Writing a Useful Book Review

If you read Bookriot, you may have read their post from a few months ago about book categories that would be handy to augment the standard 4 or 5 star rating systems many sites use (click here to read their post if you haven’t yet).

One of the hardest things to do as a book blogger or book reviewer is balancing the goal of conveying enough information about the books we read so that many of our readers will find our information helpful, or at least not misleading, without ‘spoiling’ the book. This must be done in just a few paragraphs at most, providing hints as to what the book is about, why one might enjoy reading it, and who might particularly enjoy the book, without giving away too much of the plot or other important elements of the book.

If I tell you in my review all that I liked and disliked about The Hunger Games- all the character descriptions and character development, plot twists, allusions to real life events, etc.- all the elements that led to my ratings for this book on my own spreadsheet and on Goodreads, you might as well not read it because I’ll have told you too much of the story. But, if you are someone who dislikes sex scenes, strong language, or ‘onscreen’ violence, ideally a book review should warn you if The Hunger Games is going to be uncomfortable for you to read.

Writing a review for one or two people to read is easy. I know what my sister likes in a book, somewhat, so if I am just reviewing books for her benefit, I can zero in on the elements she will like or dislike. But each person has a different set of likes and dislikes, and every book combines its elements differently. I may really dislike mushy romantic scenes, and still enjoy some books that have such scenes, simply because the writing is beautiful or the story is compelling enough to me that those scenes are not a problem (For example, Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story, and I really enjoyed it, despite the mushiness that in other books would have been really annoying.)

Numerical ratings

I use a 10 point decimal scale on my spreadsheet, ever since I started keeping a spreadsheet in 2007.  I only started using Goodreads much in 2013, so I am far more accustomed to my 10 point decimal system than I am to Goodreads’s 5 star system. My Goodreads star ratings often vary a bit from my private ratings. In my own system a good book can fall anywhere from 6 to 10, while anything below a 5 is bad. Many classics fall in the middle, between a 4 and a 6, not bad, exactly, but nothing I’ll be eager to re-read.

On Goodreads the culture skews the ratings. Sure, the 2-star rating should mean ‘it was ok’, but if you give a book a 2 on Goodreads the author might leave you a nasty note for giving their book a bad grade. So really, unless the book was terrible, most books on Goodreads get at least 3 stars as a default rating, and unless they had serious flaws they usually get 4 stars. Thus, almost all the books I would rate between 7 and 10 on my scale get a 5 on Goodreads, many of my 5-6 point books get 4 stars, 3-5 points on my system gets 3 Goodreads stars, and unless I really hated the book, the rest get 2 stars. Most of the books I have rated with 1 star have spent the rest of their lives propping up wobbly table legs.

Clearly, since every reviewer has her own system, numerical ratings are only a very rough guide, overall, for finding good books to read.

I do read (cover-to-cover) and review just about every book I am given ‘for free in exchange for a fair review’, and I take being fair very seriously, so even if some of these books are awful, I will review them as constructively as possible. (I used to work as a teaching assistant in grad school, where my job was coaching writing and grading essays for large undergraduate courses, so I put on my ‘paper grading’ hat when reading books I am planning to review.) On Goodreads ratings below a 4 make some authors really upset, and if rolling a 3.5 to a 4 makes them happier, and the book isn’t too bad, it doesn’t hurt to give them the extra half point. On Ravenmount, however, I am starting to lean towards using my own 10 point scale again.

Ratings tell you roughly how much I liked the book, but not much about why. Thus I am toying with adding categories to my reviews. I’m thinking of trying out tags like “great if you take it slowly, a few chapters at a time” and “best if read all in one sitting”, along with “very heavy subject matter” and “not meant to be taken too seriously”.  If I’ve been reading ‘serious’ books too much I can get a bit cranky about books that are just meant to be fun. Honestly I don’t appreciate authors who don’t bother to check their basic facts, or who don’t bother to edit their book past the first 30 pages, so some of my crankiness is justified; many ‘light’, ‘fun’ books are poorly researched or poorly edited and seem like they were cranked out just to pay the mortgage.

