What I’ve Learned about Book Reviews (by writing them): Part 1

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

You may have read some of the book reviews I’ve written for vweisfeld.com and Crime Fiction Lover. Perhaps you’ve wondered what criteria I use in assessing a book and assigning the stars. For one, you may have noticed that most books reviewed cluster in the 3-4 star range (good to excellent). There’s a reason for that. I really don’t read books at random; unless they promise to be pretty good, they aren’t on my reading pile. Another way to say this is, there’s so much good stuff out there these days, why waste time on schlock?

Offhand, I can think of only two one-star reviews I’ve given, and those books were gifts, well-intended, of course. At the same time, a book has to be really a cut above—usually by having strong literary qualities or a truly compelling story—before I give five stars. Proof of this “high average” is that I’ve reviewed 36 fiction/memoirs so far this year; of these, 18 were four-star, while five were five-star. In 2014, I read 56 books, and gave 22 of them four stars and only half that many five stars. The stars are explained on this website’s “Reading . . .” page, as follows:

Book Review Rankings

***** Highly recommended
**** Excellent read
*** Some flaws, but good
** Take it or leave it
* Save your $

While good reviews are important to writers, book reviews are mainly for readers, so I try to focus on the factors that make a book a good reading experience. And, because they’re for readers, **no spoilers!** in my book (and movie) reviews. This probably doesn’t please my friend who turns to the back of a new book and reads the last chapter first.

It’s generally helpful to signal the genre of the book (some people love sci fi and other hate it, for example) and provide a short synopsis of the book’s set-up. This lets prospective readers know whether it’s the kind of book they would like in general, and whether the subject matter is likely to interest them.

Summary Judgment

First, I think about the overall impression a book makes. When I reach the last page and think, “Now THAT was a good book,” assigning the stars is easy. But it isn’t enough to tell other readers “it’s awesome” or “meh” and be done with it. Writing these reviews has helped me figure out why I have these overall impressions.

An important component of this summary impression is the idea or theme a book explores, which is accomplished by bringing together all its elements (plot, character, etc.) in a coherent, if sometimes invisible, way. Invisible or barely visible, because no reader wants to be lectured at. Ideas and themes must be presented artfully, something numerous critics (not me) felt Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior did not achieve, and which Neal Stephenson’s novels do so well. As the old Hollywood saying has it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Ideas and themes are what a book is fundamentally about, and what it is about is not the same as plot. It took me a long time to learn that in my own writing. People would ask, “So, what’s your book about?” and I’d say, “It’s about a New York City architect who finds his mistress murdered and then what all happens as he tries to figure out why.” Now I say some of that, but I add “and what it’s really about is a man trying to regain his self-respect.” The “what a book is about,” stripped of plot intricacies, is the universal that readers respond to.

Tomorrow: Component Parts, Errors, & You

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