With my next book review due to come in the next week or so, I figured I might want to pause and perhaps explain my grading scale, so to speak.
A few days ago, in one of my English classes, we got into the debate of what made a piece of literature “good.” This was a surprisingly difficult question, mostly because everyone has different tastes. So perhaps before you take my word on what constitutes as a “good” book, I ought to explain my criteria.
On the Topic of Star Ratings
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that I have a love for reading. I’ve read some good books; I’ve read some bad books. As such, I already have a good idea of what I most thoroughly enjoy in books. It also means that I’m less likely to pull a book off the shelves unless there’s a good chance that I’m going to like it. Which also means I’m more likely to give higher-than-average ratings to books (3+ stars) that I read. But I’m also wary of handing out five-star ratings, mostly because I feel like a five-star rating implies perfection, or near-perfection. I might give a book a 4.5 stars, even thinking that maybe a less stingy person would’ve granted it a 5 star rating, simply because when I give a book a 5 star rating, I want it to be a true compliment to the author.
But I also recognize the influence that my writing life has on my reading. Knowing I wouldn’t want someone to give my own books a 1 or 2 star rating, I might try to be a little more lenient on books I might not have enjoyed. This is especially the case if I can identify an audience that would probably enjoy the book far more than I did. Age difference does play a factor in enjoyment, I’ve found.
That said, it is, of course, important to remind my readers that everyone will have their own opinions. And even though my point system is probably skewed more towards the 3-4 star range, I think my actual thoughts on the book are more important than the number of stars the book actually receives.
Traits of a “Good Book”
New takes: On Monday, I mentioned the idea that it’s next to impossible to create a completely original story. Still, when I open a book, I hope that the story I’m reading will feel unique enough on its own merits. The plot structure is a good example of this – most how-to writing sites tell authors to follow Freytag’s pyramid. I won’t deny that this is good advice, but by the time the novel is ready to be published, it shouldn’t feel as if the authors are just filling in the blanks. Another, perhaps more obvious, example is that of the love triangle. As I’ve seen expressed on various reviews, love triangles aren’t too much of a problem if the characters actually have to struggle with the choice. Usually, however, there’ll be two love interests, but it’s obvious who the main character will pick. I believe that the Infernal Devices is a good example of a love triangle done right. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, has been criticized (rightly, perhaps) that the love triangle included hardly constituted as one. We all knew who Katniss would pick.
Intriguing characters:When I read a book, I need to love the characters. I don’t mean they have to be perfect, goody-two-shoes. I mean that they have to be relatable, human characters. I want this book to pretend that it’s not an imagined story, that it actually happened. In order to lie convincingly, it has to pretend that the characters involved are alive (or were alive at some point) and had acted the way specified in the novel. Simply put, even as a fantasy novel, it has to feel real. And as long as these characters are unique, multi-faceted, and flawed, I am likely to love them. Also, while we’re on the topic of characters… I have a problem with convenient character deaths. If a character dies simply because s/he “has to” – whether to further the plot or motivate the main character – it’s a big issue for me. I get it. Some characters have to die. But make sure, from a narrative standpoint, that it actually makes sense. That it flows. That the reader can pretend there’s another reason for the character’s death beyond Plot.
Sensible plot: I think we’ve all read at least one book where something happens “because plot” – the narrative needed a certain thing to happen, so it was written in even though it didn’t seem to fit into the actual story. The problem with this situation is that it pulls us out of the story. If we’re forced to question why that event happened, we’re forced to pause in our reading so we can mull over the question. Another big no-no, for me, is the Conveniency plot hole. Example: character needs a weapon; there just happens to be a (previously unmentioned) weapon just lying around. But if a story has an intriguing, sensible, flowing narrative, of course I’m likely to enjoy it more.
Re-readability: Especially in terms of five-star ratings, this is a book that’s so good, I’d be willing to read it again. More than that, re-readability means that I think you could get just as much out of a second read as you could from the first. Harry Potter, I think, is a good example of this. Mostly this has to do with foreshadowing; the first time you read through a book, you do it for the enjoyment. The second time around, you know what’s coming. What makes the book more enjoyable to read the second time is seeing the foreshadowing that the author includes. If you’re a lover of Harry Potter, you’ve probably seen all the theories of connections between books. That’s why Harry Potter seems to be worth rereading.
So, with all of that said, if there are any books that you’d like me to review, feel free to post them in the comments.