But, I’ll admit I may also sometimes be missing the point when the book I am reading is really just supposed to be escapist fun for readers who just need some entertainment on their lunch breaks. Maybe. If it were my lunch break, I’d still want fact checked, well crafted novels with some substance to them.

Reading and Reviewing as an Outsider

For Christian genre fiction, LGBT fiction, and other books that are geared towards particular audiences, tags like “not my genre”(and thus low stars from me, but it is not a bad book)”, “not the right reader for this, but can see how it would be a great fit for a friend/Mom/etc.”, and “not my genre, but I enjoyed it anyway” seem reasonable. As an atheist with Christian fundamentalist family members I get to read a lot of Christian fiction just to keep the peace, and these are useful notes for my own records. Really, most canonical Western classics are Christian, so if we atheists can read the classics without being turned off by their religious themes, surely there are comparable books being published now. Sadly, most of the Christian genre fiction I’ve sampled is about as well written and well edited as most dime store romances. The good stuff gets lumped into the ‘literary fiction’ category by publishers, I’m guessing. Still, you never know if the book you’re holding is a great book till you read it. After all, some enduring classics were classified as trashy genre fiction when they first came out.

There are of course other categories where I am reading as a bit of an outsider. Though I am glad there are more LGBTQ-aware novels on the shelves now, I myself am still decidedly straight, and can only enjoy LGBTQ fiction to the same extent as readers who are LGBTQ can enjoy ‘straight’ fiction. The stories may be great, and the diversity of sexual perspectives may be refreshingly realistic, but I no more want to read a sex scene between two men than I want to watch one or participate in one.  There are books with sexual diversity where romance is not actually the point of the book, of course, and books where the (non-heterosexual) sexual scenes are literary and well-integrated with the story. Even then I am reading as an outsider, of course, and my ratings and review are still coming from an outsider’s point of view.

Books pointedly aimed at ‘diversity’ in terms of race or handicaps also may be cases where I am reading as an outsider or Other. I am myself handicapped, but there are so many different ways one can be handicapped or ‘diverse’ relative to middle-class, ‘normal’, healthy, White, Christian men, that we are almost all reading as outsiders whenever we are reading a book with more than one race, gender, etc.  I don’t need to only read books where the protagonist is a short, Caucasian, physically handicapped, American woman with a mood disorder and Asperger’s just to enjoy a book. But as a reviewer I have not yet developed a set of ratings that reflect how my own personal identity affects my experiences with the books I read.  I loved some of Salinger’s characters, probably because as someone with Asperger’s, I could relate to them, which may also explain why so many other people reviewed those books critically, because they could not relate to those same characters.

Other Potentially Useful Rating Tags

“I loved it, but most people I know won’t enjoy/understand it”, for those books that are too nerdy or tedious or challenging for just about everyone I’ve met but that for me resonate with my particular brand of nerdiness.

“I would have enjoyed it without …”, for books where the story is good, the characters are good, etc., but there are occasional awkward sex scenes, preachy religious monologues, rambling tangents about boring scenery, really pointless dialogue sections, etc. that get in the way.

“Not my hobby”, for books where the theme is just not one you can relate to. I read an occasional sports themed book, because my brother foists them on me, and I can see how the book is well written, with good pacing, well-developed characters, a good plot, and everything else that makes for a solid novel. But, I don’t like sports. I can sort of sympathize when a football player’s injury ends his career in football, but not the way my brother, who loves football, does.

“I don’t get it”, for the rare book that after reading the whole thing twice I still can’t figure out. I had one that I read 3 times, trying to work out whether a) it was memoir or a novel, b) what it was about, and c) whether anything actually happened in the book. I read a lot of books of varying difficulty and quality, and if I still can’t wrap my mind around a book like that, there is something ‘off’ about the book. I rated that one fairly low, and of course got a nasty note from the author as a result, but I really did try to make that book make sense. (It turned out it was supposed to have been a memoir, though I am still not sure, beyond that, what it was actually about or what happened in it.)

What review tags do you use (or would you like to try in the future) when reviewing books? How do you manage your ratings system?

About Ravenmount

Independent science nerd/writer/music blogger/arts enthusiast/theorist currently in Colorado.
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