Discussion: Rating Systems for Books

Hello Bookworms!

I recently found a super interesting post (and subsequent Twitter thread) about star ratings for books. The original post was “Rating My Books” by Martjin Hartman (@MartjinHartman) on his blog thedaybeforeyoucame.com. The post really made me think about how I apply ratings to my own book reviews and how much use they really are. I hope Martjin doesn’t mind me using his blog as inspiration but I had quite a few thoughts of my own that I wanted to share…

In the original post, Martjin asked if there was a better system than a one to five number rating. Now, I’ve seen a lot of you use different ways to rate books – everything from breaking down the book into constituent parts (characters, plot etc.) then working out an average (3.7686543 out of 5!) to using letters (B+ etc.) to ignoring star (or heart, or bananas) ratings entirely. But which way is best? FIGHT!!! Let’s discuss…

If you use a rating system, they can be arbitrary, entirely dependant on your mood at the time and can seem crass if you’re talking about a book that covers a sensitive topic (these war poems were great! Five stars!). You also have the issue of interpretation, where you might see two stars as ok-ish but others may think that you mean terrible. One way round that could be to publish a disclaimer explaining your rating system but I don’t think many people will go searching for it before reading your review. 

Not using a rating system seems like an obvious solution but I quite like having a numeric distillation of my thoughts and feelings – not least because it allows me to easily identify which books I loved/hated for end of year stats!

Now, I don’t want to get too philosophical here but I do think there’s an overarching issue with rating systems that I’ve struggled to get my head around and that’s who is this rating actually for? Obviously, I’m going to rate a book based on my experience of it but because a numerical rating can be taken so out of context it does feel I’m saying 4/5 stars – read this book! or one star – this book is awful! when actually what I’m saying is I liked/disliked this book and if you’re like me, you might enjoy/not enjoy it too. That’s an incredibly difficult idea to convey using quantitative data.

For example, my last review (The Secret Loves of Geek Girls) was really difficult to write and score. I know that I’d absolutely recommend the book to certain people because it’s a well written, fun anthology but I personally failed to connect with it. I didn’t want to put anyone off reading it by giving a low rating, but equally to score it highly would be disingenuous. What number out of five can you give to reflect that? 

The answer is…I don’t know. There are so many problems with rating systems and yet I still kind of like them. Personally, I favour the use of half stars to give a bit more variance but I do tend to stick to the 1-5 rating system (1=terrible, 2.5=average, 3=good, 5=OMG-couldn’t-put-it-down-got-completely-lost-in-it-didn’t-realise-it’s-now-2am). However, I think that slapping a number on a book without somehow showing my working out is a bit, well, arbitrary so I also include a little summary passage explaining my reasons (including whether I think this is a great for you but not for me book). 

AND THAT’S THE BEST I’VE GOT. It’s not perfect (don’t get me started on whether to round up or down half stars for NetGalley/Goodreads or what to do with books I’ve DNF’d) but it seems to work for me.

So, what rating system do you use – if you use one at all? Have you encountered any of the problems that I’ve mentioned above? Let me know in the comments!

Discussion: Are ARC’s Actually Worth It?

Potentially unpopular opinion alert….

Recently, I noticed a bit of a trend with my review ratings being higher than normal. Whereas I’m usually pretty stingy when dishing out stars (two and a half is ok, three is good, five has to be earth shattering) I found I was consistently rating books at around the four star mark and one month even had two five star reviews. Unheard of. So what was going on?

I did a bit of light digging and found that my NetGalley deadlines were pretty quiet for the months in question. Hmmm. When I looked closer, I found that I have a tendency to not enjoy NetGalley ARC’s as much as books I’d obtained from other sources (bought as new, bought second hand, borrowed from the library or a friend). That’s odd, right? 

Now, I’m not saying that I haven’t found some amazing novels on NetGalley. A quick flick through my book journal shows brilliant books like Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, The Feather Thief, Bitter and The Woman in the Window all came from there, plus many others. However, I definitely feel like there’s a tendency for me to find an ARC a bit meh. Why?

