Book Review star meanings

Novels in a Polish bookstore

Novels in a Polish bookstore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve read some of the book reviews I’ve posted recently you might have wondered why even the books I criticize pretty harshly still get some stars.

The system I usually use (here and elsewhere) is:

  1. This book has no redeeming qualities.
  2. This book is bad but has some redeeming quality.
  3. This book has flaws but is readable.  I definitely wouldn’t waste shelf space on it.
  4. This book is nearly perfect.  I don’t regret reading it but I probably wouldn’t put it on my bookshelf.
  5. This book has no flaws.  I would read it again.

Consequently I’ve only given out a dozen or so 5’s, a couple 1’s and a lot of 4’s and 3’s.

I do something very similar with movies – just replace “book” with “movie”, “read” with “watch” etc.

This raises the issue that stars aren’t always equivalent – people don’t always use them to mean the same thing.  If someone else has rated a book a 3, what does that mean?  Does it mean the same thing I would mean by a 3 or do they mean something completely different?  Maybe they rate everything a 5 except for giving really terrible books 3, or maybe they rate everything a 3 except for giving really terrible books 1 – you have no way of knowing.

That makes things like the rating histogram on Amazon less useful, because not only can the stars mean different things but each mix of reviewers will be different.  Unfortunately a lot of the time the stars are almost all we have to base our purchasing decisions on.  Which brings up the fact that getting book recommendations are hard.  There are a lot of sites that attempt it, but personal taste is a tenuous thing to pin down and the “goodness” of a book is hard to determine algorithmically.

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Book Review – The Hungering Saga Complete by Heath Pfaff

The Hungering Saga Complete by Heath Pfaff

The Hungering Saga Complete by Heath Pfaff

The blurb:

Twisted by black magic and driven by soul crushing loss, Lowin Fenly, a young scribe-turned-knight, struggles to hold onto his humanity as he battles to rescue that which he values most in the world. Along the way he will be forced to make friends of his enemies, and enemies of his friends. He will grow from a boy no one has heard of, into a man destined to leave the land forever changed, but how will he be remembered? Will he be Sir Fenly, Hero of the People, or will he be Lowin the Dread, a monster to terrify children? The Hungering Saga is a sweeping story that begins in familiar fantasy territory, and quickly twists many of the genre staples back upon themselves.

This is a three book series.  The first book is the weakest.

There were a lot of spelling errors, for example poll/pole, lose/loose – the book needs proofreading.

There were serious technical issues with the ebook – the font size was broken, the “time left in chapter” estimate was all wrong and the last page of the book actually crashed the Kindle.

The first book ends abruptly and if I wasn’t reading an anthology I would have been mad.  The third book also ends pretty suddenly, but at least most things are explained (if not resolved).

The trilogy is called The Hungering Saga, and yet The Hungering were only really in the second book.

The author has  some sort of issue with writing romantic relationships.  Sometimes it’s embarrassing to read and sometimes it’s very uncomfortable.  I don’t know if it’s the author’s wish fulfillment or what, but the main characters (who sleep with each other) have the bodies (and sometimes minds) of young teenagers.  Also the main character literally has magic genitalia that heals the women he sleeps with, so that’s pretty chauvinistic.

I can’t believe they’re charging $18 for this in paperback.  I borrowed it for free from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and I think that’s a much more reasonable price.

Having said all that, on the whole it was pretty enjoyable, especially the second book.

Book Review – Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs

Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs

Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs

The blurb says:

In a house under renovation, a plumber uncovers a cellar no one knew about, and makes a rather grisly discovery — a decapitated chicken, animal bones, and cauldrons containing beads, feathers, and other relics of religious ceremonies. In the center of the shrine, there is the skull of a teenage girl. Meanwhile, on a nearby lakeshore, the headless body of a teenage boy is found by a man walking his dog.

Nothing is clear — neither when the deaths occurred, nor where. Was the skull brought to the cellar or was the girl murdered there? Why is the boy’s body remarkably well preserved? Led by a preacher turned politician, citizen vigilantes blame devil worshippers and Wiccans. They begin a witch hunt, intent on seeking revenge.

Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan — “five-five, feisty, and forty-plus” — is called in to investigate, and a complex and gripping tale unfolds in this, Kathy Reichs’s eleventh taut, always surprising, scientifically fascinating mystery.

This is the eleventh installment in the series so if you’ve read the previous ten books you’ll pretty much know what to expect, and if you haven’t then you should go do that now.

As usual there are encyclopedic infodumps and some personal relationship issues that are blatantly obvious to the reader but that the main character refuses to understand in order to create drama.

