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 – 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 – 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.

 

New York Comic-Con 2018

 

I’m finally recovered from my days spent attending New York Comic-Con this year, so I thought I’d write a quick recap.

Unlike last year, I only had tickets for Friday and Sunday, and ended up working on Saturday, so I missed a couple of panels and guests that I would have liked to see. I still had a great time with just two days!

Exploring on Friday

So for Friday, I only had two panels that I was interested in, and those were both late in the day. My train getting in to the city was delayed, but I wasn’t in a hurry. When I did get over to the Javits Center, I headed to the show floor first to scope out the book publishers. That didn’t take me long because they’re in the same general area every year. I found out who was going to be signing books and made decisions about which ones I’d be back for.

Then I explored the floor in a random pattern. Much of what is on display at Comic-Con is the same from year to year. In the past I had methodically walked up and down every aisle. This time, I just went in whatever direction interested me. I looked at some graphic novels from Stephen King (Gunslinger), Game of Thrones collectibles, superhero art work, porg toys, and some fun socks. In the end, I only bought three more of The Walking Dead collections on that round through the hall.

Crowd

Next up was a visit to Artist’s Alley. This location shifted again this year, and was in a much better place than last year: on the lowest level where they formerly had autographs and photo ops. This space allowed wider aisles to accommodate the crowds. I wandered through half of the aisles, met up with a friend, and then bought another comic I had had my eye on.

I headed out for a quick lunch, and for Friday, at least, the lines weren’t bad at all in the cafeteria. I even found a seat with a table! After that, I bounced back and forth between book signings, wandering, and people watching.

DragonballZ

The first book I picked up at a signing was Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel, which is the first in a series. Second for the day was The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, also the first in a series. I made a pretty good circuit through the show floor in between these signings, and then headed to my first panel.

Day 1 of Panels

Art & Arcana: The Visual History of Dungeons & Dragons sounded interesting, but it was held in a small room where I couldn’t get a seat near the front. This was a promotion for an upcoming book, but I couldn’t see most of what they had on screen, so I was disappointed.

I ended up in another panel because I was in line early for A Discovery of Witches. This one was for Tell Me a Story, a new television show coming out soon on CBS All Access. This show takes three classic fairy tales and uses the ideas in those to weave a story set in our era in New York City. The panel consisted of a viewing of a short clip from the show, then a discussion with the cast. From the little that they were willing to reveal, this fairy tale won’t have a happy ending.

TellMeAStory

The next panel for me was for A Discovery of Witches. This is the name of the first book in the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, and also a new television series. I’ve read the first book in the series and enjoyed it, but haven’t had time to get to the rest of it. Nevertheless, I’ve had my eye on the show since I first heard about it.

This panel was a viewing of the first episode of the show, followed by a brief question and answer session with the author. I liked the characters in the show and the details of the book instantly started to come back to me as I watched. It was a little slow to get started, but I was interested enough in the series that I wanted more. The series has already premiered in the UK, and will be available in the U.S. in January on both Sundance Now and Shudder.

Day 2 – More Panels and Shopping

I made it back to the Javits Center on Sunday for the rest of my Comic-Con excursion. I planned on two panels and a bit more shopping. I looked at book signings again, but no one that I was interested in had a signing at a time I was available.

Spidey

My day started out with more time in Artist’s Alley. Then I met a friend for a photo op before heading to my first panel: America’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. This panel was intended to feature this year’s volume of the America’s Best series for speculative fiction. Guest authors on the panel included Carmen Maria Machado, Charlie Jane Anders, and Maria Dahvana Headley. Guest editor N. K. Jemisin and series editor John Joseph Adams rounded out the group.

Moderator Matt Kressel led the panel in a discussion of the process of choosing the stories for the anthology, the specific stories by the authors in attendance, and general questions about writing. I haven’t been reading many short stories lately, but I may need to check out this book.

The last panel that I attended was the Science or Fiction panel. This was advertised as a discussion of sci-fi movies, focusing on which aspects were science-based, and which were pure fiction. The guests on the panel included the members of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, as well as Bill Nye (the Science Guy).

I had seen Bill Nye last year, so I wasn’t desperate to get into this panel to see him specifically, but I was interested in the subject. Apparently everyone else also was, and it was a packed room. I was one of the last people to make it in!

Delorean

It turns out that the podcast regularly discusses science in popular media, and they rate movies on a system based around the film Prometheus. While many people liked this movie, I thought that it was so bad that I couldn’t even finish watching it. I agreed wholeheartedly with their system of ratings.

