Reviewing: My brief guide


The idea of hurting people’s feelings with “unfair ratings” makes me as uncomfortable as stepping on my cat’s slicker brush, but the idea of abandoning my principles hurts worse. (In case you don’t know what a slicker brush is, I’ve included a picture.)

 I have a bunch of reviews queued up, but I am feeling defensive about how few stars I give stories in comparison to other reviewers. After due consideration I’ve decided I must stick to my stingy guns, but I’m willing to explain my process.

Below is a comprehensive guide to my rating system. It also serves as window on what I value in stories. Please note cover art is nowhere on the list. I may mention it in my reviews, but it has zero bearing on my analysis of the story itself. Covers are marketing wrappers. I only value what’s inside.

1 star:  This is an anti-recommendation. It’s reserved for things I would beg everyone to avoid, except maybe sworn enemies. Maybe. It’s bad, and not in a so-bad-it’s-fun way. It’s too horrible to waste a single minute of precious existence contemplating it. Save yourself. Flee while you can.

2 stars: I can’t recommend it. I don’t object to its existence, but it’s too flawed for me to suggest anyone waste their time on it, not with so many good books waiting to be discovered.

This is where ratings fall short as tools of judgment. The rule Your Mileage May Vary comes into play big-time with 2-star ratings. Points that lead to me delivering 1-star or 2-star ratings fall into these rough groupings:

  • ubiquitous grammar & speeling errors (yes, I did it deliberately, don’t have a COW.)
  • dull or clumsy plot elements, a.k.a. save me from another generic save-the-princess tale.
  • plot holes: anything that would render events of the story pointless or unnecessary.
  • offensive, flat or unrealistic characters. Archetypes are great. Stereotypes make me itch.
  • writing that throws me out of the story into analysis of the prose itself. Noticing the words means I’m not sufficiently submerged in the events the words describe.
  • factual inaccuracies, including historical events, scientific data and common sense fails.
  • logic failures: science fiction & fantasy both play fast & loose with reality, but a story’s internal mechanics should stay true to their premises, and all principles outside the frame of the story should be consistent. Realism isn’t required. Verisimilitude is essential.  

See where the mileage varies?

  • What offends me may not bother you. Some readers have a high tolerance for plot ideas & characters that hit all my “are you fucking kidding me?” triggers and send me reeling. It’s one hazard of reading deeply in a lot of genres for a long time. “Not this shit again” gets to be a reflex reaction.
  • Many people can suspend their sense of disbelief more effectively than I can. I like my fictional realities to feel and look real. Small errors jar me hard.
  • Long-winded, adjective-loaded exaggerated descriptive overload and redundant repetition (see what I did there?) are not to my liking, but it’s a preference. Some best-selling books get 2-star ratings from me. Eye of the World and Interview With a Vampire are two examples.
  • Shorthand labeling is a another style choice I dislike. I don’t enjoy having to memorize a set of labels along with every name. I tolerate it in erotica, but even there, the use of “the perky brunette” and “muscular male” instead of character names makes me snicker. Other people love this style construction to pieces. Good for them. They can write their own reviews.
  • I twitch at spelling mistakes and poor word choices. Homonyms are a particular pet peeve. Stationery is paper used for correspondence not a state of non-moving. A pallet can’t taste anything, nor is it a suitable surface for paint (palate and palette, respectively.)

One or two or five issues won’t sink a story. If I run out of fingers and toes to count the things bothering me before I count the same number of pages, there’s going to be trouble in Review City. I am not a lit’rary snob who reads only books with big words and convoluted prose and Important Themes, but I have my preferences. Something I hate may be the treat you crave.

3 stars: A solid like. I enjoyed reading it. I recommend it to the right audience as I perceive it.
The story gives me all the things I demand from a flight of fancy. 3-star books are my meat & potatoes reading–or beans & rice, chicken noodle soup, mac & cheese, depending on my appetite for comfort food–but whatever the flavor,  they’re basic and sustaining. There may be spice and savor, but nothing that makes me sit up and wonder if I can get the recipe. They’re the everyday, the solid three-squares that satisfy.

Often the stories I rate at a three contain the same flaws I see in a 2-star work. If so, they’re less obvious, less common, or less aggravating.  To use a different analogy, it could be a polished citrine or a rough sapphire, but it’s still a gem, not a sharp rock in my shoe.  Here’s a last analogy; a 3-star book pleases without delivering any big surprises. It’s a comfortable walk in the park, not the awesome vista that stops me at a turn in the trail and puts my heart in my throat.

