Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Recently, I was asked to explain how to write a good review of a book for sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. This is because Oghma Creative Media is developing a beta reader program. The idea there is to have a group of readers who will receive e-copies of books that we’re promoting, with the requirement that the people write reviews.

So what makes a good review? No, it doesn’t mean that you have to say the book is the best thing you’ve read. I’m talking about an honest and well-crafted piece on the book you’ve read. Here’s what I mean:

1. Read


You have to read the book. That doesn’t mean skim, and it doesn’t mean the first chapter only. It means the whole book. You can’t say what the author was trying to do or what the story is about until you’ve seen the totality of it. If something was so bad that you couldn’t get past page fifteen (I’m talking to you, Ayn Rand), say that, and have done with the review.

2. Essence


Once you’ve read the book, write out in one sentence what you believe it to be about. What is the overall impression the book has left with you? This isn’t a summary of the plot. You’re not talking about what happened. You’re saying what is the meaning of the book. For example, Romeo and Juliet is the story of how love makes us defy others to be with our beloveds. Watership Down tells of the determination to survive and live well despite what fate and chance do to us. Those are two quick examples. I could refine them from there, but that shows how to get started.

3. Examples


Now you have to illustrate the main theme that you found. Tell me about the main characters, a few important scenes, and so forth that show how you figured out the essence of the book. If I’m reviewing The Lord of the Rings and claim that friendship is a key theme, I’ll show you passages where Frodo and Sam are talking to each other and supporting each other, or I’ll give you the meeting between Aragorn and Eomir at the battle for Gondor. The point is to give your readers a taste of the book that shows you’ve grasped the essence of it.

4. Spoilers


Give away as little as possible of the plot. One of the pleasures of reading or watching is surprise. If you must reveal something, tell your readers in advance

5. Conclusion


Why is this book worth reading? If it isn’t, why not? The conclusion of an essay is where you make the sale to your reader. It’s just like a car dealership. If you tell the customer all the facts about the car and take the customer out for a drive, but don’t ask the person to buy, you haven’t sold a car. In a review, you want to sum up. Tell me, your reader, what I need to do and what I’ll get out of the book in question.

To see examples of a reviews that I wrote, look here or here or here.

But as always, keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep reviewing.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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My editor asked if I wanted to read one of Pen-L Publishing’s recent releases, Winter of Beauty. Sure, I told him, figuring that I can always fit one more thing in among the papers I’m grading, the books that I’m editing, and the books that I’m writing.

As someone who is in love with language, I read a lot. Much of the time, that’s a pleasure, even when it’s for work. But the rare book comes along at unexpected times that sticks in my soul. Winter of Beauty is that kind of book. It is, without exaggeration, one of the finest pieces of writing that I have read.


The author, Amy Hale Auker, has distilled the essence of the American southwest into this tale of the year in the life of a ranch, called The Tinaja. The name is from the depression formed by a waterfall that sculpts a basin in the rock at its bottom. Above this rises The Bride, a mountain whose presence is the personification of Nature itself, the maiden, mother, and crone who gives fertility and beauty to the world.

As the mountain is the geographical center of The Tinaja, Sunshine Angel Lewis, known as Shiney, is its guiding force. Shiney inherits the ranch when her father dies, and though she is ready to take over that responsibility, she is only just ready. But as people who live in harsh lands discover, the choice is to grow with the land or leave, and Shiney cannot imagine a life anywhere else.

The environment presents all the characters with choices both tough and simple. It has no patience for people who care more about glamorous clothes and soft hands than about hard work. Those who will drive the muscle and bone of their own bodies and of the animals that are the economic value of the ranch will be rewarded with a tomorrow to do the same labor.

This book is certainly not some glib telling of the value of bucolic living. A boy deals with the legacy of a father he never knew. A family with more mouths to feed than they can afford has another child on the way. A husband and wife drift apart, the man drawn by the ranch, the woman by the call of the city. At the center, Shiney carries the weight of the whole like The Bride that unites the land.

The descriptive passages use only the right words to paint scenes of beauty that call to mind memories that we were born with, and the characters speak in the laconic language of those who know that words are signposts for those who understand and distractions for everyone else. But what ties this book together, the threads woven into an ensorcelling web, is the uncovering for the characters and the reader what we all know and too often forget. It is the work that we do together and the connections that we make with each other that give life its meaning. As with the stark land, a hard life makes what is important stand out all the clearer.

Greg Camp has taught good writing and good reading for fifteen years and is the author of A Draft of Moonlight and the soon to be released The Willing Spirit, the first novel in the Dowland Saga.

