HOW I REVIEW BOOKS

I’ve been reviewing books here for about three and a half years now, but one thing I don’t think I’ve done is taken a step back and talked about the way I review them. In case it’s not obvious, that’s what I’m going to do today.

Why Review?

When you sit down to start a review, there’s always a question rattling around at the back of your mind. Why? What is the point of this review. For me, it comes down to two things. First, because I have something to say about that book. Sometimes this is as simple as ‘I enjoyed this story,’ but on occasion it does go deeper. Sometimes I see an aspect of a book that hasn’t been dug into. Some part of a book that no one interprets the same way as me. If a sci-fi book talks about agriculture, then I have a perspective not many others will pick up on. But even if a book doesn’t trigger any particularly deep thoughts, it’s still worth giving an opinion on a book. Because of the second thing about reviewing. All reviews, positive and negative, contribute to the conversation around any given book. Popularity is the single best gift a review can give a book, and even my small presence might be enough to eventually shift an extra copy. And it’s not just about helping out the author, however noble a goal that may be. It’s also about building conversation around books. I want to discuss science fiction in more detail than I ever could on this blog. To get to that stage, I need more people to read the same books as me (and books I haven’t read). These past three and a half years have all been building momentum towards a world where I have people to talk sci-fi with.

To Review or Not To Review

There are sites and reviewers out there who only give positive reviews. That’s their prerogative, but I think there’s a value in writing both positive and negative reviews. There was a time when I only wrote negative reviews of older works, but now I review every sci-fi book I read, regardless of my opinion on it. And that’s the key word. Opinion. If I give a positive review, the reader doesn’t know if I genuinely enjoy the book, or if I’m simply being kind. Having the more critical reviews in place as well builds trust between reviewer and reader. It helps you get a sense of what I like in my books. If you know your tastes are different to mine, even a negative review might get you to check out a book that sounds more to your tastes, while you might avoid a book I lavish with praise.

As an aside to this, there is the matter of my own authorial aspirations. The convention among authors is to only talk about books they enjoy. It’s a bit rude to insult the work of your colleagues, after all. I do sometimes worry I’m shooting myself in the foot with my negative reviews. MY opinion on this is as follows: Being traditionally published is not wholly within my control. Writing reviews is. While I continue to plug away at my long-term writing goals, I think it’s better to focus on what I can control in the here and now. And if I do get published, and these old reviews come back to haunt me, I can always delete them. or live with them. I’m good either way.

Objectivity & Subjectivity

Literature is a highly subjective medium. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s pulp. I have been open from the outset that I can only review a book based on my own personal experience with it. I can make a note of good writing, or error-strewn typography, but these rarely come up. I’m a man who likes his prose clean and precise, so I won’t often comment on the actual writing of a book. And while I might make a comment about good pacing or dialogue, this isn’t really very informative. What I will talk about is plot aspects I enjoyed. and particularly worldbuilding elements and the way a story is put together on a mechanical level. But even these are opinions. I know some people who review according to strict rubrics, and that just leaves me puzzled. I don’t think objectivity has much of a place in reviews. Reviews, to my mind, are all about the connection between book and reviewer, and that’s about as subjective as you can get.

Spoilers

I’m not terribly fussed by spoilers, but I know a lot of people are. I’ll try not to give away any twists that are crucial to the book, but I will happy mention characters and events that aren’t covered on the back cover of the book. If I do feel it necessary to mention a key element in more detail, I do my best to put a spoiler warning beforehand.

Star Ratings

Like a lot of reviews, I use a simple one-to-five star rating for books. The simple reason for this is that it’s commonly used across blogs and online shops. Amazon, Waterstones, and GoodReads all have a five-star system in place. I know there are some who rate differently, but in this I think simplicity is the key. And to be honest, those stars are the least important part of my reviews. they’re just a general feel of how positive the review is going to be. It’s the words below that actually matter. I can give a glowing review to a three star read that does nothing wrong, but spend a five star review talking about one small thing that bothered me.

For those who want an indication of what the stars mean, here’s a loose explanation:

  • 1 Star – A book with no features that I enjoyed.
  • 2 Stars – A book that I did not enjoy, but has some element (often an idea) that made it worth my time and money.
  • 3 Stars – A good book, but likely not very memorable. Alternatively, a book that is largely very good, but has some glaring flaw that bothered me.
  • 4 Stars – A very good book, either a strong example of its genre or one that offers something special
  • 5 Stars – A brilliant book that is either near-perfect, or offers something that other books don’t.

Further Reading

At the end of each review, I recommend three other books. These are usually similar in content, style, or are by the same author. The purpose of these recommendations is essentially the same as the reason for the blog itself. To encourage you not to stop at one book, but to keep reading. Always, my friends, keep reading.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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