Review Policy and Criteria
Many of the books reviewed here are received in Advanced Reader Copy, also known as galley, format. They may or may not be identical to the finished product. If my guests or I review an ARC, it will be clearly noted. We do not receive any financial compensation from authors or publishers for our reviews. I receive monetary compensation for any reviews originally published in Shelf Awareness, but all opinions are my honest own.
If a book is not expressly stated to be an ARC, then it came from a local bookstore or local library.
If you have a book you would like me or a guest reviewer to read, please feel free to contact us with its vital stats, namely title, author, publisher, planned publication date, genre, length, and a short plot summary. We will not accept unsolicited books, even if they look like very good unsolicited books. You may submit inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be aware that we may ask to see your book but still choose not to review it. Please also be aware that if we accept your book, you are not guaranteed a positive review.
Reviewing is a highly subjective process, no matter how hard the reviewer tries to be fair. What one person loves, another person might hate, and vice versa. Each guest reviewer is allowed to use his or her own system of rating, provided it’s clearly explained.
My system involves breaking a book down into what I consider its most vital aspects, rating each aspect, then averaging them into an overall rating. Rating categories will sometimes vary by genre.
Writing: Nonfiction books can be intensely interesting, or they can be the driest tomes imaginable. I look for engaging writing that’s appropriate to the subject matter.
Content: How thoroughly did the author cover the subject? Did he or she stay within the intended scope of the work? For example, if a book is only meant to be a primer on a subject, I don’t expect great depth on every aspect of that subject, but I do expect a good overview of every important aspect. If a book is focusing solely on a narrow topic, I expect that topic to be thoroughly explained, leaving no interesting unturned stones along the way.
Authority: Librarians use the word “authority” in this context to mean, “Does the author actually know his or her subject?” For example, if the book is about the private life of nuns, the author should either be a nun or have spent three years living undercover as one. If the author only has the information secondhand, then he or she is not an authority.
Value: In this instance, I use value to mean the impact the book could have. Is it throwing light into a dark, unexplored corner? Is it breathing new life into a subject most people consider dull or irrelevant? Will it change the world, educate people, or at least be extremely entertaining? If yes, then it has value.
Concept: First, points for originality. Is this the first ever book about Radioactive Moon Unicorns, or have Radioactive Moon Unicorns taken the pop culture world by storm and this person is band-wagoning? With so many cookie cutters rolling off the presses, it’s important to recognize innovation. Second, is it worth writing about? If Radioactive Moon Unicorns are largely considered the most boring topic ever, that’s not a great concept. The author can make up for their ridiculously bad topic selection in the other rating categories, but it isn’t going to save this area.
Writing: Given the completely subjective nature of the “good/bad writing” question, how can anyone rate a book’s writing? I’m sure many different answers exist. To me, good third person prose writing does one of two things:
–It gets out of the story’s way. The writing moves the plot and characters along without drawing any attention to itself, leaving you thinking about the story, the issues the story raises, the parts of it that left you tense and breathless, and the characters who lived it…OR
–It blows your mind with the author’s incredibly skilled and profound use of language, leaving you transported with joy and jealous rage because face it, you’re never going to write like Peter S. Beagle, and you WANT to.
When I rate a book’s writing, I also think about whether it’s appropriate to the story. With first-person narratives enjoying popularity these days, appropriateness is especially important. If the narrator is a teen boy in a future where language has all but broken down, his voice shouldn’t be flowery. If the narrator is Anne Boleyn, she shouldn’t sound like Carrie from “Sex and the City.”
Character Development: I don’t rate character development based on whether I love or hate a book’s characters. I rate it based on whether each character has a distinct, well, character. I want to feel that I’m reading about real people. I want to know the reasons behind their actions. I want to know how their lives and backgrounds have influenced their personalities, and I want those personalities to remain consistent or grow and change realistically because of the situations the characters experience. Bottom line: I want my characters round, not flat, and I want them to retain their shape or expand in believable ways.