This book is set in Charlotte, North Carolina which I don’t like as much as the Quebec setting (possibly just because it feels a bit more exotic) but there’s nothing actually wrong with it.

As the title and blurb state, the unique spin of this book is alternative/fringe religions, which are handled in a predictably respectful and informative way.

It’s mostly a good entry in the series but there are a few things that aren’t explained and the “personal relationships” storyline isn’t resolved.

Book Review – Wool – Part One by Hugh Howey

Wool - Part One by Hugh Howey

Wool – Part One by Hugh Howey

The brief blurb says:

Thousands of them have lived underground. They’ve lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you’ll get what you wish for.

This is a short story that was originally self-published, so my usual wariness applies.

There are some problems with the plot, but it’s an imaginative story which is consistent with the success of the Wool series as a whole.

Woot shirt reprints

Image representing Woot as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Woot is a website that offers one item at a time, on sale for one day only.  It’s usually a good deal, but in order to make sure you don’t miss a bargain you’ll need to visit the site every day.  On the other hand nowadays “limited availability” tends to just be a gimmick to get people to buy.

They also have specific sub-domains for different types of products, for example t-shirts.  There have been several cases where they had a shirt for sale that I really wanted but didn’t find out about until after the brief window had closed and it was no longer available.

Now they’re reprinting (almost) every t-shirt design, so if you missed one you can still get it!  Including the Uranium: 92 Protons of Boom shirt I blogged about five years ago (wow) and have been wearing ever since.

There are LOADS of awesome designs, but in order to keep some of money in my own hands I’m going to have to limit myself to my absolute favorites:

Shoot First

Shoot First

This hits multiple vulnerable spots – Star Wars, Han Solo, old adventure games, Han shot first…  No matter how many times I look at it, I can’t avoid thinking “this is awesome, I must have it!”

The other one on my shortlist is this one:

Sky Invader

Sky Invader

This hits the classic aliens from Space Invaders and the Dark Knight Rises poster.

Special mention also goes out to Only Memories, which is beautifully melancholy and Swept Away which combines my love of reading with my love of flying ships.

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Book Review – My Gun Has Bullets by Lee Goldberg

My Gun Has Bullets by Lee Goldberg

My Gun Has Bullets by Lee Goldberg

The blurb of the day is:

When Beverly Hills Police Officer Charlie Willis pulls over a speeding Rolls Royce hell-bent for Neiman Marcus, he’s surprised to see Esther Radcliffe, the geriatric star of the TV series “Miss Agatha,” behind the wheel. He’s even more surprised when she guns him down and keeps on driving. A few hours later, he wakes up in the intensive care unit…to find a William Morris agent, a network president, and the head of Pinnacle Studios standing at the foot of his bed. They have a proposal for him: in exchange for conveniently forgetting who shot him, they’ll make him the star of his own series, “My Gun Has Bullets.” So Charlie trades in his real badge for a fake one…and so begins an uproarious but deadly romp through the wonderful world of TV make-believe…with real bullets.

The author writes for TV and this is a book about what would happen if the mob got into producing TV and started killing off the competition.  I had the impression that he was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of TV people and started making up stories about them killing each other and decided to write it down.

This book is a farce.  This is not an insult, it is a type of story.  Farces are supposed to be comedies but I didn’t find this book funny.  It wasn’t really tragic either.  In the end you have to just let the insanity wash over you and ride it out to the end.

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Book Review – Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox

Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox

Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox

The blurb says:

A funny, highly personal, gorgeously written account of what it’s like to be a 30-year-old man who is told he has an 80-year-old’s disease.

“Life is great. Sometimes, though, you just have to put up with a little more crap.” –Michael J. Fox

In September 1998, Michael J. Fox stunned the world by announcing he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — a degenerative neurological condition. In fact, he had been secretly fighting it for seven years. The worldwide response was staggering. Fortunately, he had accepted the diagnosis and by the time the public started grieving for him, he had stopped grieving for himself. Now, with the same passion, humor, and energy that Fox has invested in his dozens of performances over the last 18 years, he tells the story of his life, his career, and his campaign to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

Combining his trademark ironic sensibility and keen sense of the absurd, he recounts his life — from his childhood in a small town in western Canada to his meteoric rise in film and television which made him a worldwide celebrity. Most importantly however, he writes of the last 10 years, during which — with the unswerving support of his wife, family, and friends — he has dealt with his illness. He talks about what Parkinson’s has given him: the chance to appreciate a wonderful life and career, and the opportunity to help search for a cure and spread public awareness of the disease. He is a very lucky man, indeed.