Well, I guess there’s a pretty slick PR department at NetGalley who are professionals at making books sound A-MA-ZING when in reality, they’re probably not. In my reading life, they’re the only professional source of book marketing that I engage with. The only other thing that comes close is authors or blog tour organisers who directly approach me to review their books. The thing is, a direct email is so much more personal that I’m far, far pickier about participating. I have to be almost entirely sure that I’m going to like the novel before I agree to review it because, well, how super awkward would it be to send a negative review directly to the author or the person who was counting on you for some publicity? I have almost zero qualms about sending a negative review to NetGalley though because it’s so…impersonal. I’m just a random person sending feedback via an intermediary. Nothing ever comes of it so there’s no fear. 

Apart from the marketing angle, I guess the idea of free books gives me a kid-in-a-sweet-shop mentality. I want them all! I was exactly the same when I first bought a Kindle and discovered the Top 100 Free chart. Unlimited free books from the comfort of my home! My dreams have been realised! Then I started reading them and found the quality to be…let’s say variable…trending towards the lower end of the scale (again, not knocking anyone, I’ve found some great free books over the years. They just tend to be few and far between). 

But Lucinda, you use the library! Free books! It’s the same thing, right?

Well actually, no. Firstly, the library doesn’t send you vaguely manipulative emails every five minutes telling you that only 100 people will get to read this book now or give you professional marketing literature about a book that they’ve been told to push. The most you’ll get is a “If you liked this you might like…” or an impartial recommendation. Plus you can still only have six books at a time (presumably to stop people like me with no impulse control from turning up with a wheelbarrow and emptying the shelves). The library exists as a publicly funded entity, NetGalley is a profit making PR firm. 

Major. Difference. 

But you must buy books that you don’t like?

Yes of course but since I’m not a millionaire they tend to be considered purchases. I see buying books as a treat, so I need to choose wisely. I’ll spend far more time looking at reviews, reading synopses and shopping around than I would for an ARC. I mean, I could be spending that money on gin.

So, are you going to stop using NetGalley?

Of course not, I’m not an idiot. Free books, remember?!?

Seriously, I don’t think using NetGalley is a bad idea – on the contrary, it’s a brilliant resource for book bloggers like myself. I’ve found lots of amazing novels through the site and I love it when I find out that my request to read something has been approved. I am going to be more restrained though. I’d like to spend more time on my actual, long-standing TBR instead of succumbing to the latest whim. Boringly Annoyingly As always, it seems like moderation is the key. 

What are your thoughts on sites like NetGalley? Do you find a difference in your enjoyment of ARCs vs bought/library books? Let me know in the comments!

Discussion: Is It OK To DNF an ARC?

Odd little fact about me- I very very rarely DNF books. There’s something that feels so wrong about doing it that I just…can’t. I’ve spent hours slogging through some thoroughly unenjoyable texts: Titus GroanThe Devil’s PrayerThe Foxhole Court, The Book of Mirrors…the list is huge. Yet I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time reading any of those books. I think I’ve just proven to myself that I definitely didn’t like them (and said so in my fun little negative reviews). Usually, if I’m reading a boring book I’ll put it on the backburner and read something else for a bit, then return to it half an hour at a time for the next few days/weeks/months. However, even I have my limits and unfortunately I think I’ve reached them with Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott.

You see, Swan Song isn’t an objectively bad book. It’s coherent, the plot moves along nicely, there grammar and spelling is fine, there’s no major storyline inconsistencies or majorly annoying characters. It has some good points; it’s glamorous, it features a number of well written characters, it feels authentic. The problem is…I simply don’t care what happens.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so emotionally distanced from a book. I have absolutely no idea why – it’s not like the characters aren’t multi-faceted or deserving of pity or the writing is terrible. It’s just that…I don’t care. You see, Swan Song is the story of Truman Capote (yes, that one) and the publication of excerpts from his unfinished novel”Answered Prayers”. Capote’s writing features all of his glamorous Hollywood/High Society friends and his bitchy stories about them and Swan Song is the imagined reaction to the release of such scandalous gossip. My problem is this: I don’t care about (fairly tame) gossip about 1950’s starlets. I don’t care about whose husband had an affair with whom. I don’t care who felt betrayed and who spat out their dry martini all over their Chanel evening gown. It just wasn’t for me.

