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!

Review: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

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Picture courtesy of Goodreads

I don’t know what’s happening to me. I am notoriously stingy when it comes to dishing out stars for my book reviews. I’m happy to rant and rave about a novel but still give it four stars because there’s usually some tiny details that I feel could be improved upon. However, I recently gave a five star review (for The Girl in the Tower) and…uh oh….I think it’s happening again! Aargh!

I would define The Woman in the Window as a dark thriller (I just made that category up, I don’t know if it’s real or not). It’s being made into a film (yes, even before it’s release as a book – I think that tells you everything you need to know). Unusually, I am actually looking forwards to the film because the book is so cinematic and has so many other film noir references that I think it could be made to look like a beautiful black and white Hitchcock style movie. I doubt this will actually happen but it would look AMAZING. Just saying, all-the-Hollywood-producers-who-don’t-read-my-blog.

The book stars (do books have stars?) Anna, a psychologist living with agoraphobia which is so severe that she can’t leave the house. Unable to work and with alcohol dependency issues, she finds solace in online communities talking to other people in similar positions. Anna is also an avid watcher of people and knows everything that’s going on in her neighbourhood with the help of her trusty zoom lens camera. Most of the events that she glimpses are fairly mundane, until she spots what she believes to be a crime happening in the house next door. However, Anna’s diet of merlot and anti depressants make her a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Did she see what she thought she did? Is her mind playing tricks on her?

I read this book almost in one go, it was *that* good. Unfortunately, I started it in the bath, which made for one very cold and tired Lucinda so if you do decide to give it a read then please, make yourself comfortable before you begin. I really did find the novel unputdownable, it was so fast paced and there was so many twists and turns that kept me guessing right to the end. I did half work out part of what was going on but there was still enough red herrings included to make the outcome utterly unpredictable.

It’s at this point that I feel I should mention the elephant in the room – the comparison to Gone Girl. I fully expect the advertising for this book to begin with the line “fans of Gone Girl will love…” and it’s true that the overall “domestic drama” tag can be applied to both novels. Despite the similarities (unreliable narrator, female-centric, lots of twists and turns) there are also a lot of differences. Gone Girl is very much a 21st century novel, whereas The Woman in the Window has a much more vintage feel. Gone Girl has a major twist, The Woman in the Window has lots of little twists that help you to gradually build a picture of what’s going on. Gone Girl has a bit of a let down ending, The Woman in the Window finishes with a real bang. I loved both books but it’s important to note that The Woman in the Window is not the next Gone Girl, but a brilliant thriller in its own right.

I loved how beautifully dark and twisted The Woman in the Window was. Anna’s obsession with old black and white films, the restricted setting, the references to old Hollywood actresses all made the book feel like it was a revision of a play or an adaptation of a script from the 1950’s. I thought that the level of violence was just right – enough to provide a shock but not so much that it’s turned into a gore fest. The overall tone was a sense of foreboding dread, something that I think is really hard to maintain throughout an entire novel but which was dealt with brilliantly by the author.

I adored Anna’s character and I thought that her psychological problems were handled really well. It was good to see a middle class, educated person struggling with their mental health whilst also receiving treatment – usually if a character has money their problems are swept under the carpet. It was great that Anna’s character showed that depression and addiction can affect anyone and can be incredibly difficult to treat, regardless of how much you know your behaviour is irrational and self destructive.

The only teeny tiny criticism that I have of this book is the cover. Seriously, who came up with such a dull picture? I’ve also seen one that features the side of a building’s external fire escape (literally nothing to do with the story). I guess there’s been a very limited budget given to the artwork because I’m sure that once the film is released there’ll be a terrible “Now a major motion picture” cover but still, could they not have come up with something more intriguing in the meantime?

Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It had me gripped from the start and kept me in suspense right to the end. I loved the old Hollywood film noir feel juxtaposed with the gritty realism of alcoholism and depression. A great novel to get lost in.

Rating: 5/5
Just one more chapter!

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #20 Read a book with a cover that you hate.