Category Archives: Reading

Book reviews and comments.

The Librarian

This weekend, TNT aired “The Librarian” movies. It reminds me of other great references to books and libraries.

From The Mummy (1999):

Evelyn: I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am.
Rick: And what is that?
Evelyn: I… am a librarian.

From the Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw” (2006):

Sir Robert: Nevertheless, that creature won’t give up, Doctor, and we still don’t possess an actual weapon!
The Doctor: Oh, your dad got all the brains, didn’t he?
Rose Tyler: Being rude again!
The Doctor: Good, I meant that one. You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!

I found the idea of being a librarian very appealing—working in a place where people had to whisper and only speak when necessary. If only the world were like that!
― Peter Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.
― Neil Gaiman

When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.
― Joan Bauer

A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.
— Umberto Eco

Not all librarians are evil cultists. Some librarians are instead vengeful undead who want to suck your soul.
― Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones

Reviewing a Book, Part I

Book reviews allow us to share more than our opinions about specific books or authors: they are an opportunity to defend what we consider the qualities a good book should have, while often giving us easy examples of the traits a book should not posses. A well written review offers a lesson to writers and readers.

In this first part of “Reviewing a Book” we examine basic school book review assignments and promotional marketing reviews. Our second part will explore impartial reviews such as those appearing in newspapers and magazines. Some college courses also encourage students to compose long-form impartial reviews.

Beginning with Book Reports

Our first experiences with writing about books is the elementary school book report. The genre is the simplest form of a review. Consider one possible assignment outline for young students:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Setting
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Antagonist(s)
  • Other Characters
  • Summary
  • Why I would or would not recommend this book.

In the lower elementary grades, students might complete a basic form with spaces for the required information. Teachers want students to develop the ability to identify elements of narratives. Early reviews reflect this emphasis on identification. Once students can identify narrative elements, teachers encourage more advanced comprehension and application activities.

Once you can identify the role characters play within a narrative, you are ready to explore the lessons taught by the choices characters make. In upper elementary grades and middle school, students begin to compose five-paragraph reviews exploring the themes and theses of books. The theme of a work is often a generalization. A thesis is the core argument of a work.

Theme: A family is more than genetic inheritance.

Thesis: An adopted child is as much a part of a loving family as any child might be.

Appreciating the relationship between a theme and the thesis of a work helps you understand why a writer makes certain choices when developing a plot. Exploring such complex concepts as “theme” requires more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks approach.

The (infamous) standard school essay format leads to a review that might be structured according to this model from the state of New York (http://www.nysedregents.org):

Catchy Review Title

Paragraph 1: Introduction of the Review. This paragraph mentions the author and the book title. Indicate your overall recommendation in the first paragraph, which will be rephrased in the conclusion.

Paragraph 2: Summary and Main Characters. Summarize the story and describe the main characters.

Paragraph 3: Favorite Section. Describe the best part of the book, explaining why other readers will enjoy it, without giving away the entire plot. If you are writing a negative review, explain your least favorite part of the book.

Paragraph 4: Lessons Learned. Explain the theme of the story and any lessons that the author wants readers to remember.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion of the Review. The last paragraph should restate if you recommend the book to others or not.

Book reviews expand in detail as we gain experiences as readers and writers, but the underlying structure remains the same. A New York Times book review tells us a bit about the author, the basics about the book, and tries to persuade us to either read or avoid an encounter with the text. The breadth and depth increase, but those elementary school models remind us that most of us have written book reviews.

In high school, book review assignments resemble marketing reviews. Teachers tend to ask students to write about books they enjoyed reading. As a result, the book reviews of high school students read like promotional materials.

Blurbs and Marketing Reviews

If you read dust jacket endorsements, known as cover blurbs, you are familiar with the shortest form of marketing review. A marketing review is meant to sell a book; rarely does a marketing review teach the potential reader a meaningful lesson. Of course, if you do buy a book based solely on blurbs, you do risk learning how useless blurbs are.

Blurbs read like the snippets of movie reviews studios use (often out of context) to promote their films. Hyperbole is the norm in blurbs. “The ‘must-read’ book of the year!” “This book will change your life.” “I had to read it cover to cover. It is impossible to put down this book.” If blurbs were accurate, then every book published would be superior to all previous books. Blurbs are less than 100 words and seldom longer than 50 words.

Marketing reviews are short reviews commissioned by a publisher or author. Some writing groups offer to review member books, so these reviews can be cited in marketing materials. Such reviews are collegial and supportive, rarely examples of detailed critical analysis. However, before dismissing all marketing reviews as useless, appreciate that there is a difference between being supportive and being dishonest. When writing groups review books by members or when an agent asks an author for a review, these reviewers tend do their best to compose honest reviews.

Marketing reviews tend to be less than 750 words. Within the constraints of their purpose, the reviews adhere to the conventions of longer form reviews you might find in newspapers or magazines.

