I’ve been considering doing a book review (never done one before), and in thinking about how I wanted to do them, I decided I wanted to try something different. Generally, you find reviews done in a pretty straight forward format, much like an essay, where the reviewer gives a brief rundown of the story and then goes into explaining what they liked and didn’t like about it, followed up at the end with a grade of some kind. There’s nothing wrong with this mind you, but I find when I read these, that I first glance at the grade given and then skim through to pick out what they thought about key elements of the book, i.e. voice, plot, characters, etc. So, I figure, why not take the skimming factor out and make it a more structured endeavor?
Perhaps it’s just me, but I like breaking things down into their simpler components. As a general philosophy on reviews though, I don’t believe they’re there to boost author egos or promote authors we like for the sake of promotion. They’re opinion pure and simple, with the purpose of informing others about a book so that they might better be able to decide if they want to read the book or not. I honestly prefer reviewing good books. I want people to be able to find good books to read, since you don’t generally go looking for bad reviews in order to know what not to read. Why waste the time and effort slamming a book? People would rather see what you thought was worth reading. So, while I won’t likely be reviewing a lot of books here (I’m a slow reader anyway), I will lean heavily toward books I figure people might enjoy reading. I’m not a professional critic, so I don’t have to review things I’m not really interested in.
There are a lot of ways to look at a story, a lot of elements. If I were in a lit class doing this, there’s likely be a couple dozen categories to breakdown. Fortunately for me and for you, I don’t want to do this. As a reader, I only look for and pay attention to a few key things. First and foremost is the author’s voice. This will get me to put down a book within a page or two. The way in which an author tells the story is very difficult to define, kind of a “I know it when I see it” thing, which is subjective and different for every reader. The plot is big for me too. I’m the sort of writer who develops stories off of plot first. Some start with characters or setting, but for me, I’m a plotter, and thus how the plot plays out in a book is central for me as a reader. Finally, and certainly not least, is character. Of these three main elements, a book can carry me on character alone. Even if the voice and plot aren’t quite there for me, if the character rocks, I’ll fnish the book. And that’s it. Yes, there a many other things one can look at, but these are the three that make or break a book for me, so I believe that is what I’ll use to review.
As for grading, I don’t know that it really matters much other than providing for a clear indication to the reader, exactly how I felt. Some use stars, others points, while others use letter grades. I think I see the 0 to 5 scale used more often than not, so I’ll stick with that, zero being very poorly done in my opinion, and 5 stars being expertly done. For me, the highest and lowest ranks should be rare. Five stars is not only just a keeper for your shelves, but one of those books, if you were stranded on a desert island and could only take a handful of books, it could make that list. It’s a book you use as a measuring stick to judge other books by. A zero would be one that truly fails on some basic level. This is a score I’d give for a book I’d not only not recommend to others, but I’d guess others would feel the same way. Often you get books that while they don’t work for you and you might flat out dislike, you can see how someone else might feel very differently.
So…my rating scale:
0 stars. This story completely lacked or was so poorly done in some fundamental way, that I did not want to read it, and am pretty sure nobody else would either.
1 star. Others might be okay with this, but I thought it pretty much failed.
2 stars. Borderline. I can see where things could have been good or at least more expertly done, but it just didn’t work for me. Others might be just fine with how this author did things.
3 stars. Decent job by the author. It didn’t wow me, but I wasn’t complaining about it either. I’m not going to put the book back, but I wouldn’t be inspired to read it again. If this were the first in a series, I’d be iffy about continuing (I’m a bit picky in this regard)
4 stars. Solid job all around. I’d be happy to write with this level of competence. Might be a few niggly things, but that would just be me, and just as likely to not bother anyone else.
5 stars. This f’ing rocked. I want to be able to write this good. I could die a happy writer if my words came off the page this good.
Half stars come into this too, since more often than not, things will fall inbetween, as they are wont to do. So, to kick this off and get some feedback from folks on whether they think this works well as a review style, I’m going to review the last book I read, which was Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane.
I came across Stacia Kane in my efforts to track down other Urban Fantasy writers when I sold my book, Deadworld. I wrote my book as a suspense/thriller, and was taken by surprise when it got bought as an UF story. I had not read much in this genre at all, and so I figured I needed to find out what the playing field was like. Stacia’s Downside books had received some buzz because her main character is a functioning drug addict. This kind of flies in the face of the heroic mc, and is pretty untypical of the genre (from what I’ve seen anyway). UF has a bit of a stereotype for the weapon-wielding, kickass heroine, who gets the hot guys, and slays hordes of unruly paranormal baddies. I was immediately drawn to this story of a struggling heroine, because the heroine in my story has her own significant flaws that make her rather unheroic at times. I like characters that are somewhat f**ked up and really have to struggle to find success.
Unholy Ghosts follows the trials and tribulations of Chess Putnam, a Debunker for the Church of Truth, the new government in a post-apocalyptic world where ghosts got unleashed upon the world and wreaked significant havoc. Her job is to deal with (send back) these troublesome dead. This is done through a variety of magics which she has been trained in by the Church. Because of her addiction problem, Ches is connected to a drug dealer/pimp who uses her indebtedness to him, to get her involved in a ghost problem that is far above the typical haunted house. A group of evil magic users, the Lamaru appear to be involved, and it may be tied to her own Church. On top of that, a rival drug lord wants to get in on the action, and not just because he wants to see Chess’s dealer go down. Most of the story takes place in a part of the city known as Downside, the sort of place where pimps and dealers feel right at home, and Chess lives. While trying to sort out just what the hell is going on with this particularly nasty ghost, the Lamaru, and her Church, Chess has to deal with her pimp’s righthand man, a brute of a guycalled Terrible, who is actually not as awful as he appears, the good-looking rival gang leader, who wants her for more than just her connections, and an ongoing addiction to Cept, a narcotic pill that she pops on a regular basis to keep a grip on her rather crappy life. It all makes for some good conflict and sexual tension.
Plot (3 1/2 stars): Solid story. There’s some interesting elements here. The villain is suitably creepy, the magic is well-developed, and the pacing does a good job of pulling off that tricky balance of moving both story and relationships forward without ever dragging. If I was going to niggle over anything, I’d say I expected there to be a bit more to the main story. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the plot, I did, but I was expecting there to be another level to things that didn’t quite develop. Of course, this is a series, and it may very well be that the story gets deeper as we go. This is one of the harder aspects in a series, I believe, to pull off.
Character (4 stars): Chess is very well written. While I’ve heard about complaints of having a drug-addicted heroine, it’s a flaw that works very well for this story. Stacia works it in throughout the story, letting you see it’s effects on Ches’s ability to function without burying you in at the expense of the story. Terrible is just a fun character. He’s almost Frankenstein-like in his scary appearance and good-guy underneath demeanor. He kicks ass, he’s actually smart, and the ongoing sparks with Chess is well done. Both drug lords are entertaining characters in different ways, and minor characters all have personalities of there own, which is no small feat. This is mostly because Stacia does a really good job of immersing you in the life of Downside, which is a character all its own. She deserves big kudos for this element and the effort taken to bring it to life with it’s own lingo and grittiness.
Voice (4 stars): there’s a good story-telling voice here. This is always tricky to pin down to specifics, but I didn’t get the feeling this was a first book, which is no small feat in my opinion.
Overall, I’m giving this 4 stars. Enjoyable read, and more importantly, I want to see what happens with Ches down the road. Readers, do you like this format? Does it work better or worse to break it down into categories? Your feedback would be appreciated. Thanks!