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What Makes A Good Book Review?

Following on from my post last week about getting book reviews on Amazon, I thought I’d address a related question: What makes a good book review?

Looking at Amazon, it appears that a lot of authors automatically consider a five-star review to be good and a three-star or lower review to be bad. I disagree. As a reader, a bad review is one that doesn’t give me enough information to make a decision, regardless of the rating. Here are some examples of bad reviews:

I love this book! Even better than Twilight!! Smith is the best author EVA!!! and I could just swoon over Jamie all day!!!!

This book was okay. Amazon makes me write at least twenty words for a review so now I’m done. Yay.

Reviews are for readers.

The objective of a review is to help a potential reader decide whether or not they will like a particular book. Should they spend their hard-earned money buying this book? Is it worth their time to read? My time is valuable. I don’t want to waste hours reading a bad book, even a free book, when I could have been doing something more enjoyable (like scrubbing the toilet, or better still, reading a good book).

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there are five main aspects that contribute to my enjoyment of a book, and these are the questions I try to address when I write a review:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it exciting? Romantic? Do the sub-plots add to the overall story? Is it believable? Is it original, or do I feel I’ve read it before?
  • Characters: Do I like the characters? Are they people I’d want to know and spend time with in real life? Or are they too-stupid-to-live clichés?
  • Genre: Does the book conform to the expectations of the genre? If it’s Christian fiction, does the protagonist show clear progression in their Christian walk? If it’s romance, is there an emotionally satisfying ending? If it’s fantasy or science fiction, has the author succeeded in convincing me the world they have created is real?
  • Writing and editing: With many books, especially those from small publishers or self-published authors problems with the writing or editing take me out of the story (like a heroin wearing a high-wasted dress). Bad writing or insufficient editing makes a book memorable for all the wrong reasons.
  • The Wow! Factor: Some books, very few, have that extra something that makes them memorable for the right reasons. The Wow! factor is usually a combination of a unique plot and setting, likeable and intelligent characters (I loathe stupid characters), and a distinct and readable writing style, or ‘voice’.  This is highly subjective and other readers might not agree with my taste. And that’s okay.

Some reviewers, especially Christian reviewers, are of the view that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. I disagree. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be cruel, but it does mean I’m going to be honest. Reviews are for readers, and readers deserve honest reviews. They want to know whether a book is worth their money and time—or not.

It’s hard to write a less-than-glowing review. It’s much easier to write a four-star ‘I liked it’ review (and even easier to write a five-star ‘I loved it’ rave). I wish I could write more five-star raves, but a lot of books are missing that Wow! factor, that originality that takes them from a four-star like to a five-star rave.

I will, on rare occasions, not publish a critical review—usually when another review already covers all the points I was going to make. But I publish reviews for around 75% of the books I read—and over 95% of the books I accept as review copies (because this is a condition of accepting a review title with most online book blogger review programmes). If I accept your book for review, I will review it. I might take a while and you might not like the review, but I will read it, and I will review it.

Critical reviews are especially hard to write if the book is from a lesser-known author with fewer reviews. I don’t enjoy writing a review saying a book was full of cliché characters, a predictable plot and editing errors. It’s not my fault I’m the first person to notice a book refers to Barnaby’s Star when it’s actually Barnard’s Star (true story. The author said even his NASA beta-reader didn’t pick that up).

Reviews are not book reports or a critique. They are not a way for authors to get free feedback on the quality of their writing. If you want feedback on your writing, ask an objective reader, find a critique partner, get a free critique through a writing organisation, or get a paid critique from an editor. I provide manuscript assessments as part of my editing services. They are far more detailed than my reviews, and provide concrete advice in how to rectify the weaknesses. I can’t do that in a short online review.

Because reviews are for readers.

 

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