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Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

Reviewing a Book, Part II

Before exploring the mis-named “impartial” book review format, I want to mention the most influential form of book review today: the customer review. Just as “word-of-mouth” reviews by friends and colleagues can help you select a book (or avoid it), the online customer reviews found on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere can help or hurt a book more than any traditional published review. When a book has thousands of positive reviews, who cares what the critics believe? Likewise, a torrent of negative reviews can condemn a critically acclaimed work.

Online Customer Reviews

Many online comment forms permit only 250 to 500 word reviews. The result is online reviews more like blurbs than reviews. Even negative comments posted online resemble blurbs more than in-depth reviews. “Don’t waste your money,” is not a review because it offers no explanation or insights. A proper review demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a book.

Do not waste any words in your comments. To write a useful customer review within the limited space available, try to select the best or the worst passage from the book. If your complaint is that the characters are one-dimensional — a common complaint about low-rated books — give an example of the weak description used by the author.

Posting more reviews does not always translate into influence. Most online systems allow readers a chance to evaluate other reviewers. If you post a thousand five-star reviews, that’s going to cast doubt on your critical thinking abilities. If, however, you post a hundred reviews that demonstrate careful consideration of the works, then other readers will pay attention.

I look to see what someone reads when I judge book ratings online. If you read science fiction and post a negative review of a history of World War I, that’s not persuasive. However, your reviews of science fiction books might be insightful. If you like some authors and not others, that information is useful to other readers and reviewers.

While most reviews are posted on merchant sites, such as Amazon, I encourage you to consider Goodreads. Also, there are websites dedicated to particular genres.

(Somewhat) Impartial Book Reviews

Writing a full-length book review for a newspaper, magazine, or online publication involves analyzing the book and defending your opinions. A good book review educates readers, explaining what the ideal qualities of a text might be and how the book being reviewed does or does not reflect the criteria you have established. A good review is craftwork.

The label “impartial” suggests that the reviewer did not receive money or other perks in return for writing a review. Most publications have strict policies to foster impartial reviews. However, many publications feature reviews by authors and there might be some hesitation before criticizing a colleague. Ideally, a reviewer does not share a publisher, agent, or any other financial connection to the author being reviewed. At the end of a review, you should disclose any potential conflicts of interest, if only to insulate yourself from claims of bias.

The Intro and Overall Assessment

The first paragraph or two of a book review need to state the work’s title, the author’s persona, and your overall assessment of the work. The introduction demonstrates your understanding of the genre, the author, and other readers. You need to hook review readers, just as you do readers of any work.

Francine Franklin’s A Stitch in Crime, her latest humorous mystery, keeps a reader in stitches while medical examiner Barney Bumble stumbles his way through a complex scheme to dominate the clothing industry. Unfortunately, much of the laughter comes at the expense of Franklin, who resorts to the tired formula that seemed so original in her first two novels. Some might consider A Stitch in Crime literary comfort food, but most readers will want more from such a talented writer.

The sample intro offers the big details: Francine Franklin’s book A Stitch in Crime is, at best, a mediocre book. The remainder of the review needs to explain this claim with evidence and comparisons to other works.

About the Author

The second section of a book review needs to balance its appeal to readers new to the author and the loyal followers likely to defend the work. By proving you know about the author and his or her works, you are more likely to persuade readers to take your analysis seriously. Some of the information you might address includes:

  • What else has the author written?
  • Does the author stick to one genre?
  • Does the work (or previous works) resemble those of another writer(s)?
  • Does the author have any special qualifications?
  • Are there any biographical facts that might help readers?
  • Are the any great bits of trivia about the author that readers might not know?

Other works written by the author, especially if they are well known works, should be mentioned. First, this shows you have the most basic knowledge of the author. Second, it tells readers something about what they might expect from a new book. When you mention these past works, indicate if the author tends to favor one genre. If the author writes in a few genres, do the works in one sell better? Are they better written?