A sample marketing review structure:

Catchy Review Title Review Subtitle

Paragraph 1: Introduction. This paragraph includes short, easily quoted sentences about the best qualities of the book. Mention the author and the title in the middle of the paragraph. The wittier your statements recommending the book, the better in a marketing review.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Summary. In the summary paragraphs, continue the positive and witty recommendation model. Marketing reviews tend to embrace adjectives and adverbs, without the absurd hyperbole of blurbs. Clichés pepper marketing reviews, but we wish they didn’t. You do not need to write, “The dangerous voyage across Lake Superior during a squall had me on the edge of my seat.” Replace a cliché like “edge of my seat” with more detail to make the marketing review more substantial.

Paragraph 4: Characters. People want to know what makes the main characters compelling. Marketing materials know that people remember characters better than plot points.

Paragraph 5: Promote the Author. Marketing reviews tend to include more promotion of the author than impartial reviews do.

Paragraph 6: Style Points. Because most marketing reviews try to associate an author’s style with his or her biography, praise of the style tends to follow the biographical information. For example: “Drawing on her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Garza vividly describes the operating room scenes. Readers witness the common mistakes surgeons make under pressure, from a firsthand perspective.”

Paragraph 7: Conclusion. Again, the wittier, the better. The first and last paragraphs of a marketing review are the most important because they are meant to be quoted.

If you are asked to write a marketing review, we suggest outlining the review using the above model. A marketing review needs to fit on a page or two. The sentences and the paragraphs are short, allowing them to be quoted. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Part II

In our next post, we will address composing long-form reviews.

Book Review – After Dark by Jayne Castle

One of my favorite features of GoodReads is the ability to get book recommendations based on books listed or ranked in your library. Using the GoodReads recommendations, I have already found dozens of new authors and books to try.

The most recent book, After Dark by Jayne Castle, was one of those books. I’ve read other books by Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick so trying this new series, Harmony, was an easy choice.

Although I do like the story, an antiquities theft-murder mystery, the paranormal part of the story is tossed in a little too casually. Terms like para-archaeology, rez-shrinks, para-rez, and a few others are sprinkled within the narrative before they were explained, and the explanations, when they did come, were not detailed enough to eliminate any confusion. Readers are a few dozen pages or a chapter or two into the novel before learning the series takes place on an off-world colony that has been cut off from all Earth contact.

It seems to me that the fantasy/sci-fi part of this story should have been introduced and explained earlier in the story, and with more detail, so that the setting is more thoroughly established. I’m guessing that Jayne Castle wanted the romance and mystery to be the predominating story, not the fantasy aspects, but you cannot sprinkle in references to your specific “world” without explaining them.

Unfortunately, After Dark reminds me of an old rule I established years ago: don’t bother reading fantasy written by non-fantasy writers. The “worlds” creating by non-fantasy writers do not have the same level of detail, thought, and organization as the “worlds” created by people who specialize in writing science fiction or fantasy.

I’ll keep an eye out for more in the Harmony series, and am I still looking for books in the Arcane Society series in used book stores, but they aren’t high in my “want” list. I hope with practice, Jayne improves her fantasy writing skills because I do like her contemporary and historical novels.

Book Review – A Midsummer Night’s Scream by Jill Churchill

A Midsummer Night’s Scream is book 15 in what is now, and hopefully remains, a 16-book series featuring Jane Jeffry, a crime-solving stay-at-home mother. The title of each book in the series is a play on a famous book title, cleverly tying the mysteries to Jane’s love of reading and what is probably the author’s love of books.

As this title implies, Jane and her best friend and neighbor, Shelley, are loosely involved with a local college-run theater. I say loosely because Jane and Shelley’s only involvement is catering snacks during the play’s rehearsals so that Shelley can test new catering companies for her husband. During this time, two people associated with the theater, one of the actors and a janitor, are murdered. Jane’s long-time boyfriend, Detective Mel VanDyne, is assigned the two cases.

Despite the series name, A Jane Jeffry Mystery, Jane had almost nothing to do with solving these murders. Most of this book revolved around tasting testing caterers and attending a needlepoint class.

Previous mysteries make use of Jane’s intimate knowledge of all things domestic. In fact, it was her thorough grounding in her domestic life and children that was usually the key to solving the mystery.

Testing the caterers during the theater rehearsals was a feeble way to involve Jane and Shelley in the theater. Having them attend a needlepoint class as a way of befriending two of the characters in the story was equally feeble. Although the catering companies and needlepoint class would fit the description of “domestic,” they were poorly used devices. Neither the caterers nor the needlepoint class had anything to do with the murders, except as a distraction, and served no purpose in advancing the story or the mystery. I was waiting for the tie-in and was baffled when nothing happened.

