How Do You Rate Art (or My Philosophy on Book Reviews)

Before we get to my philosophy on book reviews, we are going to start with that age-old question: is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or is there some objective standard with which to measure art? The answer to both questions is yes. Confused? Good. At least I’m not the only one!

I think the answer lies somewhere in between two extremes. The truth is that everyone has their own personal taste when it comes to art. But it is also true that we can find patterns of what people like. Things like symmetry and the golden ratio are pleasing to the eye. Artists of all mediums have learned what people find pleasing and used it to their advantage.

It is also true that standards of beauty differ from culture to culture. But there seem to be certain elements that are universally regarded as good and beautiful. We aren’t going to go into where these standards come from (although I have very strong opinions on that). But we are going to turn this discussion to writing!

So are there objective standards for what makes a book “good?” Yes, you can evaluate a book by the standards of English grammar. You can ask whether the author communicated the message well, or not (although that is partially subjective, too). But ultimately there are no objective standards that make a book good or bad. 

But what about the writing rules?! What about the writing police?! What about publishers and agents who seem to know the perfect standards of storytelling?!

Well, actually there are no perfect standards of storytelling. Publishers and agents may know sells and therefore what trends are currently marketable. But that is not the same thing as an objective standard.

“But what about the writing rules?!” you ask.

Are they really rules? Or are they best practices? The truth is that the first authors didn’t have a bunch of rules. They used the English language to tell the best story they knew how. After seeing which stories did well and which didn’t, people began to develop these rules for how to write books. And if we are honest, those “rules” have changed over time.

Now, before you get angry and label me as “one of those indie authors dragging down the writing community because she doesn’t care about standards”…(you wouldn’t do that would you?) Hear me out.

For the most part, the best practices of writing are good! They exist for a reason. A lot of them are there for the reader’s benefit. I have learned some of this the hard way. I like to write stylistically and tell stories in new ways. Some readers have no problem with this. But I learned that when I submit to some of these best practices, I can reach more readers with my story.

So what does this have to do with book reviews? Well, what exactly is a book review? It’s your personal opinion on your book and a recommendation of whether other readers would like it. It doesn’t have to be a literary critique of every element of the book (unless that is your job). I repeat: it doesn’t have to be a literary critique of every element of the book.

I admit, when I first started reviewing books, I thought five stars had to be absolute perfection. But that is a dangerous standard. Because there is no perfect book in the world. (Okay, maybe one.)

It’s a bit dangerous, and a bit unfair to hold authors to a standard of perfection. Especially when the five-star rating gives you so few options. Let’s think about this for a second: if books were rated on a scale of one to ten, there would be a lot more leeway in the upper tier. I would probably buy and read any book that was a seven or higher. That is four different levels: 7, 8, 9, and 10. But with the current five-star rating, I hesitate to buy a book that is a three. That would translate to a five out of ten.

So clearly the system is a bit unfair. There is nothing in between four (pretty good) and five (perfection). In light of that, I give you my new reviewing philosophy:

Round the star rating up, give the author the benefit of the doubt, and then express any reservations in your actual review. Seriously. Think about it. The star rating piques the potential reader’s interest and indicates whether or not this book might be worth their time. But the reviews go a long way in helping them make that decision or not.

Here’s something else you should consider: if you are an author yourself, you probably have a more critical eye than the average reader. That doesn’t mean don’t be honest. But let the star rating show whether you think people would enjoy the book, and let your review delve into the strengths and weaknesses.

“But what if I give it a three star and then rave about it in the review to show people that I really enjoyed it?”

Here’s the truth: when it comes to spending money, most people consider a three not worth their time. (Remember, a three would be a five or six out of ten)

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest with your ratings or reviews. But I hope it gives you a different perspective. Personally, I have a very detailed rating system for books and movies because stories are super important to me. But I have to translate that detailed rating system into something general readers would understand and make decisions off of.

I hope this has given you something to chew on! What do you guys think? I really want to hear other people’s opinions. And let me know in the comments if you are an author yourself, or just a reader!

A Review of Starship Troopers (the book)

A friend recommended this book years ago (8 or 9). But for some reason I never picked it up. He recommended it because I love “Ender’s Game.” But he also made some reserved comments about it that made me hesitate. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he clearly didn’t sell it very well.

This book is everything I love about science fiction. It is exciting, imaginative, fast-paced, and philosophical. It starts in the middle of the action and then goes backward. This works well because you have an idea of where the plot is going and a sense of anticipation.

Boot camp was interesting and I like how the perspective of the recruits was later contrasted when the main character overhears the officers talking. I liked the slower, philosophical portions as well.

I also loved that this book was absolutely clean (other than some implied violence). It doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, but just seriously enough. And I was pleasantly surprised by a certain plot twist at the very end that made me go back and re-read passages.

Overall, the book felt like “Band of Brothers” set in science fiction. So if that sounds appealing to you, go read it.

Ender’s Game

This is happening! This is happening! (SNL’s Black Friday skit, anyone?)

