What I Talk About When I Talk About…

Book reviews.

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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

We’re all familiar with the five-star rating system. Y’know, like, 1 star = Ugh; 2 stars = Meh; 3 stars = Okay; 4 stars = Cool; 5 stars = Awesome. We’re used to rate things using this or a number scale: we rate apps, music, books, movies, food, hotels — all sort of things. It’s simply a convenient way of rating and reviewing the things we use, but sometimes I feel that it’s becoming redundant each time I use it.

I’ve been active on Goodreads for about a year but I’ve only been shelving books and rating them after reading; I rarely give a serious review — only did two so far. But since my last review, I’ve been thinking hard about how I’ve been rating the books I read. Why did I give Harry Potter five stars and why did I give low-rating stars to Catcher in the Rye? So far my ratings were based on impulse and feeling, like, oh I really love Harry Potter so Imma give five stars, or ugh Catcher in the Rye bored me to oblivion so Imma give one — or maybe two stars, meh. It’s obviously very biased and that’s all normal, because reviews and ratings are inherently subjective. But if I keep giving evaluations based on subjectivity then I’m not getting the best out of my readings. What’s the use of reading 50 books a year but I can’t give an objective and critical opinion on them? Right?

I’m not saying that subjectivity is wrong, but sometimes it ruins the whole understanding to a book. See, after watching the wonderful Crash Course on literature I realized I was being so subjective about Catcher in the Rye, about how boring the writing style is that I couldn’t even bother to understand that it’s quite a deep story about a young boy who was afraid of growing up; of becoming what he calls a phony. What if I read it again right now? My views would probably have changed and I might even come to appreciate the book. That sort of thing happens quite often — I read a book, didn’t like it, read it again after a long while, and turned out I loved it! I don’t want to change a book’s rating every single time I reread it, it’s an unnecessary hassle. But if I put a little more objectivity and critical thinking into reading and evaluating a book then (I hope) I’ll be able to understand the book a bit more.

Yeah and I know I’m no literary expert and I’m no literature student either; I’m just a fellow book-enthusiast who happens to like giving her opinions (as if anyone cares, haha). But anyway I’m doing this for the sake of me and anyone who come across my blog and ask: how would you rate this book?

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So how should I review my books? The five-stars and number scale systems are convenient, but what exactly qualifies for a star? I didn’t have a set of criteria for this, as I previously explained I usually went with feeling and it ends up being too subjective and inconsistent. So, after looking around forums and blogs for a while, I found that good reviews include objective and subjective opinions — being objective creates a base in reviews; it cuts down the inconsistency (perhaps not entirely) and constructs a better understanding of the story. There should be a proper theory/guide on this but as I’m no literature student and I honestly couldn’t be that much bothered (it’s only for a blog that not many people read anyway…), I’ll just go with the knowledge I have so far (and build it up as I go).

Basically the important points to look at in a story would be from its main idea/theme, plot, characters, and writing style. This is pretty much elementary, and when I rate I usually put these into mind but I don’t think much about it. I just usually go, oh this plot is boring or nah I don’t like the way this author wrote this. But there’s a lot more aspects to it than I had thought.

  • Plot: basically this covers the plot development — how did the story start, how did it arc, what are the conflicts and how does it impact the whole story, what is the resolution, etc. Then I might ask how was the plot organized, how was the flow of the story, how was the pace? How strong, eventually, was the plot overall? How did the author end the story — how does the plot/s tie up in the end? Does it have any plot-holes? It’s a lot to consider.
  • Characters: I’m not sensitive to character development, so asking questions based on that is a starting point. How did the characters develop through the plot, how believable were they, do they have depth, did they have an arc? How was the relationship between the characters?
  • Writing style: this is pretty basic but it requires good understanding of language and literature references (which I honestly lack). I think it’s the easiest when I start from asking how easy was the writing to follow. How was it structured, how was the use of diction? How was the dialogue, how did the narrative flow? Did the author have a unique style of writing that I should pay attention to? How was the overall quality of the writing?
  • Main idea/theme: not to be confused with the plot, the main idea or main theme is basically about the basis of the story. Was it thought provoking? Does it have any relevant points to the world? It doesn’t have to, but I usually appreciate stories more when it does have relevance. Does the story discuss deeper issues, and if it does is it believable? Can I connect with the story, then?

Those four points are probably the more objective judgement, by asking how the story was and not how I felt. But how I feel about the story is a pretty important input — after all a good book is one that affects you in a profound way. I think I’ll put this point as the interest factor.

  • Interest factor: did it keep me entertained? I’m not reading for classes — it’s basically a hobby, so enjoying a book is a basic element in this. Then I’d ask myself, would I read it again? Would I read books from the same author again? How much was I affected by the story? How did it make me feel at the end? And so on.

I find looking around sites like SparkNotes and reviews from blogs or Goodreads help a lot into consideration. I do try to find external references to help me write.

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Back to the five-star ratings, if I have these criteria, then how would it translate to the stars? Like, would one criteria be equal to one star or something like that? But then what would half a star or a quarter of a star even be? It’ll still rely on feeling, because I can’t be bothered setting up proper calculations for a star anyway. I’m not grading a school paper, I’m reviewing for my own enjoyment anyway. But since my last review, I decided to basically just keep it to pointing out the strong points and weaker points of the book without the stars because it becomes redundant in the end. It’s better that way, personally.

I put this list together as a personal guideline because I often get confused or too subjective when I write. Even so, there’s a lot of points to consider when I review a book and I might not be able to fully explain one or two, but hopefully it won’t take away much from the whole thing.

Anyway, thanks for reading guys. 🙂

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