About My Book Reviews

"Book Reviews" by Merodinoongaku
Diversity in book reviews is normal.

I blog about the books I’ve read because I like analyzing and discussing literature. Nobody pays me to do my reviews. I don’t ask for free copies of books to review. The currency I do my reviews in is time. If I have time to share my thoughts about what I’ve read, I will write a review. If not, I don’t. I review old books and new, according to what I’ve chosen to read. I take lots of notes while reading books so that I can give authors and readers specific feedback.

I used to break stories down by elements: setting, character, plot, action, mechanics, and style. The setting, character, and plot are self-explanatory. Action I included because it usually tells the reader whether the story is plot-driven or character driven. Mechanics included both grammar and composition technical knowledge. And style was based on my impressions of the author’s signature expression.

I would then “grade” books according to what they had or lacked in that list. My star ratings would be based on that. They still are to some extent. However, I no longer go into full analysis of elements, and I offer the star ratings only on sites where reviews are based on them. For my blog, I’ve decided the star rating is too arbitrary. And it doesn’t account for personal biases.

For example, I remember observing a G+ discussion between writers in which they were discussing how they rate the books they read, and one of them said he rarely ever gave five stars because five means it’s perfect … and nothing is perfect. I, however, have given many five star reviews because to me a five means it was everything I wanted it to be. I agree that no book is ever perfect, but I’m not seeking perfection. I’ve read books that were “perfectly written”, but I didn’t enjoy because they didn’t appeal to my personal tastes in literature. So, to me, “perfect” means finding the right book at the right time to suit my mood.

Everyone has their own definition of what makes a “perfect” book. This is why personal biases are important. I had an author friend who received a one-star review on her YA book because the reader didn’t like YA. The book was clearly labeled as YA, so it’s utterly puzzling why someone who dislikes YA would purchase, read, and review a YA book. Most of the reviews for that book were good, so people who enjoy YA obviously thought it was a good book. It’s not fair to the work or the author to not be aware of your own personal biases as a reader. And star reviews don’t allow the reader to explain to the author or other readers, unless there is also a comment box.

So, I’ve stopped offering stars in my blog posts, and instead I now emphasize comments. Instead of giving a full literary analysis from an academic pov, I now offer information that still gives the writer specific feedback, but includes my typical preferences or dislikes so that other readers may judge why they might agree or disagree with my opinions.

So, here’s how my reviews break down these days.

Introduction

Rather than attempting to creatively re-summarize what the author should have already summarized in the blurb, I copy and paste the author’s blurb from a site selling the book. This saves me time. (Yes, it’s lazy. But I did say time was the currency I deal in.)

Notes of Interest

This is where I am up front with the reader and author about why I bought or downloaded the book, what I expected or didn’t expect from it, and mention any personal biases I might have toward genre elements.  If I acknowledge that I didn’t like something because it’s not my preference, it means I’m trying to be fair to my rating for the author and give other readers the option to choose for themselves whether they might like or dislike it. For example, if I start reading an erotica/steampunk book, I might mention up front that I love steampunk, but hate erotica. The fact that I hate one element will definitely affect how I receive the book, but hopefully the elements I love will make the one I don’t tolerable. It also means I will not “deduct stars” because it’s erotica. It’s my own fault for purchasing a genre I dislike, not the author’s. If I disliked the book for that reason only, admitting that means readers who do enjoy the erotica genre might love it.

What I Liked About It

I try to look for strengths so that I can encourage the writer to do more of what I like. As an author I know how much it means to hear specific feedback on what I’m doing right because criticism is a dime a dozen. It also keeps the review from turning into a list of complaints, if there are weak areas.

If there are passages where the language was exceptional, I might share some of it. If there are passages that have deep analytical possibilities, I might delve into scholarly acknowledgement of it. But, as I said before, sometimes it’s just a matter of the right book at the right time that wins us over to it. If that is the case, I will still try to explain why.

What Could Have Made It Better For Me

Notice the “for me” part of that heading. That is a reminder that I have individual likes and dislikes just like every other person on this planet. Whatever I critique as a weakness doesn’t necessarily mean the book was badly written. It simply means that, for whatever reason, I would have liked the book more if something had been different. Anything that breaks my immersion is usually going to end up in this part of the review. Sometimes it’s typos. Other times it’s lack of interest, or situations that simply failed to suspend my disbelief.

