What makes a five-star book?

What makes a five-star book?

In For the Love of Reading by G.G. Andrew

What makes a five-star book?

If you’re a reader who rates books on Scribd or other online sites, you know that rating books isn’t always easy. Do you try to judge a book objectively on its merits? Or do you rate based on your personal enjoyment of a book? Is a half-star OK? But what if you’re both a reader and an author of books? Here, we tap into both sides of the book rating equation by asking authors to share how they rate the books they read. Maybe you can relate — or find inspiration when it’s time to rate the books on your own shelf.

Why rate books at all? 

Rating books isn’t required. You can simply mark a book as read, or not mark it at all and keep that part of your reading life private. Still, most of the authors interviewed here choose to rate books, both for their fellow readers and for the authors of the books themselves.

This is true for Jayne Barnard, author of the steampunk adventure Gilded Gauge, an Alberta Book of the Year. “Rating and reviewing are services to both my fellow authors and to readers,” Barnard says, describing rating as “a bit of author karma I can put out into the world regularly.”

Rating is something that Elizabeth Cole, author of the paranormal romance Keep Me Close, does — when she likes a book, at least. “I rate books that impress me,” she says. “That usually means a book that I enjoyed enough to tell my friends and family about, and then I just wind up writing those thoughts down for a review, because I hope other readers will find it useful.”

Like Cole, women’s fiction author Paulette Stout will rate a book if reading it was a positive experience. “If I don’t enjoy or finish a book, I will not leave a rating or review,” the author of the new novel What We Never Say, says. Still, she reviews books she does finish to support those authors. “It lets creators know someone enjoyed their work, and new readers know the book is worth a try.”

For most of these authors like Stout, supporting other writers is a big motivator. Horror and fantasy author Donyae Coles, whose work appears in Weird Horror, especially believes in supporting indie authors. “I read a lot of small press and self-published books and rate them because reviews are so important for those sales,” she says.

How objective or subjective should you be?

When it comes time to rate books, each reader decides how they will evaluate a book — and how much personal preference comes into play. For Jennifer R. Jensen, author of the twisty novel The Vice, rating books objectively is something she strives for. “I keep a very open mind that what I love, others may not, and vice versa,” she says. “If it was not something I cared for due to my difference of opinion, but it was well written, then I still consider it a good book and will rate it as such.”

For others, objectivity is impossible. “Reading is so subjective, it’s impossible to create one objective measure for what is or isn’t ‘good’,” author Paulette Stout says. “When I rate, it’s a reflection of how much I enjoyed the read. Was I immersed? Was the writing strong enough for me to forget it was there? These all factor into my ratings.”

For Donyae Coles, it’s all about comparing a book to others in its genre. “I rate books based on where they stand with other books like them,” she says. “So if I'm reading a pulp horror novel or a brain candy romance, I'm rating it based on where it stands with other pulp horror novels or brain candy romance.”

Along those same lines, many of us have had the experience of reading a book that wasn’t perfect, but we loved it all the same, and our rating reflected that. This is certainly true for Elizabeth Cole. “It helps when the prose is skillful and the story is gripping, but sometimes even a ‘flawed’ book really clicks for me,” she says. “I revel in the story despite the fact that maybe it’s not up to Shakespeare’s standards (which are, let’s be honest, pretty hard to meet).”

Donyae Coles is another author who will rate imperfect books highly, provided she enjoyed the experience. “I think the main purpose of the work is to be entertaining, so it’s possible to get a fairly high rating from me even if the work is lousy with typos and plot holes as long as I had a good time,” she says. The speculative fiction author also uses a bit of literary math: “My rating system is based on how much I enjoyed a book divided by the issues in the book.”

Like the decision of whether to rate a book, how these writers judge a book is also influenced by their desire to support other authors. Lauren Emily Whalen is a professional reviewer in addition to the author behind the young adult queer Julius Caesar retelling Take Her Down. Yet she is sympathetic to other authors when she reviews books as a reader. “I tend to give five stars unless the book really didn’t do it for me,” she says. “Reader reviews can be brutal — I know this firsthand; someone once said my writing has ‘too many long sentences’, which I kind of want to get on a T-shirt — so I want to spread positivity for others whenever I can.”

What makes a book a five-star read?

No matter how they arrived at a book’s rating, the authors had a very clear and poetic picture of what a five-star book is for them. These personal definitions of great reads are ones book lovers across the board will relate to.

For Elizabeth Cole, a five-star book leaves her “breathless” and becomes a must-have for her already-crowded bookshelf. “I usually give excellent books four stars, and I try to reserve five stars for books that leave a mark on my soul,” she says.

“The perfect book for me has a strong plot, beautiful prose, and moments that devastate me,” Donyae Coles says. Who doesn’t love a book that leaves you in an emotional puddle by the end?

Several of the authors mentioned how five-star books were ones that transformed them personally. “For a book to rank as a five star for me, it needs to make me feel deeply and/or help me grow as an individual,” Jennifer R. Jensen says. Likewise, Paulette Stout wrote, “A five-star book stays with me when I’m finished. It entertains, but also changes me in some way.”

For Lauren Emily Whalen, a five-star book that impacts one’s inner world is especially important for certain genres. “With literary fiction and creative nonfiction/memoir, I'm looking for some kind of truth or insight I hadn’t previously thought about, or thought about in that way.”

Perhaps author Jayne Barnard said it mostly simply — but in a way that strikes a chord with all of us. For her, a five-star read is “a book I yearn both to read straight through and one that I dread finishing.”


About the Author: G.G. Andrew

G.G. is a freelance writer and author of romance and women's fiction, including the short story "Everything Left Unsaid" in the collection A Million Ways: Stories of Motherhood. A Texas transplant, she lives outside Houston with her husband and two sons, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. In her spare time, she enjoys browsing bookstores, yoga, paper crafts, cooking, genealogy, and anything related to Halloween. She's probably drinking tea right now.

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