Several movies were mentioned in this panel: Gravity, The Martian, 2001, Interstellar, Armageddon, Star Wars, and Arrival. After the panel, I was able to pick up a copy of the panel’s new book, and had it autographed by all of them.

Overall, I felt like I was able to see most of Comic-Con this year, even though I only had tickets for two days. It helped that I was already familiar with how the even was run. I didn’t take as many cosplay photos this year, and I probably bought more books than I needed. But I’ll be back again next time.

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?

NYCC 2017 – Day 3 (Saturday)

Whew, day 3 went fast! I felt better today, despite two previous days of riding the train, walking to the Javits Center, and exploring Comic-Con while carrying a bag of camera stuff, comics, and books.

artist alley

Today I had two must-see panels: The Shannara Chronicles and Star Trek: Discovery. I made sure to get in line in plenty of time for Shannara, which meant that I also saw the preceding panel: The Tick.

I used to watch The Tick animated show years ago, so I wasn’t unhappy to get to see that panel, even though I was not familiar with the television show. All the panels were fun and entertaining again today. I was able to get a sneak peek of the upcoming seasons/episodes for all of them.

shannara.jpg

I wish that I had had a chance to watch more of Star Trek: Discovery before attending that panel, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I just didn’t get to it. Despite that, the panel was fun, and Michelle Yeoh made a surprise appearance at the end, sneaking in as an attendee who was there to ask a question.

Of course I again spent some time wandering through the main exhibit hall and Artist’s Alley. To finish out the day, I went to The Museum of the Moon – an exhibit outside of the official Comic-Con activities. This was a promotion for Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis, but was not far from Javits. The museum features “props” from the book, such as a space suit, a collection of contraband, and Gunk – a flavored algae product that the poorer inhabitants of Artemis must eat. At the center of the exhibit was the moon. This was a 3-dimensional representation of our moon, made of high-resolution digital images of the surface, and incorporating the elevations on the surface.

the moon

There’s one more day to go, and I’m through. That’s okay though. I’m not sure my feet can handle much more.

A Brief Review – Star Trek: Beyond

I missed seeing Star Trek: Beyond in the theater, but was able to watch the latest installation of the franchise a week ago. While I’ve never been a dedicated Trek fan, I do appreciate the themes in Gene Roddenberry’s creation and I make an effort to keep up with the latest releases. (One day I’ll go back to watch all of the original series and that Next Generation thingy).

beyond-poster

I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive about this film because I hadn’t really enjoyed the previous one – Into Darkness. To me, you can’t remake (reboot?) The Wrath of Khan. I also think that I’m one of the few people who doesn’t fawn over Benedict Cumberbatch in everything that he appears. I don’t think he’s terrible, just overrated, so seeing him as Khan was odd.

The newest movie picks up a few years after the events of Into Darkness, with the Enterprise returning to its roots, exploring distant space. The crew earns a break from the monotony of their duties, with a trip to the new Starbase Yorktown. An escape pod arrives at the Starbase, bringing a strange alien with a tale of distress. Kalara relates how she fled when her ship was captured in a nearby planetary system in a region of an unexplored nebula. The Enterprise is sent to investigate, but of course this doesn’t go well, and they fly into a pretty obvious trap.

The rest of the movie was entertaining and fun, and I enjoyed the new characters. I may even have to cosplay Jaylah if I can figure out the prosthetic makeup. A few plot holes existed, but none of those bothered me too much. The film included a brief reference to Leonard Nimoy’s passing, which blended tastefully into the story.

What did YOU think of the movie? I have to say that when the alien ship/conglomerate first appeared, I was reminded of the Shadows from Babylon 5. Did anyone else have that reaction?

Star Trek: Beyond releases on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 1.

I have some random links for everyone today!

 

Here is an article on tor.com discussing the recent 2015 Eisner awards and how comics are becoming more diverse in many ways.

I have several book reviews that went up over on Book Spot Central in the last few months. In case you missed them over there, they are:

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times (graphic novel) by Andrew MacLean

Shattering the Ley by Joshua Palmatier

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Link

Looking for a Few Reviewers

Is anyone out there interested in becoming a book reviewer? I’m looking for a handful of new reviewers over at Book Spot Central for genre novels. The site covers mainly fantasy and science fiction, but books with some mystery or romance elements are fine. You can also review graphic novels.

Benefits include the ability to get a Net Galley account where you can find e-book advance review copies of the latest books. If you may be interested, fill out the form below explaining why you want to write book reviews and a link to anything similar that you’ve written (or paste it into the other box if it isn’t available online).

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