(I would put most of my published works into this rating. In case anyone wondered.)

4 stars: I loved it. The story has some ineffable quality that makes it stand out, the way a parakeet stands out in a flock of sparrows. The protagonist might hit my sweet spot for identifying with characters,  the plot might be a unique new blend of favorite tropes, the way the author writes descriptions might make me warm and fuzzy inside or give me chills. They’re stories polished to a level of professional presentation that prevents me being yanked out of the read by goofs.

4-star books are the restaurant entrees I will drive fifty miles out of my way to eat again. They’re the special holiday dish, not the weekday equivalent.  Whatever makes the difference between good and great, these books have it. I will recommend 4-star books to anyone who reads the genre or a similar one. They’re also books I would recommend to anyone looking to expand their horizons into a new genre, because they are accessible and appealing.

I like to think I’ve hit this level with some of my stories.

5 stars: It blew my mind. The plot, characters, language or all three changed how I see the world.
5-star books become my touchstones for future reviews. They are new in my experience and change how I view everything like them forevermore.  I recommend them to everyone, and I do mean everyone. To my friends. To my dentist. Strangers on a bus. I buy extra copies, because I’ve learned through hard experience I will give them away to others on random occasions, whenever the topic comes up.

Disclaimer regarding one of the dirty little secrets of reviewing: the first example of a type will imprint on the mind more deeply than anything similar ever will–good or bad. My 5-star rating is in no way a stamp of supreme worth.

Star Wars blew my mind. Nothing like it existed before that summer. Nothing. That movie changed an industry and bred a million descendants, many of which surpass it in objective quality. Take a hypothetical teen who is denied Star Wars seeing for the first time today. She would judge it differently. Rollicking space operas with dazzling visuals and snappy dialogue are no longer rare. IShe would judge Star Wars by their measure. What blows my mind may be just another 3-star to an aficionado of a genre I seldom read. (That’s something to keep in mind reading any review.)

There it is.
That’s why I gave your favorite book two stars or three instead of five. That’s why I panned your precious. I won’t say it isn’t personal, because it is. My reviews are inherently personal. They’re mine.

They are not attacks. I write in my space and in the areas set aside for my expression. I know the view from the other side of the review fence. I reserve the right to roll my eyes and dismiss any point a reviewer makes. Dismiss mine or ignore them if you disagree. Please. That’s your right.  Even if you’re wrong. (Couldn’t resist. I am a facetious wench and cannot be otherwise.)

I bend to generosity in one small way: when I post to Amazon, I generally round up– from 2ish to 3, or from 3ish stars to 4, 4ish to 5.  Their system is inherently flawed and manipulative, and I refuse to penalize someone on the open market for a situation they have no say in improving. I will not post a 1-star review to Amazon or Goodreads, and I will not ever post a full review for a book unless I finished it.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can finish a bunch of reviews with a clear conscience.

Or at least don’t hate me? Kthxbai.

4 thoughts on “Reviewing: My brief guide

  1. Charles Ray says:

    I use much the same rating scheme for the reviews I do on my blog and on Amazon and Goodreads. Most authors take it graciously, although on occasion I'll have an author who objects to anything less than 4 stars, and even had one who objected to 4 stars. Most recently, when I gave a book 3 stars – adequate, but heavily academic and hard to read – the author objected, so I deleted the review and will never read this person's work ever again.

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  2. K.M. Herkes says:

    I would've done the same. I'm not seriously worried about complaints or hurt feelings as much as I am compulsive about establishing a firm defense *before* charging into unknown territory.

    As far as Amazon goes, I believe in honesty over hype, but their system all but eliminates that by counting a 3-star rating as “critical” instead of neutral/positive. Thus I like having this forum where I can present the “What I REALLY mean,” edition, and where I can also go into more detail than most Amazon shoppers have time to read.

    This should be fun. I've already been challenged to write an honest review of City of Savages, a trad-published hardcover. It looks like it will be a hoot of a horrible read. Nearly all its Amazon reviews are raves, but I'm one chapter in, and the author has already referred to rubble as “piles of shrapnel.” O.o.

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  3. John Gardner says:

    1 star i stopped reading it cause i just did not care
    2 star i made it through but did not buy the second book by this author, a pass at half price books clearence section
    3 star you get my book jones fixed, when i need my regular, will not buy you hardcover
    4 star when i have that book itch I may but you hard cover if you are on sale, will reread
    5 star will chain you a desk and make you write

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