I think this is the first biography I’ve read. It was a lot more personal than I was expecting – we don’t really think of famous people in any other context than how we’ve experienced them. We think we know them because we’ve seen them over the course of our lives, but we don’t often think that it’s over the course of their lives too. In the case of performers what we’ve seen isn’t even the real person, just the performance. It was very enlightening.

I had expected biographies to be more linear, but this one jumps around a lot. I suppose it’s the way we’d tell a story if we were recounting it out loud – referring to past events that relate to each part of the story.

The only criticism I have of the book is that it starts off saying that Fox is a lucky man in spite of (because of) his diagnosis.  It’s quite a bold statement and (as it’s also the title) seems to be the theme of the book.  Given this, it felt like the biography should book-end by explaining why all of the things that happened to him make him feel lucky, but it doesn’t.

Since reading this book I’ve looked at actors differently – instead of blaming them for movies that flop I try to see what they were trying to do by picking that role.

Book Review – Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan


They killed the king. They pinned it on two men. They chose poorly.

There’s no ancient evil to defeat or orphan destined for greatness, just unlikely heroes and classic adventure. Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, are running for their lives when they’re framed for the death of the king. Trapped in a conspiracy that goes beyond the overthrow of a tiny kingdom, their only hope is unraveling an ancient mystery before it’s too late.

When author Michael J. Sullivan self-published the first books of his Riyria Revelations, they rapidly became ebook bestsellers. Now, Orbit is pleased to present the complete series for the first time in bookstores everywhere.

First of all the fact that this book was originally self-published worried me. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with self-publishing, it’s just that published books have gone through some sort of vetting and editing process. I’ve read some pretty bad books that were professionally published (so it obviously isn’t a guarantee of quality) but a much higher proportion of the self-published books that I’ve read have been bad. In any case, apart from some clumsiness near the beginning, this is a good book.

This is where “secondly” comes in. Secondly, this isn’t actually one book but two half-length books published together. There’s no missing this fact – there’s a definite arc to the two books and no attempt has been made to retrofit them into one story. It’s good to go into it knowing this because otherwise at 49% you might be thinking “gosh, they’ve got everything just about wrapped up, what are they going to do for the rest of the story?” but in retrospect I think it’s fine. Both stories are detailed enough to be satisfying – it just feels like you’re getting a bonus story.

Having said that, I think the second story would have been annoying to read on its own because it refers to the events of the first story quite a bit and assumes you know what’s going on. Obviously in this context that’s not a problem since by the time you start the second story you will have just finished reading the first one.

From a technical point of view the only real complaint I have about the book is that the names of people and places don’t seem to follow any sort of logic. Usually in a world like this one with well defined geography and history there’s a consistency to related locations and people groups. So you can tell at a glance “ah, this is an elf” or “this must be near this other place”. The complaint I have is that in this book that’s not really the case – names just seem to have been picked at random, some completely made up, some with Welsh-looking spelling and some completely ordinary all mixed together.

The author does pull some punches in that the main characters are supposed to have a darkness to them, but they never actually do anything less than righteous, so it feels a bit like lip service and a pulled punch. There are some satisfying twists and revelations though, especially in the second story.

I will be reading the rest of the series and looking into other books written by this author.

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Book Review – The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

This one has an unusual blurb:

Dear Reader,

I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

With all due respect,

Lemony Snicket

This is a kid’s book, so it’s obviously not as long or as complicated as the books I usually read. However it’s written with a sort of luxurious relish for the English language that makes it enjoyable even as an adult.

As stated in the title, the blurb and several times in the book – it isn’t a happy story. I’m sure there will be children who enjoy this, but I’m also sure that there will be parents who fear that their children won’t.

Book Review – Psych: The Call of the Mild by William Rabkin

Psych: The Call of the Mild by William Rabkin

Psych: The Call of the Mild by William Rabkin

Mr. Blurb says:

Shawn Spencer has always hated the wilderness-by which he means anything outside the delivery radius of his favorite pizza place. But Psych has been hired to solve a baffling case of industrial espionage, and the only way to catch the spy is to join their client’s bonding retreat-a grueling seven day backpacking mountain trek.

But when one of the campers turns up with a bullet in the head, Shawn and Gus soon realize that sheer cliffs, rampaging bears, and freeze- dried pineapple aren’t the greatest threats they face.

TV tie-in books are restricted in that they can’t add or remove any major characters or make any permanent changes, so there’s an upper limit on how good books like this can be.

This is a fair enough tie-in book – the characters are faithfully reproduced and the structure is right, but for a short book it felt like the story was begin dragged out.  The mystery being solved wasn’t difficult to work out before the characters did.