Such a difficult book to review because I have this haunting fear I won’t get it right. But here we go…

There are many things I love about this book, but I will simplify it to a few to focus our time:

  1. It’s examination of leadership.
  2. How it portrays children.
  3. The character of Ender Wiggin.
  4. The writing style.

WARNING: Some SPOILERS ahead.

Continue reading “Ender’s Game”

The Martian Chronicles

I finished it!

Let me start by saying it was very different than I thought it’d be. There is a sense in which each chapter is its own entity. Bradbury covers a time period from January, 1999 to October 2026 and never latches onto a single protagonist or antagonist for that matter (although a couple characters pop up in several chapters).

Instead, Bradbury paints a broad picture of humanity’s colonization, abuse, and eventual abandonment of the only other life sustaining planet in the solar system.

Continue reading “The Martian Chronicles”

Foundation

Foundation

I had heard of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series a long time ago, but never got around to reading it. Then I found a copy in a thrift store. 🙂

It’s a little difficult to know where to start. I guess the first thing to say would be EPIC. I was truly blown away by the magnitude of the narrative. Asimov doesn’t tell the story of one person, or of a handful of people over a lifetime. He ambitiously tells the story of an empire! His emphasis is not so much on individuals, although distinct characters come and go. He produces a very large and intricate sketch of the politics of this empire.

Continue reading “Foundation”

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

Confession#1 I saw the movies first. I had never heard of The Lord of the Rings until the movies came out. When I saw the first movie I fell instantly in love. I didn’t read the books until 2004, after the third movie was released in theaters but before the extended version came out.

So my first reading of “The Lord of the Rings” was in high school. I loved the books and the extra insights they provided. But I have to admit that I constantly compared them to the movies. There were times when I grew impatient with some of the lengthy monologues and conversations-eager to move on to a certain scene that I knew was just around the corner. Granted, there were some differences in the books that I immediately fell in love with (Faramir’s character was a big one, but also little things like Gimli and Eomer’s arguments about Galadriel).

Continue reading “The Lord of the Rings”

Childhood’s End

I read the first couple chapters of this book in high school and was intrigued. But I never finished it. It left an impression on me for years to the point where I thought I had read the whole story. Needless to say I had a bit of a shock coming.

My dad did not like this book, and I can understand why. But after I finished it I couldn’t stop thinking about it for three days straight. Incidentally, I found a quick review on the back from C.S. Lewis that helped me process:

“There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own survival.”

Continue reading “Childhood’s End”

10 Reasons You Should Read “Into the Void”

  1. Logan Bailey is not your typical female action star!

I’m not gonna lie: most of the leading ladies in movies and television are nothing like me. Nor are they like many women I have met. Granted, there are some wonderful exceptions. But just as J.R.R. Tolkien decided to write the books he wanted to read, I decided to create a female heroine who inspired me and who I could relate to. Logan is quiet, contemplative, and analytical, but she is also brave and compassionate. One of the most unique things about her is this duality of logic and emotion. In this sequel we get to see her grow into a woman, take on responsibility, and exercise leadership. She is not sexy. She is not sassy. She is not fiercely independent. She is very human with strengths and weaknesses.

2. It’s based on real science with creative twists.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers here. 😉 But if you want to look into the science of Lagrange points, brain hacking, and asteroid mining, be my guest. I’ll admit that this novel isn’t super “science heavy,” but it’s definitely frosted with it.

3. It answers questions from “The Creation of Jack.”

If you have read my first novel, you have probably realized there were some questions that were never answered. Or maybe you haven’t consciously realized this, but you were left with a nagging feeling here and there that things weren’t resolved. You’re right. I focused on the main narrative of Logan’s difficult “circumstances” and her emotional journey. There were lots of open ends left here and there. “Into the Void” examines some of them and even gives some new perspective to what you thought you knew! (And isn’t life like that? I’m always finding out new information that puts my childhood and the people I know in a new life). Life is never as simple as we think it is.

4. It explores the politics of mankind as they branch out from earth.

It is a lot more political than I intended when I began this story. The politics are subtle but very present as a backdrop to Logan’s story in this book. It is an interesting glimpse into what life may be like in the future if mankind left earth and expanded into space.

5. There are more female characters!

To be honest I have felt a little guilty at how few female characters are in “The Creation of Jack.” It wasn’t really intentional. In my earliest versions there was another strong female lead that I had to cut (she ended up being superfluous and making my job more difficult). I am not apologizing though. I think each character gives a specific tone to the story. Because of the circumstances of where Logan is and what she is going through it made sense for most of the characters to be men. That being said, I was excited to introduce some more women in this next book. I have enjoyed exploring who they are, what their motivations are, and how Logan interacts with them.

6. It is full of heart.

It is not a blockbuster. It is not a sappy, unrealistic romance. The characters are real, they face their own struggles, and they grow and learn. Some of them make mistakes and have to face the consequences. It deals with difficult questions and bizarre circumstances but underneath it all is a positive message to keep on fighting.

