Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Grading Systems

Gentle Reader: How do you grade your reading material?

There are many systems out there. The minimalist thumbs up or down, the maximalist 0-100%, and everything in between: 0-7 colors of the rainbow, 0-10 punctures of the vampire's fangs, empty dish - full banana split with cherry on top, etc. etc.

Some reviewers are ruthless in sharing their true thoughts about a novel's flaws, and occasionally, it's strengths - which would seem to render the rare praise they do bestow all the more valuable. The Simon Cowells of book reiviewing, to use a metaphor well past its sell-by date.

Some reviewers seem to follow the infamous instructions issued by some authors who shall remain nameless that reviews MUST be 'nice', because mentioning perceived flaws is 'mean' and mean, apparently, is bad (which would seem to diminish the usefulness of these reviews as they tend to be non-stop, all out gushery). The Paula Abduls of book reviewing, to use a metaphor even further past its sell-by date.

Who does that leave to be the moderate Randi Jacksons? Well, people like Apprentice Writer.

As the regular Gentle Reader will know, Apprentice Writer doesn't assign a rank to the reviews posted here. She is however an avid Goodreads hound, which operates on a system of 1 (did not like) to 5 (it was amazing) stars. Here is how it pans out:

3 stars ("liked it") is AW's default rating. She chooses to see this not as wishy-washy, but logical: she woulnd't pick up the book to read if she didn't expect to like it.

This means, a book really has to work at going up to 4 ("really liked it") or down to 2 ("it was OK") from that 'safe' spot. And it has to be spectacularly good or horrendous to move to 1 or 5. which she bestows with great care.

Let us draw a veil over the atrocities that must take place for 1 star to be bestowed. But what, exactly, does a book have to do to get those rare 5 stars?

It has to satisfy all these conditions:

- Great story, with sense of true satisfaction at the end
- Great characters and/or characterization (these are not always the same thing)
- Impressive writing that sweeps her along
- At least one line that is brilliant enough to be included in her quotation collection
- Must be sure that will want to re-read it in future.

The last condition is one that many books that made it all the way up to 4.5 stars stumble over, falling right before the finish line. For the record, here a cross-section of titles on AW's Keeper shelf:

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters (humorous historical mystery; first in a series, set in Egpyt)

The Silver Pigs, Lindsey Davis (humorous historical mystery; first in a series, set in Imperial Rome)

Life of Pi, Yann Martel (contemporary literary fiction)

Mr. Impossible, Loretta Chase (historical romance)

White Oleander, Janet Fitch (contemporary literary fiction)

Lessons in French, Laura Kinsale (historical romance)

Good Grief, Lolly Winston (contemporary literary fiction)

Fall on Your Knees, Anne Marie MacDonald (contemporary literary fiction)

The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde (alternate reality mystery)

Private Arrangements, Sherry Thomas (historical romance)

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kinsolver (contemporary literary fiction)

The Sweentess at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley (mystery)

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry (literary fiction)

Gentle Reader - How about you?


Rachel said...

Life of Pi is my favorite book. I was really bummed that Martel's follow-up was not great.

M. said...

Rachel - something about the blurb made me hesitate to pick it up. Looks like my instinct was right.

I am, however, enjoying 'Her Fearful Symmetry' for my book club right now, never having read 'Time Traveller's Wife' and being a little spooked by how many people were disappointed in this follow up effort. Yes, it's hard to be a brilliant author in your debut effort....

Rachel said...

Your instinct was very correct!

For the first 2/3 of Time Trav Wife I thought I was reading one of the best books I'd read in years, poss top ten contender for my all time list. Then the last 1/3 pretty much cinched that I would never read anything by the author again. :) I still own the book because I like the first part so much. I read it again and then make up my own end.

Did you mean that it's hard, as in difficult, to be a brilliant* debut author or hard as in then you've created much expectation?

*actually I've always thought it's rather hard to be a brilliant anything. ;)

le0pard13 said...

Very interesting post about grading reading material, M. Your set of conditions make total sense, too.

BTW, I have The Sweentess at the Bottom of the Pie in my audiobook stack. I'm looking forward to it even more now that it's on your honor roll.


M. said...

Rachel -
you're right, it's hard to be a brilliant anything.
My original statement was slightly sarcastic, and of course, tainted by some degree of envy. I do think it's especially hard to have come up with a debut novel that rockets off the charts, and then have the novel-reading world breathing down your back, expecting equal brilliance the second time around.

Leopard - Welcome to AW! I'd be delighted to hear what you thought of SATBOTP, because I enjoyed it so, so much on every level - yet my marvelous critique partner rated it a 3 star read because, in her words, she liked it but she found it very easy to put down. And, it's another example of the dangers of high expectations after a brilliant first book - I read the second in the series, and liked it a lot, but it didn't reach the level of 5 stars for me.

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