Friday, March 11, 2016

How Much Does a Star Weigh?

Dissecting a Book Review  

In lieu of the book review that normally appears in this space on Fridays, I've asked my friend, Kat Heckenbach, to take my spot today to discuss how to give a good book review. This piece originally appeared on her blog in 2012. Thanks for sharing today, Kat!

I have read and participated in discussions on what seems like dozens of blog posts about book reviewing. They've tackled topics like giving undeserved positive reviews, always giving reasons for your star ratings, whether you should review books by people you know, and a multitude of other issues.

What I haven't seen is a discussion on how star ratings are derived. In other words, what particular elements do you mark down for, and by how much? How much "weight" do different elements carry?

Plot, character, and world-building are the three foundation blocks of a novel, in my opinion. But other chunks that take up a lot of weight are dialog and pacing. Voice is a very important one to me. And then there are things like sentence structure, description, and word use. All of those elements are in some ways tied inextricably to each other, but they can still be looked at separately.

I'm going to attempt to assess my own method by looking at some of the reviews I've left on Amazon.

I've never given a book a one-star. I think if a book is that bad, well, frankly I'm not going to make myself read the thing. I likely won't get past the first few pages. And how does one justifiably write a book review of only a page or two?

There are times, however, I can get a decent way into a book--much farther than the first pages--but still give up. The reasons? Some books with strong voices have lost me because I didn't buy the story premise or the plot. Some had a great premise and plot, but the voice drove me nuts. Some had characters that were so inconsistent I couldn't keep reading. If any element, regardless of which one, was enough to make me stop partway through, the book got a two-star.

Three-star reviews tend to come from being able to get completely through a book, but finding some particular element distracting. I may find myself having to stop because I'm getting annoyed by the voice or idiosyncrasies in the plot. But there is something else--maybe a character or a situation in the story--that I'm curious enough about to draw me back to the book.

Four-star books keep me reading, but have slight speed-bumps here and there. It's a book that when I reach the end, I'm very glad I read it. The big elements are strong and the writing is tight. The voice may not have knocked my socks off, but it was pleasant enough. However, it may not be a book I hold on to with intention of ever reading again.

Five-star books are those that I'd totally read again. All the big elements are there and well-done. The voice is compelling, and the writing clean. I've become completely absorbed by the story and when the book is out of my hand I'm itching to get back to it. There are different levels of this, btw. I have marked books five-star that I still wouldn't rank up there with Harry Potter or The Name of the Wind. They're not epic-omigod-you-must-read-this-or-die, but they touched me. The Muse by Fred Warren is a good example. I picked it up on a day when I was feeling particularly foul. Depressed and grumpy and pretty much sick of the world. But when I closed the book, which I read in just a few hours, I hugged it to my chest and smiled.

Hmmm.....has this actually helped? I'm not sure. I think I can pinpoint certain things that seem to matter more to me than others. Such as, I can tolerate a less than stellar plot if the characters and voice are compelling enough. I've read books with voices so strong I've thought, "This book could be about a trip to Walmart and I'd read it," because I love the character and/or prose so much.

But if the writing isn't fluid and I'm constantly tripping over the prose, the most incredible plotting in the world won't matter. Connections to the characters are lost because the voice is too dry or the wording prohibits the reader from getting into the character's head and really experiencing things. The potentially coolest-ever story world falls flat because I feel like I'm trying to look through a dirty window to see it.

And there is the problem of subjectivity. For example, I've seen books slammed solely because they are written in first person present tense. The reviewer finds that to always be like a dirty window, yet I happen to love that pov choice IF it is done well. There are things that are wholly personal taste.

There are times when what we love, hate, or are indifferent about is hard to nail down, too. We just "feel" like it's a three-star or five-star. It's simply the taste left in our mouth when we close the cover. Nothing in particular stood out as poorly done, but we're underwhelmed. Nothing was outrageously original, but we "couldn't put it down."

Sometimes I wish star ratings could be done away with. I've found myself reading and reviewing books for  which I can describe my dislikes in detail--yet I know as I write the review those same things are going to strongly appeal to another type of reader. I don't like techie-focused "hard" sci-fi. The details bog me down and I find my eyes rolling back in my head. But what if it's the most well-written hard sci-fi book out there? I actually wouldn't know that! So my review says the book goes into excruciating detail--without that star rating the potential reader can interpret that in light of their own likes and dislikes.

