters (at least at the beginning). The main idea in this book is that there is a mysterious Void which is both a danger and a mystery to civilization. Inigo is a researcher who studies the Void, but in the process begins to dream about people within this alternate universe. His dreams are broadcast across the galaxy, and he develops an almost religious following.

Humans within the Void have telepathic and telekinetic powers, and Inigo’s followers  (The Living Dream movement) have planned a pilgrimage to enter the Void. However, no one knows how to enter the Void, as anyone who has tried, has died in the process. In fact, some attempts to interact with the Void have triggered a devourment phase in which the Void spreads and destroys whatever it touches.

At the outset of the main story, Inigo has hidden himself away from civilization and the pilgrimage awaits the direction of a prophesied and unknown Second Dreamer who will lead his followers safely into the paradise of the Void.

The book follows several main point-of-view characters, and it took me a little while to sort them all out. As the story develops, some characters from the author’s earlier series reappear, having been re-lifed into new bodies.

One of my favorite story threads in this book follows Eddiard, a young man living within the Void, and one of the subjects of Inigo’s dreams. He explores his surprisingly strong telepathic/telekinetic powers, only to have tragedy destroy his home. He is a sympathetic character who still manages to make some poor choices, and his exploration of the world within the Void helps the reader explore it as well.

I have to say that I liked the initial premise in Pandora’s Star better and it made for an easier read at the beginning, compared to these books. Once I realized that Eddiard lived within the Void, I started to understand why the members of Living Dream were launching a pilgrimage, better tying the story together.

It was also a bit difficult to keep the different political agendas straight, but actually one main character doesn’t even know who he works for. His memory has been wiped to allow him to do his job better, and I assume that I’ll discover who is behind his actions later.

I think that it would have helped to have read this right after the Starflyer War books. I would have remembered more of the prior relationships between the characters if the earlier novels were more fresh in my mind. Otherwise, I enjoyed this book and have already started the next one in the series.

Graphic Novel Review – The Walking Dead , Vol. 2 – Miles Behind Us

The second volume of The Walking Dead has our characters traveling more than in the first one. Resources are scarce and they believe that they can find somewhere better and safer to live, hoping that the zombies are thinning out.

Walking Dead 2 Cover

Rick leads his band as they search for supplies and safety. Of course, the illusion of safety never lasts long, and we see more people fall to the zombies. Mild spoilers to follow.

I think that the best part of Volume 2 is that it looks at how the zombies are viewed by people other than Rick’s gang. They encounter Herschel, a retired veterinarian, who has been keeping his former-son-now-zombie confined in a barn in the hopes that someone can find a cure for the zombie plague, rather than just assuming that the people who succumbed to it are truly dead.

Of course, Herschel’s plan doesn’t go well, and in the end they all find themselves fighting for their lives again Herschel’s son and his other captive zombies, a bit of an I-told-you-so moment from Rick. However, as a veterinarian myself, I can empathize with Herschel’s take on things. Are the zombies people to be remembered and healed, or are they monsters that must be killed? We want to heal or fix injuries and illness, and if it just takes time and a better understanding to get to that point, then why not study the disease and try to find a cure? On the other side of the debate, part of the job as a veterinarian is to euthanize an animal when it is suffering. I see many pet owners who delay that decision when the end is inevitable. So if I can draw a parallel between that and Herschel’s zombies, I wonder if he would have considered his son’s suffering at some point?

The ending of this volume did not have the same shocking impact as Volume 1, but I’m interested enough in the series to keep reading. I just picked up Volume 3, 4, and 5 at New York Comic-Con 2 weeks ago.

Book Review – Foundryside

Foundryside is the first book in a new fantasy series by Robert Jackson Bennett. The author is best known for his Divine Cities Trilogy (City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles) which was recently nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Series.

Foundryside RD4 clean flat

In his newest release, Bennett embarks upon an ambitious fantasy series that follows a street smart thief caught up in the schemes of the Merchant Houses in the city of Tevanne. The world in Foundryside features a fantasy setting with a few elements that feel like steampunk, even though the devices are powered by magic rather than steam. Carriages are horseless, lights hover in the streets, and weapons are enchanted to have greater speed or to explode. All of the magic in the story is controlled by scrivings, symbols carved into objects that tell them how to circumvent the laws of nature. These scrivings are writing in the language of the lost civilization of the Hierophants, and the Merchant Houses are always searching for new symbols.

