I’ve been thinking a lot about ratings lately. I use a 5-star rating system, but because 1- and 5-star books are so rare, I almost feel like I have three options with occasional exceptions.
4-star books = highly enjoyable
3-star books = good but not great
2-star books = meh
Obviously these are pretty vague, but I like vague. Vague works for me. If I tried to use half-stars to be more accurate, I know I’d never be satisfied.
The real question is, which books are deserving of the extreme ratings? The highest of the high. The lowest of the low.
What makes a 5-star book?
A couple weeks ago I started a discussion on specific criticism and (the important issue here) vague praise. I know it’s not just me who has a hard time putting my finger on what exactly made a book so great. It’s a gut reaction more than anything else. Which usually makes it an easy decision… unless I start overthinking.
Because the “problem” is that I know my 5-star books aren’t necessarily amazing books. But that doesn’t matter. I try to review with my head, but I definitely rate with my heart.
But if they’re not amazing books, then what is it about them that speaks to me? What is that intangible thing that separates a 5-star book from a 4-star book?
I don’t know. Maybe there are no answers. The thing is, every time I think of a trait that’s common to several of my 5-star books, there are always other books with that trait that didn’t get that elusive fifth star. But let’s take a look at them anyway:
Makes me forget I’m reading a book
I don’t know about anyone else, but I love that feeling when you’re so into a book that it’s almost like you’re not reading the words anymore. Instead, it’s like you’re one with the book. And when you finally reach the end… you sit up and have a “Where am I? What day is it?” moment. Because you were just that caught up in the book. I absolutely love when a book does that to me, forces me to take that moment to come back to the real world.
Lisa Genova’s Still Alice in particular was great for that, because the whole book is about someone whose mind is slowly failing her… to come out of it and have that moment myself just made me feel the book that much more.
Nails the ending
No matter how many little quibbles a book has, if it nails the ending, I can forgive a lot. As important as first impressions are, I think last impressions can be even more important, at least in this situation. Which is going to leave you feeling better about the book you just read: one that starts strong and then goes downhill, or one that was pretty good the whole way through but then ends with a bang?
Jane Jensen’s Judgment Day is one of those books. It’s essentially a religious thriller, although there’s more to it than that… but it had one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read, one that fit the book perfectly.
Gives me everything I didn’t even know I wanted
This almost feels like a cop-out, because it’s no less vague than the questions I’m trying to answer. But sometimes I enter a book without much in the way of expectations, and somehow it feels perfectly tailored to my personal preferences. It has the characters, the setting, the plot twists, the voice… everything.
Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale was one of these for me, all the more impressive since it was a random picked-up-off-the-shelf read (and probably the book that has ruined me for all the random reads since).
I’ll probably never be able to come up with an all-encompassing formula for what makes a 5-star book.
How do you decide if a book deserves your highest rating?