Often, it does have to do with the quality of the writing. But sometimes I acknowledge that I’m simply disappointed that the lead female wasn’t better developed, or that I was frustrated with the ending, or that certain passages felt unrealistic. In such cases, I try to offer constructive criticism like an editor would. I am an editor, and I was an English teacher. So, it’s my job to be honest about what I feel could be fixed in order to improve the story. That’s the goal, right: making that story the best story that it can be. A good editor will not praise without good reason, but she will not be “negative” or “cruel”, either. Please recognize the difference between constructive criticism and negative criticism. It’s the difference between, “This is weak character development,” and “This character sucks!” M’kay? 🙂 I will never stoop to the latter.

In fact, if I don’t like a book — if I feel I can’t say anything good about it, if I recognize didn’t like it because the personal bias was too overpowering, or if I can’t give it more than two stars — I won’t review it. Instead, I might turn it into a blog post on how NOT to write. (I have done that before.) But even then, I won’t identify the book I’m critiquing because I don’t want to give publicity to something that is poorly written.

Recommendation

I finish my reviews with a brief summary of my opinions and comments. This will give my overall recommendation as to which kinds of readers might like the book, which types of readers might dislike the book, and maybe whether I will purchase more books from that author or series.

If I must give stars, three stars and a balanced range of comments means it was average — I liked it, but didn’t love it. Four stars and a majority of good comments means I really enjoyed it, but I would have suggested changes had I been the editor. And five stars with few to none suggestions for improvement means I wouldn’t change a thing … sometimes the content is enough to overlook even a couple of typos.

 

The bottom line is that what I offer here is one opinion — one among many. Take it with a grain of salt. Keep whatever you think you can use from the critique, and let go of what you can’t. In some cases, it’s just different tastes and you need to stick to your guns in what you’re writing or reading because not everyone will like it. That’s life. But in some cases, particularly if there is a pattern among the reviews that are average or lower, it means the author needs to work on improving the craft or product.

Authors, whining about critical reviews and attacking readers reflects badly on you as a professional. Readers, attacking authors who write books you don’t like or shaming other readers for liking something you don’t is shameful. But, not liking something everyone else seems to love, doesn’t mean you have to follow the crowd. There’s something for everyone in literature these days, so reviews are about helping authors and readers find each other. They are not opportunities to drag a creative work or the person who made it through the mud. Please be mindful of the purpose of a review the next time you write or read one. Please understand how I work with reviews if you receive one from me. 🙂

 

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Book Review: The Last Elf of Lanis

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Cover: Last Elf of Lanis by K. J. Hargan

Book: The Last Elf of Lanis

Series: Wealdland Stories, Book 1

Author: K. J. Hargan

Genres: fantasy, high fantasy, epic fantasy, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

Wealdland is being overrun by troops of vicious garonds, led by the 900 year old, evil lord of magic, Deifol Hroth. Humanity is on the brink of extinction.

Iounelle, last of the elves, embarks on a dark journey of revenge for the eradication of her race by the garond army.

One of the humans she rescues from the small village of Bittel knows how to find the sword of power, the Mattear Gram, the edge in the coming battle.

Now if they can only stay alive long enough to get it.

Notes of Interest:

This book feels like a cross between classic “Tolkienesque” fantasy and a Dungeons and Dragons campaign — to the point where even though the text said “garonds”, I was thinking “goblins”. The physical descriptions of the garonds are nothing like the standards fantasy goblin, but their behavior and intellect are similar. Everything about the elven and human races is pretty standard. That is not to say their histories and cultures aren’t unique. They just have that classic feel to them.

I got the impression that this story was started as an rpg campaign or a map, and that the events were drafted as part of a world-building activity, which then gave way to characters. I don’t know for certain what order or method the author used for writing this novel, but I usually prefer character-driven stories that fill in the plot and world around them. The fact that these are opposing methods of storytelling did affect how I received the story. But I tried to keep that bias in mind while reading and for this review.

What could have made it better for me:

The weakest aspect of this novel is its attention to grammar and composition mechanics. For composition, perhaps the biggest immersion-breaker for me was the frequent point-of-view switches. It was meant to be written in third person omniscient, but without any warning the narrative would jump into different characters’ heads. Most of my notes while reading comprised of disruptive pov switches. There should be noticeable breaks between paragraphs when switching from one character’s thoughts to another’s. Or, the author should pick one person and stick to that character’s pov, meaning the reader should not be able to “hear” another character’s thoughts.

The second largest number of notes I highlighted were miscellaneous grammar issues. I found a number of typos, use of multiple end punctuation marks (-?!), improper capitalization with dialog tags, etc. In other words, it needed better editing … because that, too, was an immersion breaker.