Readers… read. Therefore, they are likely to be familiar with other authors within the same genre as the book being reviewed. Mention similar authors, and later in the review you should expand on any comparisons or contrasts. When you do compare authors, realize that comparisons are imperfect. Readers do not want writers that mimic each other, but they do recognize that some writers are more alike than others.

After you establish what the author writes, explore any unique qualifications brought to the topic. A former police officer writing about urban crime? A doctor writing medical thrillers? Those are special qualifications. It isn’t that a writer must have career experience related to a book, but it does help readers take the author more seriously.

Non-fiction works might not require a doctorate in the field explored, but it helps to have a broad knowledge of the book’s topic. I happen to prefer books at least co-written by scientists, historians, and other experts. There are good books by journalists — they are often self-taught experts — but I do give more credence to books by researchers. Be sure to verify how qualified a non-fiction author is and share that information with review readers.

What if the author is a pen name? Some reviewers choose to reveal the writers behind pseudonymous works, while others treat author personas as unique creations. Some authors have made their pen names part of marketing strategies. Nora Roberts is one good example of this.

Telling a Good Story

Does the work tell a good story? Most readers want a story, with more than a basic linear recounting of events. A story might be either plot-driven or character-driven, but it is always “driven” by something. Do we follow the growth of one or more characters? Do we watch an event unfold? Some readers are passionate about characters, while others focus on plot points.

I cannot recall much about the character in the film Titanic. The film was event-driven with characters serving to help us relate to the disaster. Yet, there are also characters we know better than their stories. I enjoy the character Sherlock Holmes; the stories seem to be vehicles for the character. One approach is not superior to the other.

When you review a book, indicate if the book emphasizes memorable characters or plot points. Of course, a good story has interesting characters and an interesting chain of events, but which are the readers more likely to remember? Series tend to need great central characters that become familiar to readers.

Themes and Theses

Books tend to teach lessons — at least they attempt to teach lessons. The lesson might be shallow, serving no real purpose. The theme is the overall topic, usually with some moral leaning. For example, a theme might be “friendship.” The thesis might be, “We need friends to achieve great things.” The thesis is an opinion on the theme — an argument that the book attempts to support. A theme is simply a short topic, which might not be a complete sentence. The thesis about the theme is not only a complete thought, but it is at the core of the story.

A good review tells readers if the theme and thesis are developed and realized. It is disappointing (and common) when a book fails to defend the author’s thesis. A book that tries to teach about love, yet conveys to readers that marrying the richest man is the best choice, has failed to realize its thesis.

An academic book review might spend more time on the theme and thesis of a book than a general review. An academic review tends to favor conceptual and historical comparisons, while a general review needs to focus on the reading experience. The themes and theses of popular fiction tend to be simple and familiar, which is another reason you can keep this section of a review short.

When you do encounter a book with an unusual theme or a thesis that challenges popular values, then you can spend more time addressing these aspects of the story. If a book about love suggests that an affair or two might be okay, readers might want you to challenge the thesis in a review. Plenty of literary works do challenge norms, which is why they tend to be outside the mass market.

Characters that Count

Having covered the basics, a review should address specifics about characters and plot points. I suggest addressing characters first, since they tend to be what sells mass market books. Even popular non-fiction often highlights the “characters” behind the events discussed. Does the book have characters who will be remembered? You don’t have to like characters to find them interesting, but dull characters can ruin a story.

We like to read about people (or creatures) caught in situations we’d rather avoid. For all the dystopian stories in our culture, we still like heroes rising against the odds. Because I write scripts, I tend to favor the “Hero’s Journey” story model common to screen and stage. A good story follows a character as he or she becomes a better person in the process of solving a problem.

A book review needs to address the following:

  • Are the characters interesting or dull?
  • Do the characters have backstories?
  • How does the author develop characters?
  • Are any characters “wasted” space?
  • Do you want to know more about them after reading the book?

