Monday, April 12, 2021

Do you review books with your head or your heart?

I once shared this post about the star ranking system.

I realised that I award stars based on pure engagement. In other words, I'm sure I lead with my heart. If I love the characters, jot down plenty of inspiring quotes, feel wiser or happier for having read a book, or can't wait to incorporate the story into my imaginary thought life, then it gets five stars. Does that sound like a tall order though? Let me assure you that since I like to be swept away to another world, I'm willing to potentially award five stars whenever I pick up a new book. I want to distribute as many fives as possible, and no book has to be perfect to tick those boxes. 

Some other reviewers lead with their heads, and I'm sure getting five stars from these folk is a taller order than getting them from me. They tick off technicalities such as structure, grammar, story arc, showing without telling, tightness of diction and presence of symbolism. They want themes to be full of beauty without being in our faces. Some even go full-on Joseph Campbell and insist the hero's journey must be evident each step of the way. Dialogue must come across natural without being inflated with unnecessary words (which really are, in fact, natural). And a book has to stand the test of political correctness too, which means that the fives of one era might become the ones of another. These head-led reviewers are the people you might hear saying, 'I very rarely give fives.' Based on their criteria, this makes perfect sense. From such a reviewer, a four-star ranking is cause of great celebration. 

I'm actually pleased to consider myself a heart-reviewer. This way you get to be generous and give top marks even when the editing isn't flawless or the literary excellence leaves a bit to be desired. But there is a flip side. It follows that heart-reviewers might feel inclined to dole out ones or twos based purely on emotional responses too. Any given book may flow with technical perfection, read like a work of fine art and be top of the charts for years, yet if the characters annoy us with dumb decisions and stinking attitudes, or the plots make us fume, we'll be the dark horses who give unexpectedly tough feedback. 

In an ideal world, I believe there should always be a written review to support exactly why a reader fixed on a specific number of stars. Do you know what presses my buttons? Readers who merrily leave a wake of one or two star rankings on Goodreads without bothering to leave a single word as to why. Explaining your decision can be a lot of fun. I love describing why a five-star book has touched me deeply. And I equally enjoy the challenge of justifying a two-star ranking in such a way that I'm not being super-mean but still making a fair point. 

As for one-star rankings, I rarely give them. For me, it means, 'Pity a poor tree had to die for this,' which is a pretty blunt assessment of some writer's hard work. I'm a DNF-er these days, so if some book is shaping up to be a one-star story, I'll be more likely to leave it unfinished. But once again, it all comes back to the heart. If it strikes me that an author's dodgy values, disrespect for others, questionable philosophy, narrow-mindedness or tacky flippancy are obnoxious enough to deserve it, I just might give one star.

 Occasionally there is the type of material that doesn't deserve to be politely ignored.

Do you review with your head or with your heart?        


  1. Beautifully put, Paula! I find it difficult to articulate sometimes what makes a book a five-star read for me - usually, I only pinpoint it when I realise I'm thinking about whose hands I want to thrust it into, that urge to SHARE the brilliant book is a five-star feeling. I also rarely give one star reviews; the book has got to truly frustrate and offend me to get to that point.

    1. Hi Sheree, that feeling you describe is the best, especially if our friends take our recommendations on board. As for 1-star reviews, I'm glad they're so rare, because life is too short, hey?