There are several somewhat important characters that either have no names or their names were not given until the end. So, I was reading about “the elf”, “the Archer”, and “the Mage” but had no idea who they are. No names, basic backgrounds, mind on the mission … At one point, the elf is falling in love with the Archer … and yet she doesn’t even know his name. It just struck me as rather unrealistic in terms relationship basics. Was this my “character-driven” bias at play? Or is this a genuine problem? After giving it some thought, I’ve decided it’s a problem in this case, because had this been a short story, I don’t think it would have bothered me. For a lengthy work, most readers tend to want to invest in the characters. But the lack of development depth in these protagonists made them still feel like strangers far beyond the first few chapters. There were several places where the characters struck me as emotionally dry for this same reason.

Some of the statements made or situations simply struck me as unrealistic (like falling in love with someone when you don’t even know his name, even after traveling together and saving each others’ lives). One case is where a character was taken prisoner for seven days of hard labor, and upon seeing him for the first time after that, his mother noted that he suddenly went from looking like a boy to looking like a man because of how the hard labor has shaped his body. In reality, seven days of hard labor barely makes a noticeable dent in most physiques. Puberty would have been a more credible factor for making a boy look suddenly older. Another instance was when one character was teaching another, and the student went from not being able to read to learning subjects like economics, trade, and government. Things like this are tropes for movies and books that don’t have a lot of time to show the passage of time (as is love at first sight plots), but instant improvement coupled with one-dimensional characters wasn’t a convincing combination for me.

Lastly, because of the emphasis on strategy to accomplish the quests, rather than character development, this book was more tell than show. I almost lost interest several times because there was very little dialog in between long passages about the characters travels and battles. Had there been more show in between the tell, that might have helped the characters feel more like people than chess pieces.

What I liked about it:

In spite of everything I said in the previous paragraph, believe it or not I do like this book. Its strengths were good strengths that made the weaknesses tolerable.

The descriptions were imaginative, vivid, and well-written. The environmental atmosphere had a good sense of place, from horse hides being slick with rain to descriptions of the desiccated remains of what might have been a cow. So the setting had a “big screen” or “Middle Earth” feel to it. The passages where magic was used caught my interest for the same reason. Consider this passage from Wynnfrith’s vision.

Wynnfrith felt her spirit move up out of her body. She flew high above the earth. Down below the whole world unrolled like a map. But it rolled and bulged. Other worlds, other lives, other times layered over her vision.

The rain began, and it was hard.

Wynnfrith felt her mind expand, families grew and died by the thousands before her. Cities were built and leveled. Trees grew from tiny seedlings and fell with old age in a blink. It was all a whirlwind of time and life. Wynnfrith wanted to scream, but knew she had to hold fast or the vision would take her sanity entirely.

There was one character that had more personality than any of the others: Frea. Frea’s abduction by the garonds is perhaps the most amusing of all the scenes in the book and felt somewhat reminiscent of the Hobbit scene in which Frodo is trying to free his friends from the trolls. Frea is a young girl and names her captors by their ugly or weird features (like Boil, Drool, and Eyebrow) as they travel together. Another uniquely Frea trait is how she amuses herself when bored during her captivity, talking to herself as if writing about her own adventures. Several times she starts her narrative with passages like, “Once upon a time, there was a young girl who was trapped in the midst of the garond army.” Yet each time her situation changes, she “rewrites” her story to fit the new circumstances. This approach to a character’s narrative felt different from the others — fresher and more personal. I found myself wishing the other characters had been done in a similar fashion. My only complaint about Freya’s passages is that there was nothing to set her inner dialog apart from her narrative. Her inner dialog should have been italicized as direct thoughts the same way direct quotes are handled. (Example: Frea thought her captors were stupid. … vs. … Once upon a time, the girl decided her captors were stupid, Frea thought to herself.) Either way, I enjoyed seeing her attempt to tell the “story” of her own captivity. Such passages were my favourite part of the book. I thought her voice was unique, personal, and entertaining.

I would have preferred to see Frea rescue herself, rather than being rescued by one of the male characters as a love interest, but the female characters in this tale were not necessarily dependent weaklings. I would call them strong supporting characters.

The plots of the various characters doing simultaneous quests that eventually come back together as one are well-coordinated. I like the way the mystery builds around the movement of the second moon. And while the overall structure of the story seems predictable to the genre, there are a few minor plot surprises in how the individual quests turned out.

But what this book excelled at was military campaigns. Whether it was large battles being staged across the map, unusual fighting formations in different races being explained, or the organization of the factions or various characters staying single-minded on their tasks, the strategies introduced were easy to follow and interesting. And that is something I usually find very boring, but I took several notes on well-done battle scenes.

The special weapon created in the end sounds quite stunning, too.

