Saturday, 3 November 2018

Some Thoughts on Stars

Beautiful stars... (public domain)
I’ve been thinking about stars

No, not those stars. Not the ones that twinkle in a clear summer sky. I’m talking about the ones that corrupt and compromise you, the ones that make you feel bad about yourself, the ones that hammer home your own irrationality and, days, weeks or even months later, leave you riddled with guilt.

They’re the stars that review sites insist you allocate before you leave your thoughts on a book.

Generally speaking I avoid giving star ratings, but as I’ve recently tried to do a lot more reviewing, on the grounds that it’s a way to help writers and also help readers find books they want to read, I’ve been forced into it. When I review on my blog, I don’t leave a star rating, but Amazon, Goodreads and Netgalley, which are the places I’m now regularly posting, won’t let you get away with that.

I find it a huge problem. Not because I hate giving a bad review, because that’s easily dealt with purely by not reviewing a book if I can’t give it at least three stars, and preferably four. But reviewing is subjective, and while you can build that into the text of a review, the raw star rating doesn’t allow it.

So on what basis should I score a book on a scale of between one and five? Because it’s a good book? But we’ll almost certainly differ on what constitutes a good book, and I can think of a lot of good books I haven’t enjoyed, and some bad ones I did.

Not-so-beautiful stars...
So shall we say there’s a book I enjoyed some years ago and gave five stars? But my tastes have changed and now I don’t think it’s half as good as I did. In the past I’ve given five stars to books in a genre that was new to me because I thought they were fresh and original, only to realise that in fact they’re just tired repetitions of the same old tropes. So do I give four stars to a book that’s better than the one I originally gave five stars to, because now I understand the genre and overrated the first one?

Some of the differences between four and five stars may be nothing to do with the book itself. They might include:

  • whether I’m in the particular mood for that particular book at that particular time
  • whether I like the place it’s set, or find a well-written character irritating
  • the frame of mind I’m in when I read it (gritty, violent, scary books will get a lower score if I’m feeling frail and in need of cuddles, whereas you’ll probably always get a higher rating for something feel-good)
  • whether I’ve read a book with a similar plot that was better.

I’ve reached an uncomfortable accommodation with my soul over this. I read books for pleasure, so my default position is that I would expect to give every book I read at least four stars. If a book falls short it might get three. But the difference between three, four and five stars probably isn’t one of quality but is all about me and my expectations.

I might as well admit to my inconsistencies. I’m too old to grapple with a qualitative rating system so I’ll give stars for enjoyment, and I reserve the right to be inconsistent.

Jennifer Young


  1. I also leave reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and NetGalley, Jennifer, adopting a similar approach to yours. Mostly I read books I'm confident I'll enjoy and will be happy to gift a four or five star rating. However, I also read books as research and I have limited choice over the books my book club selects, which helps stretch my reading. I have given a three star rating to some of these reads, but always back up my star rating with an explanation of why it didn't quite work for me - at that time. In honesty, I don't think I've ever read a book I'd give a paltry one or two stars. There's always something I can take away from reading and if there wasn't I'd prefer not to review at all.

    1. Yes, exactly. I think I've only given two three stars in my life, and one was a bit harsh - the book was okay, but I'd just read so many in the same genre that were very much better. And I did explain myself in the review.

  2. I dislike reviewing myself, although I always do as I know how important reviews are for the author. I am very grateful when someone has taken the time to review one of my books as I know how difficult it can be to put into words what you thought without letting your own agenda, mindset and everyday problems taint your objective view of a book.

    1. Sometimes reading is an obligation. I would rather not do it, but like you I'm very conscious that it helps authors, so I make a conscious effort. But it's so subjective.

  3. I was told many moons ago by a big-name author that it is perfectly ok to give one's chums 5* reviews even if we might not like the book much .... everything is, of course, relative and whilst I might not like it much it doesn't mean that book has no worth. I rarely review a book that's been written by someone I don't know, or is a friend of a friend. I only have to look at some of the stinker, 1* reviews I've been given by people who have very obviously not read the book to know that some people just get off on being horrible. So .... call it two-faced if you will, but I will continue to support my chums .... in the hope they do the same for me, of course!