The four Merchant Houses in Tevanne are powerful family-owned miniature cities with their own vast economies. Each house is physically walled off from the rest of the city, where law enforcement is unknown and poverty is widespread. The miraculous devices powered by scrivings are rare outside of the Merchant Houses, but there is always a black market for valuables.

Sancia Grado is a thief from Foundryside, one of the poorest sections of Tevanne. However, she has a unique ability to sense the physical nature of anything she touches. This lets her work as a successful thief, but is also a curse because she has to keep most of her skin covered to avoid being overwhelmed. Sancia’s power comes from a scrived plate in her head, and she dreams of the day that she can afford to have it removed. When she takes a job to steal something from a safe at the waterfront, Sancia never imagines that her plans will go so far awry. She breaks into the safe and takes a sealed box, but inadvertently sets the entire waterfront on fire, attracting the attention of Gregor Dandolo, self-appointed head of the new city watch.

After Sancia escapes the scene, she decides to open the box to find an artifact with unusual powers. She decides to deliver the stolen goods at the prearranged location, but nearly falls into a trap. Whoever set the trap has powers and devices that Sancia’s never seen before, and seems determined to see her dead.

The plot spins into a complicated chase from there, and Sancia tries to figure out who is her enemy and who might be her friend. The tension never slows for very long, and as more details about the stolen artifact emerge, the stakes get higher. Foundryside was an action-filled tale that drew me in with both the characters and the plot. The magic of scriving was unique and fascinating, although I thought that it was used in a few ways that felt far-fetched to me by the ending.

Without giving any spoilers away, I have to say that the ending of the book did a nice job in resolving the current dilemma while opening up a larger story. Even though Foundryside is the first book in a series, you can read it without being left with a cliffhanger at the end.

Disclaimer: I received this book through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season is the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s newest series, The Broken Earth. I have read all of her previous novels, and like her other work, The Fifth Season brings a truly unique world to life. The world-building is fascinating, but for some readers, may be confusing in that the author never dumps any long explanatory passages into the story. This requires the reader to piece the information together while suspending many questions, but everything you need to know is in there. The book also contains a glossary at the back for many of the terms.

Fifth Season Cover

Once the world of The Fifth Season starts to become clear, it is one of the most bizarre and mesmerizing settings I have ever encountered. Civilization flourishes between Fifth Seasons, each one a devastating volcanic winter in a world plagued by frequent seismic and geologic upheaval. During a Season, anarchy reigns, and only those who follow the ancient stonelore and are willing to take extreme measures to defend their homes and supplies survive. The people who live in this land are not quite human, and other non-human denizens, mysterious obelisks, and fragments from lost civilizations lurk across the surface and below.

A few people are born with the ability to sense and manipulate the earth, giving them a sort of geology-magic. Of course, this power comes with a price, and these orogenes are feared because they can freeze and destroy anything or anyone around them if they lose control. If they choose to, they could trigger earthquakes or worse. Set in place to control the orogenes are the Guardians, with their own set of strange powers. The book brings up the question of who is really in control – the orogenes, the Guardians, the Emperor, or someone or something else, and even the characters in play don’t know the answer.

The story is told through three different point-of-view characters. As the plot emerges, it becomes clear that each thread of the story is set at a different time. Essun is an orogene in hiding, having somehow escaped her Guardian. When a massive quake hits, she returns home to discover that her husband has murdered their son and disappeared with their daughter. Essun is determined to track down and kill her husband before he can hurt their daughter.

Damaya is a child who has just exhibited her orogene powers for the first time. In small villages, these children are often killed out of fear, superstition, or prejudice. Fortunately, Damaya’s parents have sent for help, and a Guardian arrives to take charge of her. Damaya trains in the Fulcrum to learn how to control her orogeny, but delves too deeply into its secrets.

Syenite is a trained orogene of the Fulcrum and is sent on a mission with the not-quite-sane Alabaster, a ten-ringed orogene who is supposed to mentor her, as well as father a child with her. Everything in their lives is controlled by the Fulcrum, but Syenite soon learns that Alabaster has been quietly subverting that control whenever he can.

One strange aspect of The Fifth Season is that it lacks an antagonist. While each character encounters physical obstacles or people who may post a danger or serve to slow down their progress, there is never a true enemy. In many ways, the greatest threat to all of them is the volatile earth itself. Even without an antagonist, the plot works well and remains engaging until the end.

The conclusion of the book was abrupt, and I felt like I was left hanging and was a little uncertain about what I was supposed to infer from one character’s revelation. The Fifth Season is only the first book in the series, so I hope that my questions are answered in the next volume.

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