Recommendation:

The mechanical issues and lack of character depth in this book made it a bit of a labor for me, but I acknowledge that I prefer character-driven stories. It was high on action, adventure, environment, and strategy, which I enjoyed. It’s a large-scale fantasy tale with simple good vs. evil objectives. I probably won’t buy the second book in the series because I do prefer a little more “umpf” in character design, like Frea; but I enjoyed this first book in the series for what it was worth in terms of giving me a bird’s-eye view of a good rpg-style quest for a group of characters to accomplish.

My Favourite Chameleon

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Cover art for Diamond Dogs album by David Bowie

I should be doing my budget and several other dozen tasks this morning, including working on the next scene for Erys in the fifth book of the Elf Gate series. But I can’t. I woke to the news that one of my favourite chameleons has passed away. Someone else called him a “unicorn too cool for this universe”, and I really like that description, too. But I relate to him as a chameleon. No matter how you remember David Bowie, he was a unique and magical talent. So, I have to follow my heart today and write about him before I can move on to non-magical things … like budgets.

I can count on one hand the number of celebrities that I shed a tear for upon hearing that they were no longer with us in this world. The day that John Lennon was shot, I felt sick to my stomach. Everyone I knew probably knew I was a big fan of his, so the shock that ripped through me upon hearing of his murder, and the fact that I cried like a baby for the rest of the day, probably was no surprise to anyone. Lennon’s music had a profound impact on my life. The loss of Robin Williams was the second time I cried for a life that touched mine personally without ever having known the man on a personal level. I thought at first the news was a cruel hoax, but when I found out it was true, I felt heartbroken. Again, I was a huge fan, but this was a different kind of sadness — a deeper kind of sadness because I had spent my whole life dealing with depression and suicide issues. I had tried to take my own life the same way he succeeded at taking his. I couldn’t understand why someone would murder a musician, but I could understand why a comedian would hide his pain until he couldn’t take living any more. Sadly, I must now add David Bowie to my list of “heroes lost”. And this surprises even me.

I am not what most people would consider to be a David Bowie fan. And yet I guess I am because his loss hurts. I was never truly dedicated to his music, but as I look back, I see now that he was like some kind of milestone marker for me. (Please click on the links to enjoy the memories I’ve been sifting through today.)

Though I was a small child at the time, I can remember seeing David Bowie sing on TV with Bing Crosby in a Christmas special. The song they sang — a blend of “Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth” — is now a holiday classic I still listen to every year from CD.

Space Oddity” is probably the first David Bowie song I remember hearing and knowing, “This is David Bowie.” But it is the Diamond Dogs LP that made me pay attention to the singer more than the songs. The older sister of one of my school friends played it during a visit, and I was mesmerized by that freakish cover art. I remember thinking something like, “Wow, here’s a guy who’s not afraid to be himself … or anything else that strikes his fancy.”

Maybe it’s because I also became a chameleon, and I could easily look to him as one of the first people I was aware of who fluidly and successfully reinvented his appearance over and over. Whether in costume or fashion, he wore his art and owned it. And I can appreciate artists who make their appearance and persona part of their performance, especially those who don’t fear androgyny. When I lived in Japan and came across complaints from westerners on the Internet about J-rock artists dressing in such outlandish costumes, or men dressing like women, David Bowie was among the names I pointed out in western culture for having made “glam rock” a popular thing, and Ziggy Stardust being the perfect example how all-encompassing a show or performance could be when presenting fantasy-element entertainment or using music to tell stories. (i.e. “Rock operas” anyone?)

Maybe it’s because when when he sang about “changes” or being “under pressure” the lyrics hit a little too close to home for me. Stuff was happening in my personal life that made me listen to such songs over and over and over again … because the music was deep, powerful, and relatable.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a dedicated fan of the fantasy genre and was among the millions hooked on the portal tale about traveling to another realm and meeting a goblin king. The first time I saw a commercial for the “upcoming” movie Labyrinth advertised, I immediately wanted to see it. It was my kind of movie.

Or maybe it’s just his cheeky sense of humour that shows up in songs like “I’m Afraid of Americans” with Trent Reznor , and clips like this from Extras with Ricky Gervais. … Maybe it’s all of the above and more.

One thing I know for sure. The world has lost a versatile, unique talent the likes of which were never seen before. Fortunately for us, David Bowie’s influence lives on through the magic of his arts … just like stardust.

My Fake December Vacation: a Great Way to Start the New Year

I took a bit of a vacation from social media in December. I hadn’t planned to do it. It just sort of happened when I found myself writing in the mornings, but then blowing off the afternoons after only one other chore and then gaming … or crafting … or colouring … or sitting outside at a bonfire to watch the snow … anything that emphasizes fun over productivity. Okay, I might have had to work a little for the bonfire.  But that’s okay. I love snow, so I still had fun and it was worth it. Sometimes it’s just necessary to step back and reclaim some perspective.