Plot: What happens? Am I interested? Do I believe it? Are the characters challenged? Plot is where concept either flowers into a radiant rose or shows itself to be compost-worthy…or better off with another author. I want a plot tight enough that the “How It Should Have Ended” people would just walk on by. And then there are plot’s two equally important babies: pacing and ending.
Pacing: Books come in all speeds, from leisurely to rip-roaring fast, and I love them all…except the ones with uneven pacing. Sagging middles, slow starts, and abrupt endings can all ruin an otherwise enjoyable read.
Ending: Whether it’s a complete surprise or an inevitable conclusion, the ending should fit the story. Is it realistic that the heroine forgives the hero for running over her sister’s hamster and they get back together? Did the author slap an inappropriately happy ending on an otherwise dark book, or vice versa? Most importantly, was there any kind of cop-out?
Cover Art: No, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. No, the author gets no say in the art selection. No, it shouldn’t matter. But you know what? When the pimply guy asked you to prom, his pizza face shouldn’t have mattered, because he was a nice and funny guy…but you still turned him down. Appearances MATTER. Yes, judging covers is self-indulgent, but I do try to a) stay open-minded and b) base my judgment on how well the cover matches the book in terms of content, theme, and tone.
Fantasy and Science Fiction
…will be judged by all of the fiction guidelines, plus…..
World Building: You simply cannot have good fantasy or science fiction without good world-building. If a book is set in the distant future, on another planet, in an alternate timeline, or in a magical realm, that other world must come to life clearly and logically. If the story is set in the real world but infused with fantasy or science fiction elements, those elements still need clear and interesting explanation and rules. OR THE QUEST IS LOST.
Graphic Novels, Manga, and Comics
I rate graphic novels based on all the attributes I use for the individual book’s corresponding print genre, plus…
Art: I’m no art expert. I barely know the difference between line, water color, and oil. Actually, I don’t know that I can spot water color vs. oil. I judge based on how appropriate the art is to the story, as well as how clear and well-printed it is.
Dialogue: I might use dialogue in place of Writing or in addition to Writing, depending on whether the author uses narrative, pure dialogue, or a mix. I want each character to have a distinct, appropriate voice that adds to their development.
…will still be rated by the following categories:
However, character development will be split into:
Hero: Alpha or beta, cowboy or CEO, vampire or werewolf, ninja or nerd, I want to be ready to move into his farmhouse/become his species/rescue him from the Shogun by the end of the book.
Heroine: Dewey-eyed ingenue, world-wise career gal, Regency widow… Whatever. She can be 19 or she can be 65 for all I care, and she can be a beauty queen or Ugly Betty’s uglier twin. I want to see heroines who are smart and resilient with a strong sense of self. At the same time, I want them to have attitudes appropriate to their time period, or, if they’re forward-thinking, I want their progressive stance acknowledged. At the end of the book, I want to think, “If I can’t have the hero (whom I am ideally in love with by this point), I’m sure glad she’s going to take good care of him for me.”
Secondary Characters: Characterization is a little different in the romance genre. The hero and heroine are center-stage, and secondary characters basically serve one of three purposes: move the plot, give the hero/ine someone to share their intimate feelings about the hero/ine with, or make a cameo to promote their own installment in the book series. I want secondary characters to always do the first of those three things, and I want them to be reasonably unique and well-drawn, although I understand that they will never be as vivid as the hero and heroine. They aren’t on stage long enough.
And I will also add….
Chemistry: Sweet, spicy, or “I can’t believe it’s legal to print that,” the connection between the hero and heroine must be believable, must build realistically, and must carry through the entire story. Whether they’re bonding through shared troubles or antagonizing each other, I want to see that they care about each other, and I want to believe that their bond is strong enough to last long-term.
Rating: If there’s graphic sex, I’ll warn you. If there’s no graphic sex, I’ll warn you.