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Writer and student of myths, Joseph Campbell, has had the kind of influence that no colleague of a fabulously successful scholar can tolerate. Public television viewers may know him from the Bill Moyers series, The Power of Myth, but his largest influence was indirect. His book, The Hero with a Thouand Faces, shaped the thinking of generations of writers and filmmakers in the years since the work first appeared in 1949. Included in Campbell’s spell has been a director of whom a few have heard, namely George Lucas. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the Jedi religion, for example, now you know. The book is an effort in syncretism in myths, the belief that all myths can be explained by a single story, the monomyth or the hero’s journey. (Note that myth includes the religion that you believe, not just those that other people believe.)

To my way of thinking, the book suffers from three fundamental flaws:

1. The idea of a monomyth itself

The social sciences in the twentieth century decided that all cultures are of equal value. Whether or not that’s true, the idea is difficult to accept. Is a culture that hates Jews or enslaves Africans the moral equal of one that insists on basic rights for all human beings? I don’t think so. But an anthropologist does, at a minimum, have to set aside judgements about the worth of a culture to study it. So be it. The problem comes when cultures and their products are compared. If they are all equal, then their works–their paintings, their stories, their music, etc.–must also be equally worthy. This by implication creates the thinking that all such art must be reflections of one central truth. There is the claim, for example, that all religions are merely different paths to the same God, something like the various climbing routes up Mt. Everest.

There is some sense in this. We are all human beings whose brains have the same architecture and functions. It is reasonable to suppose that the stories that would appeal to one person are likely to appeal to others. It’s also easy to show that the plot structure of all stories comes down to a handful of types. In that way, the statement that all stories participate in a monomyth is true.

But it’s trivially true. When we delve into stories, we find that their purposes, themes, and conclusions are often quite different. Consider one point of contention that is relevant to another major flaw in Campbell’s book: individualism. We can speak at length about the divide in ways of thinking between the East and the West, and we can come up with numerous counterexamples, but one fundamental difference in the two systems of thought is that in the West, the individual is the important unit, while in the East, the individual is merely an expression, and often an illusory one, of the One. The borders of this thinking shift with politics, so don’t take these terms in a rigorous geographical sense. Islam is a case of Western thinking that penetrated deep into the land of the East, and Buddhism has become quite popular in some circles here in America.

The point here is that thematically, the stories of different cultures arrive at different ends. Campbell works his way a little bit at a time through a long list of stories, and by weaving them together without giving each one its separate due, he attempts to demonstrate the truth of the idea that they all tell the same basic story. For the sake of variety and personal and cultural autonomy, it is fortunate that he was unable to succeed in that effort.

2. The dependence on Freud

Michael Crichton called Sigmund Freud the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Certainly, the Austrian doctor was a poor psychologist. His work has little scientific merit. Sadly, his influence on the humanities has been long and pernicious. Someone once said that the films of Woody Allen would be much better had Freud never lived, and in the same vein, Campbell’s analysis of myths may also have achieved much more. Campbell accepts Freud’s psychoanalytic notions without question, and this leads him to shoehorn the stories that he discusses into narrow channels. He is particularly enamored with the idea of the mother and father images. To him, every hero deals with those two throughout the heroic journey. The hero finds the mother and father within himself and must resolve the conflicts therein. And on and on. Even when those two images are actual elements of the story, Campbell’s obsession with them is exhausting. He becomes the boy who cried Oedipus.

3. The acceptance of Buddhism

Campbell extends the Freudian notion of the ego into the world of Buddhist thinking in which the ego is an illusion. As I said above, Western stories don’t often support this kind of belief, but The Hero with a Thousand Faces goes to great lengths to make us think otherwise. I must acknowledge here that I am not a Buddhist. I don’t follow Campbell in his acceptance of that religion’s teachings. The flaw, though, is in his argument that all myths ultimately aim at a Buddhist message.

To Campbell, the hero’s journey ends in the annihilation of the self. The hero, having fought the father, married the mother, and understood himself to be the father, finally is absorbed into the All or the One or the Brahma or Nirvana. Nirvana, in particular, appeals to Campbell. He reminds us that the word means the extinguishing, the point at which all desires have ceased.

If such a thing is the goal of my readers, so be it, but I cannot go along. That, however, is a religious question. Surely we can agree that such a state is not the end of all myths. Perhaps you also agree that the Star Wars films would have been better stories had Lucas never read The Hero with a Thouand Faces. In any case, should you journey through the book yourself, you are now forewarned.

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