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I could have sworn I just dusted off those chairs and table so I could walk around them.

I had a marvelous time unplugging, even if it wasn’t an all-or-nothing kind of thing. I still got up at 6:00 every morning to write. And I wrote so much that the first draft of Elf Gate book #5 is now about 2/3 done. I found a new method of organizing my writing, so the workflow is much better, and one night my muse held me hostage to make me finish plotting out the rest of the series. No lie. I was trying to sleep, but every 10-15 minutes I would get an idea and sit up to grab my phone and jot notes in Evernote so I wouldn’t forget them come morning. But I ended doing that ALL NIGHT! I didn’t get any sleep, but I practically outlined the entire rest of the series in one night. I’ve never done anything like that before, so though my head felt like a sponge the next morning, I still felt pretty amazed.

But then I would stop writing after my 3-hour morning block and dress in my work-out skivvies to go shovel snow, come in for breakfast and a hot shower, and then go right back to writing until lunch. After lunch, I’d pick one “grown-up task” to do. (shopping, laundry, clean house, etc.) But then I’d spend the rest of the day intentionally picking activities I had not been able to do in a long time.

I bought myself a colouring book and broke out my old art journal and pencils. I finally got around to knitting a “Jayne Cobb Cunning Hat” for myself. (Yes, I like the Firefly series. But I like what was said about Jayne’s hat in the show even more: “A man walks down the street in that hat, and people know he’s not afraid of anything.” Truth.)

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My most cunning snow-shoveling hat. 🙂

I finished an Oblivion mod that I haven’t worked on since 2011, according to my notes. I was converting the Cheydinhal player home into a Morrowind-style home that I called “Ashlander Estate”.

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Ashlander Estate downstairs: it’s an Oblivion mod that turns the Cheydinhal player house into something more reminiscent of Morrowind.

 

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Ashlander Estate: the alchemy lab. I had to put the old alchemy equipment in there to compare it to the new stuff. 😉

And then I actually played Oblivion, which I had not done in ages. I was worried at first that upgrading to Windows 10 had screwed up my game because it kept crashing and textures were awful and wouldn’t save. I finally got disgusted enough that I was ready to uninstall and reinstall the game. But in doing so, I got an error message about needing to insert the Oblivion disk. I thought, “Wtf? The disk is already in there.” But then I checked, and it was the original Oblivion disk. XD … I had installed the Game of the Year edition with the add-ons. (Derpy moment for moi having to take out one Oblivion disk for the other.) Worked like a charm after that! (Note to self: the computer can tell the difference between the two Oblivion disks, even if I can’t.)

I watched old movies, I read some books, I crafted myself a day-planner and reorganized my computer somewhat after updating to Windows 10 (which then also required some work on games that no longer worked correctly, but so it goes with software updates *sigh*).

The irony is that in looking back over my rebellion against having a “productive” December, I was actually quite productive! There’s a lot of things I needed to do that I didn’t get done, but being able to feed my mind the kinds of activities that breed creativity (as opposed to just droning through the day doing legal work, other paper work, social obligations, house work, etc.) felt like I was taking a vacation, even though I wasn’t. Like the massive snowfall of recent, it was something that I needed in order to feel healthy again — to feel like myself again.

I still had to deal with the depression that comes with missing loved ones I couldn’t be with during the holidays. And I still had to cope with the anxiety of crap like this, where I caught the dog eating the cat food; and the cat dumped my hair band in the dog’s water and then played with it, spilling the water everywhere. (Why in the world did I sign on for this circus?!) But between the snow and the “fake” vacation days, I survived the holiday season.

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Tsukimori learned how to tip the water bowl. And, yes, that is my hair “pretty” in the water. And, yes, the dog is eating the cat’s food. My simple little “Bad Cat” scolding is sounding more like “AAAAAHHHHHGGGG!” these days.

My semi-unplugged, creative half-days gave me a sense of grounding and stability during a difficult time of the year for me without the guilt of feeling like I wasn’t doing anything productive. My first draft is nearly done with probably 75% of it being accomplished in a matter of a few weeks, even though I’d been working on it since I sent the previous book out to beta readers. But perhaps the most productive activity of all was taking place under the surface; sometimes time spent “just being” is time spent healing wounds that get no attention while I’m running around multitasking. Now that the holidays are behind me, I’m ready to get back to work again. 🙂

Have you ever tried to trick yourself into thinking you’re vacationing when you’re not? How did it go? I might try a month of half-days again next December. Or possibly this summer. ;p