But can I DNF it?

The problem is, I got a copy of Swan Song as an ARC and I feel weirdly obliged to give an honest review of the title – something I can’t objectively do if I’ve only read half of it. Yes, I know there’s a box on NetGalley where you can say that you’re not going to provide a review but there’s still part of me that feels that’s it’s wrong to give up. But then I look at the progress bar on my Kindle and it says something like 3 hours 15 minutes left to read and my heart just sinks (also, I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate – I can usually read an entire book in that time – perhaps it’s because I keep drifting off and having to re-read bits). 

There’s a part of me that’s worried that the book might suddenly get better and I’m missing out. There’s also a tiny little nagging voice that tells me that DNFing a book makes me a loser. Then there’s another part of me that thinks life’s too short to read something in not enjoying.

Things my brain is saying right now:

But what if I go to a dinner party and everyone is raving about the book and I have to admit that I gave up on it? (I can’t even begin to tell you how wildly improbable that scenario is).

What off my brain never lets me forget that I stopped reading it and it annoys me for the rest of my life? (More likely)

What if the book becomes a forgotten classic, only to be re-discovered years later and I have to admit that I was there at the start but I couldn’t see how amazing it was? 

Aargh!

Can anyone please help me to feel better about my dilemma? Are you a regular DNFer? Is it wrong? Am I over-thinking it? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

I Wish I Loved My Local Library, But I Don’t.

Confession time – I hate going to my City Centre’s library. I wish I didn’t, but it really is a horrible place.

I have wonderful memories of going to our village hall as a child where there was a small but well stocked library, with a lovely librarian, children’s corner, seating area etc. It could only have been the size of a small storeroom but it had everything I needed as a precocious four year old. As I got older, I obviously had access to my school’s libraries (I read every single book at least twice) which although larger were pretty much static in terms of getting new books in. Our local library was replaced by a mobile one (basically a van full of books) which felt incredibly precarious as you climbed into it up some rickety steps and shook as you walked along it. Again, it wasn’t exactly well stocked (YA hadn’t really been invented so there was just a handful of Judy Blooms and Paula Danzigers in the “teens” section). Luckily, my parents always encouraged me to read and I would pester them to buy me books, so I could continue to be a bookworm throughout my teenage years. Then Amazon happened and books got super cheap, then the Kindle, then Netgalley – so I stopped using the library altogether. It’s only recently that I realised I could download ebooks from them for free that I decided to renew my membership.

That’s when I found that wave after wave of funding cuts have made the library, well, pretty dreadful.

When you walk into our main library (previously a nightclub), you’re presented with a subterranean tunnel which leads to some public toilets. Being pretty much the only public toilets in the city centre, the smell is horrific and they look disgusting (more public services cuts). You can then either take the lift or walk up two flights of stairs to the one main room (the smell permeates all the way to the top of the building). Once there, it’s not immediately obvious where to go. There’s an NHS quit smoking advice centre, a cancer helpdesk, a benefits/asylum area (I think)… but no books. I walked through the security turnstiles and found a small desk at the side of the room. There were people wandering around with lanyards on but it wasn’t immediately obvious if they were librarians, volunteer helpers or people working in the myriad of other services that the library now offers. I assume I’d arrived at the helpdesk (there was no sign) so I picked a lanyard wearer at random and asked if she could renew my membership. I’d previously tried to do this online and it seems that someone had messed it all up, so it took her some time to unpick what they’d done and set me up properly. I made the mistake of leaning on the counter during this process and realised that it was sticky with an unidentified substance (ewwwwwww). I grabbed my new card and got out as fast as I could (but not before two drunk men tried to chat me up).

I’ve used the online services that the library offers – free ebooks and audio books – but I won’t be going back there in a hurry.

So guys, make me jealous – do you have a fabulous local library? Or is yours just as horrible as mine? Do you feel bad for not using it more? Comment below!