I read a lot of books. I don’t review every book I read, mainly because if I did that, I’d never write anything else. But I do review the books I get through NetGalley (because that’s the deal – they give me a free book, and I give it an honest review), and I do review books that I feel others would really enjoy. Sometimes I do give a negative review of a book, but I try to limit those, because as an author, I know how frustrating it can be to get one.
Something I’ve noticed, though, is that some book reviews seem to be based purely on the reviewer ranting about why they hated the book or raving about how wonderful it was – with little to no mention of the actual content or the reasons why they hated/loved it.
I started thinking about that. You see, when I review a book, personal taste and preference do play a role in it, but I try to go beyond just whether I enjoyed the book. But I’d never given much thought to exactly what it is that I look at. Now that I have, I thought I’d share the factors that I use when writing a book review.
- Characters. One of the biggest things I look at is the characters. Are they realistic and believable? Do they have depth? Are the protagonists likable and the antagonists/villains unlikable? Do they have both good and bad (like real people)? Are the actions they take throughout the book in line with their thoughts and the kind of people the author has portrayed them to be (ex: does the guy kicking everyone’s ass have a background in fighting through martial arts training or the military? Or, on the other hand, is the girl who’s fighting dragons have no experience with guns yet she’s shooting them with no problem and killing all the dragons?)? If the characters don’t feel real to me, if they don’t make me feel what I think the author intended me to feel about them, if they do things that seem out of character or unbelievable, that tends to make me feel much more negatively about the book.
- Setting. The setting is something else that I look at, although it doesn’t necessarily have as big an impact. I like to see the setting used to either reinforce the story (a snowy locale bringing two characters together in a romance for example), or to provide a stark contrast (a beautiful tropical island for a murder-filled suspense). But it’s also nice to see a different spin than the usual. Using a small town setting for a murder and having one of the most beloved residents be the murderer has been done, for example, but having the whole town be in on it, helping the murderer select his victims – that’s something I haven’t seen done that often, if at all. It puts a sinister light on that small town setting, and can really add to the feeling of suspense.
- Plot. Plot is, of course, what everyone looks at when reading a book. But, as an author, I think I might look at it slightly differently than someone who’s “just” a reader. I look for plot holes, naturally, but I also look at whether or not there might be a reason for said plot hole. It’s not often, but sometimes what seems at first glance to be a plot hole is really a place where the author either wanted it to be left to your imagination OR they thought that you would be able to figure out from the rest of the book what should have gone in that “hole” (meaning: they give the reader credit for being able to figure things out and not needing to be beat over the head with the obvious.) If I’m not happy with the way the plot was written, I’ll try to explain why (do I think they needed more detail, or they had too much, or is it simply a matter of I would have written it differently so I don’t like it).
- The author’s other books. If it’s an author I read frequently, or at least have read one or more of their other books, I compare it to their other books. Is it different from their usual genre or style of writing? Is it something I didn’t expect from this author? Is it in the same genre, and the same style, but it just didn’t feel like one of their books? Is it better or worse? Would I recommend reading anther book by this author before reading this book? Is this book one of a series and it wasn’t made clear, so by reading this book first, I felt like I was missing some information?
- Length of the book. This might seem like a strange thing to factor into a book review, so let me explain. A good example of this would be the George R.R. Martin books that the series Game of Thrones is based on. Each of those books was over a thousand pages long. They are fantasy novels, and the creation of a fantasy world does mean that there needs to be more pages, naturally. But when I read those books, I really felt like there was so much that could have been left out, or was repeated far too often, or could have been said in far fewer words than he actually used. So when I read a book that is super long and it feels like it didn’t need to be that long, I tend to think a bit more negatively of it. At the same time, if the book could have been longer and given more details and been even better, that can also make me feel a bit more negative about it.
- Author expertise. Reading a novel requires a suspension of disbelief. You accept that some things that happen in the novel would never happen in real life, or at least, they wouldn’t happen the way they do in the book. However, if you are a lawyer and you write a novel about lawyers, I expect the details about the life and work of a lawyer to be accurate. Same if you are a doctor, a police officer, a teacher, a firefighter, or a musician, or anything else. I can cut some slack to a writer who isn’t in whatever field they write about (or who isn’t a parent, or has never been married, or whatever) who gets a detail wrong – there’s only so much you can learn through research and some questions you just don’t think to ask. But if you are in the career field you put your character in (or you are a parent, or married, or whatever), I expect you to get the details right. If you present me with a character who is a doctor working only two hours a day, or a teacher that never has to go to school or grade a paper, you better make sure that you give me a reason for that (the doctor is retired and only working to see a few last patients until they find a new doctor; the teacher is on summer vacation). If you don’t give me a reason, I will not be a happy reader.
- Does it fit the genre? If a book is listed as erotica, I expect there to be sex – and lots of it, and probably pretty kinky sex, too. If it’s listed as suspense, I expect there to be suspense – murders, thefts, kidnappings, hostage situations, something! If it’s a horror novel, I expect some supernatural evil to be lurking in the shadows and occasionally coming out to play. If these things don’t happen, that’s a problem. Will I consider that it was misclassified? Sure. But the thing is, I can’t just ignore it and say it was a good book except for being misclassified. I look at it from a reader’s perspective: I got a book that was supposed to be _________, but it wasn’t. That’s a negative. I will still try to highlight the good points, but the fact that it was presented as being a particular genre and then didn’t have the characteristics of that genre is going to count against it.
So, those are some of the things that I look at when I’m reviewing a book. I try to write my reviews based on those things, rather than just a “I hated it because____” or “I loved it because_____.” I try to make sure that my reviews will give a future reader information they need to decide whether they want to read the book.
If you write book reviews, what factors do you look at? When you read a book review, what information do you look for?