How I rate and review

I thought it was probably worth spending some time setting out how I rate and review books.

First of all, I have tremendous respect for anyone who manages to write a novel. Producing a complex piece of prose story-telling that hangs together coherently is no mean feat. Getting it published (whether self-published or via a traditional publisher) is a real achievement and being willing to put something out there for people to read – many of whom may not like it for one reason or another – shows real creative bravery.

When I review it will always be my subjective opinion of the work. I tend not to summarise plot.  I hate spoilers and the back of the book is usually a good enough guide to what the book is about (and that information is freely available on places like GoodReads), but I will make a conscious effort here to add a bit more detail. Let me know if you think more would be helpful. What I tend to focus on is my response to the book: what works well and less well, key themes and links to other work.  I review the book, not the author: I won’t judge it by the politics, personality or past actions of the author, and will only refer to them if I think they’re relevant to the book or the review itself.

When it comes to rating books, I like the descriptions in the GoodReads system. I try to differentiate books across all of the ratings, though I tend to mostly rate books in the 3* – 5* range.  GoodReads tells me my current rating average is 3.67, slightly lower than the 3.89 average for all users (what can I say?!  I’m a tough marker …).  It’s probably skewed to that end of the range because I mostly manage to successfully avoid books that I’d be less likely to enjoy. Here’s a brief explanation of how I interpret those ratings and what one is likely to mean.

1* – I didn’t like it. I almost certainly had a strong emotional reaction to this book, disliking it intensely. I may not have finished it. The review is likely to be quite rude about the book as a consequence (and this is generally the only time I’m scathing – all other critical comments in reviews are intended to be constructive).  But it’s a rating I use very rarely.  Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is a 1* book for me.  I called it “Shallow, predictable glurge, like an overlong ‘inspiring’ message inside a cheap greetings card.” 

2* – It was OK. I was probably a bit ‘meh’ about this book. It may have had structural problems or light characterisation.  I may have thought it was a bit flawed as a consequence. But I finished it and didn’t begrudge my time reading it. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a 2* book for me because although it was fun, I was frustrated by its Gary Stu protagonist and failure to engage at all with the impact of war or themes of colonialism.

3* – I liked it. Does what it says on the tin. I actively enjoyed reading this book and looked forward to picking it up..

4* – I liked it a lot. There was probably something about this book that lifted it above the crowd. That could be compelling characterisation, a really exciting plot or the interesting treatment of themes. I probably engaged with this book intellectually as well as enjoying the story.  The Very Best of Kate Elliott is a good example here: lots to recommend it, but it lacked a certain emotional punch for me.

5* – I loved it. 5* books fall into two categories. They will either be something I think is truly superb (James Smythe’s The Machine for its treatment of the brutalising effect of war and violence on people) or something less literary that I have a total fangirl love for (think Jasper Fforde – clever, exuberant fun).  You’ll be able to tell which it is by the text I wrote to go with it.  Either way, like 1* books I probably had a strong emotional reaction to a 5* book. 

All of which means take any 1* and many 5* reviews from me with a pinch of salt.


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