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.

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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.

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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 – Artemis by Andy Weir

I had a chance to read an advance copy of Artemis, the new novel by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Like his earlier book, Artemis is set in the fairly near future and is written with an emphasis on getting the hard science right. Unlike The Martian, Artemis employs a larger cast which gives the protagonist a direct interactions with other characters.

artemis cover

The story follows Jasmine (Jazz) Basheera, a young woman who has lived on the moon base of Artemis for almost her entire life. After an incident with her father and law enforcement, she is on her own, working as a type of courier, transporting goods around the base. Jazz is innovative and smart and has also set up a smuggling operation to help net her some extra cash.

When an eccentric billionaire asks her to destroy important equipment in return for a fortune, Jazz cannot refuse. Of course, her caper does not go as planned and there is more to the billionaire’s plan than she was told. The plot accelerates from there as Jazz is hunted by a vicious enforcer while trying to escape discovery by officials on the moon. Her personal life is also a disaster, and all of these aspects come together in a fast-moving and unpredictable conclusion.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and I particularly appreciated the scientific rigor of the moon base and the elements vital to the plot. The opening was slightly slow to set the stage for me, and everything kept going right for Jazz for a bit too long. However, her sarcastic personality kept me reading, and once things go wrong for her, they went massively wrong.

The book is structured with short letters between Jazz and her childhood pen pal interspersed with the rest of the narrative. These weren’t very interesting at first, but became a clever way to explain some of Jazz’s personal history, and eventually became relevant to the plot.

While the ending wrapped up the caper nicely, I think that it was somewhat unbelievable as far as Jazz’s resolution goes. If you’ve read the book, let me know what you think in the comments, as I don’t want to put spoilers up here.

I also had a chance to visit the Museum of the Moon while I was at New York Comic-Con last month. This was a promotion put on by Audible for the audiobook release of Artemis. They had some props from the book on display which I’ll share below. The museum also featured a gigantic realistic moon by artist Juke Jerram.

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Jazz’s EVA suit

 

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Most of the inhabitants of Artemis eat Gunk.

 

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The Moon – created with NASA imagery.

Mini Book Reviews – October 2017

I haven’t had as much time as I would like to read and write reviews, so here’s just a quick attempt to summarize some of what I’ve read this past year:

Zero World by Jason M. Hough – part science fiction, part spy thriller, this book was a lot of fun. I particularly liked that I could never truly anticipate where the author was going with the plot. The twists were intriguing and the world set up by this novel holds a lot of potential for more. I can’t even describe it more without giving something away.

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold – a historical fantasy novel by one of my favorite authors. This story is set in Renaissance Italy and follows a young woman’s plight when she witnesses the murder of the local ruler. Using the bits of metal-magic that her father taught her, she has to rid the city of evil. I listened to this as an audiobook and enjoyed it, like most of Bujold’s work. However, it took me two tries to get through it, mostly because I was too busy to listen regularly.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog – I took a break from fiction to read this fascinating book about how people relate to animals in modern society. Even though I love the idea of non-fiction books, many are not written in a way that makes them easy to read. However, this book was engaging and allowed me to consider many new perspectives.

The Stand by Stephen King – It seems that this is considered one of King’s best works, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other books. I listened to this as an audiobook, and if I had read the physical book, I’m not sure that I would have made it through. I like the opening premise well enough: a deadly strain of flu escapes from a military research facility and kills most of the population. The spread of the flu and each character’s struggles as they deal with their friends and family dying, and the fall of most of civilization was a darkly fun read. However, most of the book then moves on to become a classic struggle of good versus evil with a lot of Christian mythologic overtones, which just isn’t very interesting to me. The antagonist is distant and never felt like enough of a threat, and the day-to-day activities of the characters dragged down the plot.

Codex Born (Magic Ex Libris #2) by Jim C. Hines – I started to read this series because I loved the concept of a class of magicians who could magically pull technology, monsters, swords, etc. from books. I listened to this as an audiobook and it went quickly. I found the narrator a little off-putting at first, but then grew used to him. The narrative sneaks in some backstory for one of the characters in small excerpts through the regular chapters. I couldn’t always follow the numerous rules about the magic, but the plot moved quickly and the characters are unique.

Here is what I’m currently reading:

Twelve Kings in Sharakai (The Song of the Shattered Sands #1) by Bradley P. Beaulieu – the first book in an epic fantasy series, set in a desert land with a well-developed mythos and world. I’m enjoying this one a lot so far, but I had to start from the beginning again when I had been too busy for several months.

Artemis by Andy Weir – I just snagged an ARC of this book by the author of The Martian at New York Comic-Con. It’s really good so far, and is the book I’ve been reaching for first this week.

Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6) by Naomi Novik – It’s been quite a while since I read any of this series, basically because there hadn’t been any more out yet at the time. It looks like Novik is up to nine books now, so I’m going to catch up. Dragons fight alongside human soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. This volume sees our main character and his dragon sent to Australia after committing some treasonous acts in the previous volume.

How about you? Have you read any good books lately?

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