7. It examines healthy relationships.

…for the most part. I won’t say that all the relationships in the book are healthy. What I am tired of is the mainstream media glorifying unhealthy relationships. I have met teenagers who will literally copy characters they have seen in the movies. As a writer I understand the interest in examining the darker characters, the bad decisions, and the emotionally unstable…but it is too easy to cross the line and start glorifying it. I have no desire to glorify immature and emotionally dysfunctional people. That doesn’t mean that all my characters are perfect angels. They make mistakes, they argue, they lash out, and they don’t always communicate properly. But they work through their issues and own up to their mistakes.

8. It is encouraging.

It’s not all glitter and silver linings. There are definitely some dark moments. Many of the characters go through significant struggles and brokenness. But even though things don’t turn out the way they want, even though they suffer through loss and disillusionment, they find the hope to keep on going. They make decisions that they can live with. They encourage each other and they continue to fight what they know is wrong. Warning: this is not a nihilistic book, nor will I ever write one.

9. It is an adventure.

Spoilers: they don’t sit around sipping tea the whole time 😉 To be honest, the scope of some of the action scenes blew my mind a little!

10. It contains bits and pieces of my emotional journey.

This point is mostly for people who know me. It would be difficult to count how many times I wanted to “just quit” over the last three to four years. Sometimes life rains, and then it pours, and then it turns into a blizzard and you find yourself frozen in three foot snow while all your friends are posting beach pictures in Hawaii. That is what my life has felt like. This book is an emotional triumph for me and it displays what I have learned about relationships, about dealing with emotional trauma, about dealing with manipulative people, and about always holding onto hope.

Characterization and Tolstoy

 

War and Peace

I am reading War and Peace. Thank you, thank you very much. I will receive your applause and gifts of adoration. Or a pat on the back will do just fine.

Okay. I will try not to become a book snob 😉

I really had little interest in this book until recently. I kind of always heard it was boring and ridiculously long. I guess I always thought it would feel a little too much like homework. But I fell in love with the classics, which led me to Moby Dick (another book with a tedious reputation). Not only did I love it, but its length became one of its best attributes. Sometimes you read a book that is so engaging that you whizz right through it and cry at the end because it was too short. There was little “whizzing” involved with this book. I had to slow down from the beginning and accept the fact that I was on a journey. And when I finally got to the end there were no tears because it ended too fast, there was only deep contentment and gratitude (and a little nostalgia because the journey had ended).

I guess War and Peace was an obvious next step 😉 I picked up a copy at a used book store months ago, but have been waiting for the right time to dive in. Well, I took the plunge a few weeks ago and have been enjoying it.

Tolstoy is teaching me a lot. He has this unique gift of characterization. He can describe an individual in a few sentences and I know exactly what he’s talking about. He will often focus on one specific trait or behavior (the little princess with the curved upper lip or the captain with his eyes half closed). Not only does it help the characters stand out from each other (and there are a lot of characters), but they immediately feel real. And then after you’ve seen the characters in one context (like a social gathering), he shows them in another (at home with their family) and your perspective of them changes.

It is challenging me in a very good way.

And although the book started out “slow,” focusing on the social circles of influential people in Petersburg and Moscow leading up to the war (I really didn’t mind)…his battle scenes are completely riveting.

Anyone else reading Tolstoy? Don’t give me any spoilers, I’m only on pg 220. But what do you think?

Review of A Passage to India

I’ve heard E. M. Forster’s name thrown around in the literary world, but didn’t know much about him. I finally picked up a copy of “A Passage to India” in a used bookstore because I’ve seen it often pop up on those “100 books to read before you die” lists. But to be honest, I was expecting him to be pretentious and overbearing (especially when writing about colonization). I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Take a look at two of his quotes from the book:

“Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.” E.M. Forster

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually. Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.” E.M. Forster

The book was peppered with small insights like this that increased its interest for me. In addition to that, I thought his characters were very well thought out and patiently exposed.

All that being said, it wasn’t my favorite book. But it was definitely one that lodged itself in my mind. His fascinating three-fold division of the book from Mosque, Caves, and Temple as a typification of cross-cultural relationships is pretty brilliant. As I understood it:

“Mosque” is the honeymoon stage. It is the stage when you see similarities and are delighted by differences. It is the stage when you see the mistakes your countrymen have made and determine to be different.

“Caves” comes after some time has passed. Usually some larger event helps you to see the insurmountable differences between your two cultures. You become disillusioned. Your loyalty returns to your home country and the familiarity and protection it affords. Emotions like frustration, anger, bitterness, and judgment crop up. Sometimes this isn’t one big event, but a lot of smaller events.

“Temple” is the final phase, which I might say that not everyone reaches. It comes after more time has passed and you have re-established your identity with your own culture. Some of the fondness for the new culture returns. You reunite with old friends and are now able to establish a mutual respect without demanding that each other change. You both acknowledge the degrees of separation between you and are able to be respectful of each others’ culture.

At this point in the book, however, “India” and “England” separate because they are unable to be friends. But I think if he had changed the ending there would have been a fourth stage although I’m not sure what it would have been called.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book and I salute the author.