What I'm coming to realize is that stars have different weights for different readers/reviewers. What makes a four-star for one makes a three-star or a five-star for someone else. And reviewers put varying degrees of emphasis on different elements. In other words, what kills a book for me may not bother you a bit, and vice versa.

And here's something kind of out in left field: What if it's something that is editing-related? Not talking about self-pubbed books here, in which the author has taken control of all aspects. I mean traditionally published books, where an editor is assigned to (or chosen by) an author but doesn't really do their job? Should the rating reflect that, as most readers relate the story solely to the author and don't think about behind-the-scenes?

Reviewing used to feel so much easier before I started letting my mind run down these trails!

So, tell me: How much does a star weigh for you? What elements are most important to you, and therefore heavy enough to knock stars off your ratings?

(PS--I never, ever let cover art influence my review of a book. I've found cover art and content can be drastically disconnected from each other. Some of my favorite books ever have covers I hate. Just sayin'.)

Author Bio: Kat Heckenbach spent her childhood with pencil and sketchbook in hand, knowing she wanted to be an artist when she grew up—so naturally she graduated from college with a degree in biology, went on to teach math, and now homeschools her two children while writing. Her fiction ranges from light-hearted fantasy to dark and disturbing, with multiple stories published online and in print. Her YA fantasy series includes Finding Angel and Seeing Unseen and is available in print and ebook. Enter her world at
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  1. Getting a peek at how other people review books is always fascinating (and useful) to me. It helps me refine how I weigh things. I love your approach to the 1-star and 2-star books (not doing 1-stars and why you'd give a 2-star). I have tended to stay away from reviewing if it's under 3 stars. But at the same time, the point of reviews is to help other potential readers decide whether to spend their money, so if I don't finish a book... it seems fair to warn others (in an even-handed way, sharing why I found the book lacking).

    I have also found myself in that moment where I'm writing a review and I realize that what I hate might be something another would love.

    I have even found myself disliking books that I would have enjoyed 25 years ago. Heavy detail and hard science and pages of world-building introduction used to be my bread and butter. But today, I lean towards books I can enjoy for a few hours that bring satisfaction quickly and keep me engaged with dialogue, plot twists and character interaction.

    Anyway, thanks again, Kat. Loved hearing your thoughts!

  2. Teddi, that's actually one reason I do review books I'd give 2 stars -- because sometimes what I hate is what others love. Sometimes I wish we didn't have the stars at all, just opinions, but I get how messy and unorganized that would be on sites like Amazon and Goodreads.

    Also, I don't review indie books if I would give them below 3 stars. Indies have enough going against them, and I won't add to that...and I figure, if it's that bad it's not going to get off the ground anyway. But with large press books, I'm just one of the masses, strictly a reader, not a "fellow" author, the way I see things. Also, I review for Amazon Vine, which means I *have* to review the books I choose through that program and I refuse to be less than honest.

  3. My scale is a little different:

    1 Star: I hate this book with a loathing passion. If I have a physical copy, I've burned it. If I had a digital copy, I've deleted it. I tell everyone how awful it is. I probably didn't finish it, and if I did, it's because I just HAVE to finish a book, but I'm wishing I could get that time back.

    2 Stars: I didn't like the book for a least two reasons. My measure of dislike varies depending on the reasons.

    3 Stars: I liked the book, I might or might not re-read it, but it didn't really stand out to me.

    4 Stars: I really liked this book, probably will re-read it, and will recommend it to other people. I might even get a physical copy in addition to an e-copy.

    5 Stars: I LOVED this book! It has either changed my life, contained something I've never seen before and love, or has characters that I want to live with. I WILL get both the e-copy and physical copy, and will most assuredly re-read them. This book has made in into at least my top 100 favorite books.

    I think I've only ever given one 1 star, and a handful of five stars. I want both 1 and 5 star reviews to be the extreme end of the spectrum. The only flaw in this, is I do give out three stars to books that I think are okay, and some people see that as "Oh, he hated it. Only three stars..." when that's not the case...

  4. Aaron, what you say about three-star reviews--that's exactly why I read those very carefully. I've gotten some three-star reviews that were very positive and well-written, and which have meant more to me than some of my higher-starred reviews. It totally depends on the reviewer's scale!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Kat! Sure appreciate it! I know you've given me some things to think about where reviews are concerned.

    1. Thanks, Liberty! I appreciate the opportunity to share on here :).

  6. Really great information, Kat. So glad you shared this with us. Something to think about!

  7. Good to hear from you! And you know I'm a big fan of yours.