I blog about the books I’ve read because I like analyzing and discussing literature. Nobody pays me to do my reviews. I don’t ask for free copies of books to review. The currency I do my reviews in is time. If I have time to share my thoughts about what I’ve read, I will write a review. If not, I don’t. I review old books and new, according to what I’ve chosen to read. I take lots of notes while reading books so that I can give authors and readers specific feedback.
I used to break stories down by elements: setting, character, plot, action, mechanics, and style. The setting, character, and plot are self-explanatory. Action I included because it usually tells the reader whether the story is plot-driven or character driven. Mechanics included both grammar and composition technical knowledge. And style was based on my impressions of the author’s signature expression.
I would then “grade” books according to what they had or lacked in that list. My star ratings would be based on that. They still are to some extent. However, I no longer go into full analysis of elements, and I offer the star ratings only on sites where reviews are based on them. For my blog, I’ve decided the star rating is too arbitrary. And it doesn’t account for personal biases.
For example, I remember observing a G+ discussion between writers in which they were discussing how they rate the books they read, and one of them said he rarely ever gave five stars because five means it’s perfect … and nothing is perfect. I, however, have given many five star reviews because to me a five means it was everything I wanted it to be. I agree that no book is ever perfect, but I’m not seeking perfection. I’ve read books that were “perfectly written”, but I didn’t enjoy because they didn’t appeal to my personal tastes in literature. So, to me, “perfect” means finding the right book at the right time to suit my mood.
Everyone has their own definition of what makes a “perfect” book. This is why personal biases are important. I had an author friend who received a one-star review on her YA book because the reader didn’t like YA. The book was clearly labeled as YA, so it’s utterly puzzling why someone who dislikes YA would purchase, read, and review a YA book. Most of the reviews for that book were good, so people who enjoy YA obviously thought it was a good book. It’s not fair to the work or the author to not be aware of your own personal biases as a reader. And star reviews don’t allow the reader to explain to the author or other readers, unless there is also a comment box.
So, I’ve stopped offering stars in my blog posts, and instead I now emphasize comments. Instead of giving a full literary analysis from an academic pov, I now offer information that still gives the writer specific feedback, but includes my typical preferences or dislikes so that other readers may judge why they might agree or disagree with my opinions.
So, here’s how my reviews break down these days.
Rather than attempting to creatively re-summarize what the author should have already summarized in the blurb, I copy and paste the author’s blurb from a site selling the book. This saves me time. (Yes, it’s lazy. But I did say time was the currency I deal in.)
Notes of Interest
This is where I am up front with the reader and author about why I bought or downloaded the book, what I expected or didn’t expect from it, and mention any personal biases I might have toward genre elements. If I acknowledge that I didn’t like something because it’s not my preference, it means I’m trying to be fair to my rating for the author and give other readers the option to choose for themselves whether they might like or dislike it. For example, if I start reading an erotica/steampunk book, I might mention up front that I love steampunk, but hate erotica. The fact that I hate one element will definitely affect how I receive the book, but hopefully the elements I love will make the one I don’t tolerable. It also means I will not “deduct stars” because it’s erotica. It’s my own fault for purchasing a genre I dislike, not the author’s. If I disliked the book for that reason only, admitting that means readers who do enjoy the erotica genre might love it.
What I Liked About It
I try to look for strengths so that I can encourage the writer to do more of what I like. As an author I know how much it means to hear specific feedback on what I’m doing right because criticism is a dime a dozen. It also keeps the review from turning into a list of complaints, if there are weak areas.
If there are passages where the language was exceptional, I might share some of it. If there are passages that have deep analytical possibilities, I might delve into scholarly acknowledgement of it. But, as I said before, sometimes it’s just a matter of the right book at the right time that wins us over to it. If that is the case, I will still try to explain why.
What Could Have Made It Better For Me
Notice the “for me” part of that heading. That is a reminder that I have individual likes and dislikes just like every other person on this planet. Whatever I critique as a weakness doesn’t necessarily mean the book was badly written. It simply means that, for whatever reason, I would have liked the book more if something had been different. Anything that breaks my immersion is usually going to end up in this part of the review. Sometimes it’s typos. Other times it’s lack of interest, or situations that simply failed to suspend my disbelief.
Often, it does have to do with the quality of the writing. But sometimes I acknowledge that I’m simply disappointed that the lead female wasn’t better developed, or that I was frustrated with the ending, or that certain passages felt unrealistic. In such cases, I try to offer constructive criticism like an editor would. I am an editor, and I was an English teacher. So, it’s my job to be honest about what I feel could be fixed in order to improve the story. That’s the goal, right: making that story the best story that it can be. A good editor will not praise without good reason, but she will not be “negative” or “cruel”, either. Please recognize the difference between constructive criticism and negative criticism. It’s the difference between, “This is weak character development,” and “This character sucks!” M’kay? 🙂 I will never stoop to the latter.
In fact, if I don’t like a book — if I feel I can’t say anything good about it, if I recognize didn’t like it because the personal bias was too overpowering, or if I can’t give it more than two stars — I won’t review it. Instead, I might turn it into a blog post on how NOT to write. (I have done that before.) But even then, I won’t identify the book I’m critiquing because I don’t want to give publicity to something that is poorly written.
I finish my reviews with a brief summary of my opinions and comments. This will give my overall recommendation as to which kinds of readers might like the book, which types of readers might dislike the book, and maybe whether I will purchase more books from that author or series.
If I must give stars, three stars and a balanced range of comments means it was average — I liked it, but didn’t love it. Four stars and a majority of good comments means I really enjoyed it, but I would have suggested changes had I been the editor. And five stars with few to none suggestions for improvement means I wouldn’t change a thing … sometimes the content is enough to overlook even a couple of typos.
The bottom line is that what I offer here is one opinion — one among many. Take it with a grain of salt. Keep whatever you think you can use from the critique, and let go of what you can’t. In some cases, it’s just different tastes and you need to stick to your guns in what you’re writing or reading because not everyone will like it. That’s life. But in some cases, particularly if there is a pattern among the reviews that are average or lower, it means the author needs to work on improving the craft or product.
Authors, whining about critical reviews and attacking readers reflects badly on you as a professional. Readers, attacking authors who write books you don’t like or shaming other readers for liking something you don’t is shameful. But, not liking something everyone else seems to love, doesn’t mean you have to follow the crowd. There’s something for everyone in literature these days, so reviews are about helping authors and readers find each other. They are not opportunities to drag a creative work or the person who made it through the mud. Please be mindful of the purpose of a review the next time you write or read one. Please understand how I work with reviews if you receive one from me. 🙂