On reviews – fairness and five stars

I’m finally figuring out what’s important for this year, and reading lots of books is among my top priorities. Reading isn’t just about getting to explore fantastic worlds and characters from the safety of my sofa, and passing the dead time spent on overcrowded, often smelly buses. It provides valuable inspiration and fuel for writing. Since I’ve joined GoodReads I’ve found it easier to create reviews of the books I’ve read. As an additional incentive I’m attempting to better my score of 100 books read in 2011. This year, I’m going for the big 150. I’ll be reviewing everything I manage to read, from indie to mass-market-published. I’m trying to read a lot of genres, but often end up returning to the area of science fiction, horror and fantasy, although I’m rediscovering some classics, and trying out the odd bodice-ripper along the way.

Now, I’ve been meeting a lot of great authors through Twitter and Goodreads, and I have a comfortingly huge stack of ebooks by these authors to try out. Mostly free, it’s true, though I have splashed out a few time with an actual payment! I will review these as I would any other book, trying to explain in a fair review both what I liked about their writing and to try offering constructive criticism. As an aspiring author, too, I know exactly how horrible taking feedback often feels! Especially by some mook on the internet.

Because of this, I also review all books pretty strictly and always try to be honest and constructive. It’s often hard to tell by star reviews alone, although if you’re me looking at books on Amazon, you’ll often skip to the two star reviews first. Is that wrong? Probably, yes. But preferences in entertainment, especially books (because they can take so much time commitment) are a very personal thing and this is why I’ll try and give a rough outline of my reasoning below:

5 Stars

Unmissable, life-changing, I probably read it when I was a kid and therefore am unable to look at it with the slightest objectivity. It’s like trying to be objective about Ghost Busters or Star Wars or Jurassic park, I cannot criticize it. These 5-star books are also very rare. This includes Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings or the Lion, The With & the Wardrobe. No matter that I can now see their flaws, I love them almost unreservedly and they remain a big part of who I am.

4 Stars

This signifies a fantastic book, which I was utterly caught up by. It also gets this many stars because it’s moved me to a new mindset, or affected me deeply. Also quite rare, it’s got to be something truly original that stands out as spectacular and also very hard to put down. Such as: Of Human Bondage, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, anything by H P Lovecraft.

3 stars

This will be the most frequently applied rating, at least I really hope it will. It’s for stories which are still very strong, which definitely swept me up and entertained me, and maybe even a few times made me nearly miss my bus stop on the journey home. I know new authors really want the four and five stars, but I use the three to show that I very much liked, enjoyed and appreciated their work. It may not stay with me forever, but I had a lot of fun while I was reading the book, and I’m likely to look up more work by them in the future. It is not a bad indication at all, it means I enjoyed the story.

2 stars

These are for books which took forever to get started, failed to enthrall or fully engage me, or for whatever reason didn’t quite mesh. China Mieville’s City and the City, and Tim Lebbon’s Echo City find themselves here. It doesn’t mean they were poorly written, it simply means that I didn’t get on with most of the story, characters or, often most crucially, the pacing of the book. It could also involve chunks of exposition that got in the way, or leaden description.

1 star 

The very worst of the worst. Run from this book. I’d put the Shack top of the 1-star pile, and while I try very hard to finish most books I’ve begun, some are just terrible. This applies to badly edited books, books full of typos and cripple by poor exposition, or simply impenetrable or deeply irritating writing. It’s also if the books is just plain patronising or annoying. I will never review a book I haven’t finished, but ‘The Shack’ came very close. If it’s a vapid waste of time, it’s getting 1-star. Again, not many books fall into this category, and I try to at least check the style and quality before I start reading. On a snarkier note, it’s funny how many ‘bestsellers’ fall under this list. As well as ‘The Shack’, I’d also add ‘Sophie’s World’ as a book I found almost too annoying to complete.

So, it all comes down to personal taste, doesn’t it? We can all only go by what we want to believe, and trust our own judgment in the end. I think this is best encapsulated by a speech at the very end of one of my very favourite films, Pixar’s incredible ‘Ratatouille’:

(It ends abruptly, but this doesn’t spoil the ending so much if you haven’t seen it, and the bit abut chefs that it cuts is less relevant!)

As I want to review so much, especially through GoodReads, I felt it was important to qualify my reasons for how I rate books, and I hope that this makes it clearer as I continue to hone reviews and, again, write my own. Reading is so valuable when trying to write, and a good review does go a long way.

Whether you agree with it or not is, again, a totally different matter. Hello, internet. Gulp.

As a final observation, this quote applies as both critic and creator:

“If you don’t know what you love, you are lost.” – Haruki Murakam


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