Good, evil, or neutral, a character needs to be interesting. What is the character’s motivation? How does the character justify his or her choices and actions? You want to avoid characters that do things for no reason. Even an insane villain has a reason (however illogical) for actions. When you review a book, offer readers an explanation for why characterization worked or failed.

When you read the works of some authors, you end up with a complete history for main characters. Other authors offer only allusions to the origins of characters. Both approaches can work, depending on the requirements of the story. Tell readers what to expect: details or hints.

Wasted characters annoy readers. A “waste of space” character is one that doesn’t contribute to the plot or the emotional development of other characters. When reviewing a book, tell readers if there are wasted characters. It is not a waste to have a “red herring” among the characters; misleading readers makes for a good story. A common wasted character is the sidekick who does nothing to help advance the plot. Sidekicks need to be useful.

Some characters are based on real people or composites of real people. A review should mention anything known about the real life inspirations behind characters.

Good characters are complex. Heroes tend to have flaws and the plot helps the protagonist recognize his or her flaws. A villain should have some “reasonable” motivation. Often, a villain’s perspective offers an explanation for his or her actions. Pure evil often is less interesting than the evil that was created by experiences.

What readers want are characters worth meeting again and again, either by rereading a favorite book or by reading new books in a series. A good review tells readers if the characters are compelling.

Plot Points

Do not give away the major plot points in a book review. Do not get cute with “spoiler alerts” in a review. Your job is to critique a book, not to summarize it. How do you address the plot in a review? You give the one-sentence “log line” that would appear in a TV Guide listing. For a reviewer, the challenge is to describe the plot without giving away the details.

To save his beloved swamp, an ogre rescues a princess and accidentally discovers the beauty of true love.

A review might include the following:

  • What is the problem that advances the plot?
  • What happens if the problem is not resolved?
  • Are there any subplots?

A story needs a problem that one of the characters must solve. If the problem is not solved, something bad will happen, usually to some other character or group. The Hero’s Journey model suggests that the protagonist decides to make a self-sacrifice to save others.

Sub-plots are important, but they can also overwhelm a story. Let readers know if there are too many sub-plots in a story. In my experience, romantic sub-plots can distract from stories, but they are included because authors and editors assume romance humanizes characters. In romance stories, sub-plots about money (or the lack of money) can be overwrought and annoying.

Style Points

Reviews should award style point — and penalize authors for poor style. Spend a fair amount of the review exploring style. A good story deserves to be delivered well. It is possible to have a good story, decent plot, interesting characters… and weak style. Readers won’t forgive poor style, so a review must address the readability of a book. The style section of a book review should address topics including:

  • Narrative point-of-view,
  • Tone of the narrative,
  • Voice of the author, and
  • Style of the writing, in general.

I am not a fan of present tense first or second-person narrative. Most readers are not, either. The second-person narrative was common in the 1940s. The short story and radio drama series “The Whistler” featured a narrator talking about the actions of the main character as he or she committed a crime and then tried to escape the consequences. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, but it can be confusing. Is “you” the reader or a character?

You don’t see the gun he has hidden under the table. You move. He shoots.

Does the author/narrator have a sense of humor? Are plot points themselves humorous? What is the “mood” and “tone” of the author? I love A Series of Unfortunate Events because the narration is dark and depressing, yet that is also part of the humor of the books. Such satire is amazing when done well.

There are style norms within genres. One of the norms includes the vocabulary used by the authors. Does the author prefer concise sentences or flowery prose? Is the vocabulary unusual in some way? How does the language reflect genre conventions, or does the author resist the conventions?

Closing the Review

A review concludes by restating your recommendation: should someone read this book? The last paragraph or two should remind readers of the strengths and weaknesses you have discovered. Your role as a reviewer is to promote good writing to readers. If you dislike a book, maybe you can suggest an alternative to read. If you like a book, be sure to remind readers of other works by the same author.

Reviewers foster reading, and they do so by offering honest critiques of the works they read.

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