There was also a slip in characterization, with Shelley feeling “hurt” that she and Jane weren’t working on their needlepoint together. Shelley wouldn’t feel hurt by something so silly, however briefly it was mentioned. The author also slipped in Bell, Book, and Scandal with Shelley’s character. At one point, Jane was worried that her preoccupation with the mystery would annoy Shelley to the point of damaging their friendship. The first reaction after reading these two sections of the novels was, “huh?” Shelley would never overreact like that. She should also know by now, after years of friendship with Jane, that Jane usually does solve the mystery and her instincts for the solution are usually correct.

A Midsummer’s Night Scream is clearly a continuation of the slow downward slide in quality that began with Bell, Book, and Scandal, and ends with the horrible The Accidental Florist.

Bell, Book, and Scandal had, I believe, only one change in viewpoint: we jarringly switch from Jane’s viewpoint to that of one of the victims. A Midsummer’s Night Scream had several changes in viewpoint, mostly to Mel’s view, which is unusual in this series. In the previous books, Mel was never a well-developed character and we never saw the mystery from his point of view, only Jane’s.

Unlike previous mysteries in this series, Jane does very little thinking about this mystery and had almost no input into the solution.

The oddest part of this book: the epilogue. No previous book in this series has ever done a “where are they now” ending to the story. It was out of place, not remotely entertaining, and again, not from Jane’s point of view. None of the “where are they now” statements would be anything Jane could possibly know.

Jill Churchill, if you are tired of writing this series, just stop. Don’t try to wrap everything up neatly for Jane as you did in The Accidental Florist. Just stop writing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, most of the Jane Jeffry Mysteries would get a 3 or 4. The previous book to this one, Bell, Book, and Scandal, would receive a 2, as would A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The final book in the series, The Accidental Florist, would receive a negative number if possible.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Scream
Author: Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-050100-6

Mysteries that are not Mysteries

I’ve been complaining lately that I don’t have enough to read. That isn’t true. It is more that I can’t find any GOOD books to read.

What has happened to the publishing industry? Are they no longer hiring editors to reject the books that do not have a plot?

Take the last Jill Churchill book I read: The Accidental Florist, book 16 in Churchill’s Jane Jeffry series. First, the fact that it is book 16 in a series should have told me not to expect much, except that I already own the first eight or nine books in this series and I did enjoy reading them. The Accidental Florist, however, was little more than a recitation of Jane’s daily routine as she gets ready to marry her long-time boyfriend. The author describes what Jane was doing for much of the book instead of letting us “see” the events. The dead body in this story had nothing to do with a florist and Jane had nothing to do with solving the murder. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the author even remembered to tell us why the victim died!

Previous Jane Jeffry mysteries had Jane integrally involved in solving the murder, even if the reason she was involved was as transparent as how Murder She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher gets involved in each murder. Churchill’s previous books revolved around the murder, with Jane’s life occurring around the murder. This particular story was the opposite.

My first thought was that the original author had died and the publishing company had someone else trying to continue the series. If Jill Churchill/Janice Brooks is still alive, she must have just written a quick outline of a possible plot and passed it along to some flunky to turn the outline into complete sentences, because that’s all this book was: a bare outline of a possible story idea.

Luckily, this was a library book, not something I had purchased. After reading book 16, I went to Amazon.com and read reviews for this book and the three previous books in the series. Everyone agrees: these books are no longer worth purchasing. Unfortunately, I had come to the same conclusion. As curious as I am about how her children turned out, I’m not willing to pay much more than half the cover price to find out, and I would probably never re-read these last few books.

I’ve also been disappointed in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve read books 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 (not necessarily in that order) and they are all equally boring. There is at least a mystery in these books, and they are not badly written, but it is hard to really like the main character. She not a bad person, but she’s boring, invisible, and almost impossible to care about. I’ve also tried to Harris’ Harper Connelly series, but haven’t really been able to relate to that main character either.

One similarity between the two characters, Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly, is that they spend much of their time alone, not interacting with anyone else. I think that makes for a boring story. It is much more interesting to see the story and the characters interacting with the mystery than it is to read about them thinking about the mystery. It is more interesting to learn about characters from the way they react to events than to read their thoughts about the events.

The disappointment in these some of books cannot be related to the continuation of the series for more than three or four books. The Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series of books is well into the 30s now and book 34 is just as engaging as book one. Why? Is this the difference between a good writer (Harris) and a great writer (Roberts)? Is it is something more?

I can definitely say that Eve Dallas has changed and grown as a character. Her life has followed a progression, her relationships with her life, husband, and friends are more complicated, and she’s changed over the time of the series. But there is always a mystery that dominates the story. The mystery IS the book, not tossed in as an afterthought for an excuse to pick up a royalty check.

And don’t get me started on what has become of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books. I don’t even consider purchasing them anymore. They used to have a plot and mystery and now they are little more than erotica loosely tied with a bit of a story.