What Makes a Book Worth a Five Star Review?

images-9I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about authors who can’t handle bad reviews, writers who pay people to give them good reviews, authors feeling like their fans owe them good reviews, and Amazon deleting biased reviews. While all of these stories are interesting, I started thinking about regular peoples’ reviews. When there is no controversy, how to people choose how rate the books they read? What makes a book worth a five star review? 

Here is the explanation goodreads gives for the star ratings:

1 star 1 star – didn’t like it

2 stars 2 stars – it was OK

3 stars 3 stars – liked it

4 stars 4 stars – really liked it

5 stars 5 stars – it was amazing

I think many of us can agree that when rating books, it isn’t that simple. I myself am a perpetually high rater. Four stars is by far my most common rating on Goodreads, and I’ve only given one star reviews to less than 5% of the books I’ve read. When I first started rating books, on Goodreads and to a lesser extent Amazon, I remember my Nana saying something to the extent of, “How could you give any book five stars besides Gone with the Wind?”

I totally understood what Nana meant on two levels. (1) If you have a favorite book of all time, how could anything else be rated at the same level as your favorite. (2) How can you rate books from different genres on the same level as classics. While this makes sense to me, it is not how I rate books. I did give Gone with the Wind five stars. But I also gave five stars to Sloppy Firsts, mostly because Marcus Flutie is so mysterious and dreamy.

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Did I really think that Eleven Scandals to Start to Win A Dukes Heart is as good as Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace? Of course not! I don’t think it is even as good as Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, which I also rated five stars. I do not think The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is as good as The History of Love. But I read and fell in love both books for different reasons and would certainly consider both favorites of mine.

I try to rate within genres; meaning that I give five stars to my favorite young adult, contemporary, romance, literary fiction, classic, short stories (etc.) regardless of how these favorites stack up. I tried to think of some common element that all of my five star books contained, but came up short. Good writing – no (Twilight). Characters I relate to – no (Frankenstein and North and South). Memorability – nope (I can’t remember a think about The Other Side of the Story). Happy Endings – definitely not (I cried so much while reading Half the Sky that my bus driver felt so sorry for me he stopped charging me fare). I couldn’t come up with any common quality or theme.

images-8People have vastly different rating systems. Most of them seem to make more sense than mine. Some people only give one star to books that were so bad they didn’t finish them. Other people only rate books they finish, and create a separate bookshelf for unfinished works. Something really interesting for me is how different people view what a three star rating means. I’ve lurked on people’s internet conversations about this and some say that 3 stars is a very good rating, it just means they didn’t love the book or wouldn’t recommend it. For others it is a book they can’t remember, or a book they feel like they should have liked but they didn’t. Many people talk about wishing the ratings would move from a -five-star system to one with ten stars and I agree. If they managed the switch in gymnastics scoring I  would think we should at least be able to give half stars.

So now that I’m officially hooked on this topic (I’ve been re-rating books on goodreads all morning) I want to know how you decide to rate books or recommend them. Is there a certain quality that a book has to have to make it a 5 star review for you? What do you think of when you see a three star rating?

Also, while I’m on the topic of reading, Alison L and I will be participating this Saturday in Dewey’s Read-a-thon, which is sadly not names for one of our best friends from Smith but still looks like a lot of fun. We are both a little wary about reading for 24 hours straight so will be devising our own plans and giving you all updates here on the blog and on our twitter @AlisonsWhoRead (not Alison’sWhoreAd … seriously friends get your minds out of the gutter). My goal is to read a total of 12 hours. If you would like to participate with us, please let us know in the comments and we can send each other words of encouragement day of!

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Book Worth a Five Star Review?

  1. For me personally, if I enjoyed the book well enough but don’t really plan on reading it again, it’s a 3 star. If I enjoyed and I could read it again and share it with others: 4 stars. If it’s out of this world, unforgettable in many ways (writing, story, effect on me, characters, for example), it’s 5. I’ve given very few 1 stars because it does take a lot to write a book (I should know) and it really has to almost offend me in both ability, story, message for me to rate it that low.

    I have to admit that when my book gets a 3 star, it’s a little disappointing, but I shake it off. Even when it gets 5 stars, I check that user’s other rating to see if he or she is just one of those people who 5 stars every book. Yes, it’s like a morbid curiosity that can gut me at any second.

    It’s also harder the more authors I know (like actually interact with) for me to rate so low.

    • Thanks for sharing! It is so interesting to get your perspective as both a reader and an author! I have a feeling that if I ever get a book published, I will become obsessed with the ratings. Hopefully I’ll have learned some self control by then.

      Even if I really dislike a book that is written by an author that I really like, I will usually give it 3 stars. I’m much more likely to give a low rating to a classic I hated.

  2. I think I rate from my gut and my heart more than from my head. It is usually a reaction to simply how much I enjoyed the book not weather the book is good/great or otherwise.

    Excited to hear more about the reading marathon!

  3. When it comes to reviews, honesty is the best policy for me. If I liked the book, you’ll know. If I didn’t like the book, you’ll really know. I don’t like to write bad reviews, and I haven’t written very many, but I’m not going to lie and say that I loved a book when I didn’t. Like you, most of my ratings seem to fall right around 4 stars.

    To me, a 5 star book is one that make me feel. Not only did I enjoy reading it, but I laughed, cried, got angry, swooned, or just generally had my stomach all tied up in knots. It doesn’t matter what genre the book is, if it does any of the above (especially cry), it’s more than likely going to get the coveted 5 stars (and I don’t just hand those out willy nilly!).

    Like anything there are exceptions, but as a general rule I try to follow the same rating system (which you can find here: http://brilliantlynovel.wordpress.com/ratings/), and be as consistant as possible. That way you always know what you’re getting with me 🙂

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