Friday, July 6, 2007

The Standard of Book Reviews

During the CSFF blog tour a couple weeks ago, I read through various reviews of the featured book and was somewhat surprised by the huge array of opinions. At one point I even wondered if we had all read the same book.

Yes, I know book reviews—or reviews of any type—are subjective. But how can one book spark both praise and condemnation for the same passage?

I finally realized that each book review is different because each reviewer applies a different set of standards. One reviewer studies the craft of the writing. A second determines his opinion from the book’s theology, while a third likes or hates the story purely because of the emotional experience provided.

This ultimately leads me to ask, what are my standards for a “good book”?

So today, in lieu of a review, I thought I would provide five of my standards when judging a book:

1. Reading Habits: I enjoy fiction from many genres, from historical to science fiction to romance to thrillers. About the only genre I haven’t read is horror, because of an overactive imagination. But at the same time, I also favor science-fiction and fantasy, so though I try not to, the more mind-bending story will probably rank higher in my reviews.

In addition, I’ve enjoyed both CBA and ABA fiction. However, because I retain the stories unusually well, I tend to avoid books that may fill my mind with language or scenes I don’t want coming out in my own writing. So most of my reading is in the CBA market, and that becomes my primary point of comparison. So if I think something is original, I’m saying (unless stated otherwise) it’s unique within my current knowledge of CBA fiction.

2. Readership: The main group of people I hope to reach with this blog is conservative Christian parents and their young adults. Therefore, I slant my book reviews to cater to that group and consequently give extra weight to swearing, violence, sex/sexual innuendos, and magic—things that may not matter to a different reviewer.

I am also aware that many young adults read adult fiction. So I consider whether parents should worry about their teens reading this material. Therefore a well-written book with graphic violence or extensive swearing may rank lower in my reviews than a poorer-written book without those elements.

3. Faith: I am a born-again, conservative Evangelical Christian, if you want all the Christian jargon. More simply, I am someone who believes the Bible is completely true and is fully applicable to all aspects of life. Therefore I seek fiction that will build up that faith instead of supplanting ideas that clearly contradict it. Hence the second section I entitle “The Story.”

Yes, one of the main purposes of a story is to entertain—but at what cost? If that entertainment reinforces that which contradicts Scripture and could possibly hurt my own relationship with God should I absorb those principles into my life, is it worth it?

Not that occasionally reading a contrary story will hurt me. But because I seek to promote overall healthy fiction habits on this blog, what I consider theologically sound books will rate higher on my list than those that are not.

4. Occupation: Because I seek a career as a novelist, most of my training and higher education has been focused on creative writing. Therefore when I read, I read as a fellow craftsman. I take note of unusual tactics and the applications of the rules I’ve been taught, much in the way a landscaper might enjoy another’s garden or an architect would observe a house he is visiting—hence my first section, “The Writing.” I want to show what does and doesn’t work, why, and whether the virtues outweigh the flaws. One book may have character you fall in love with and a lousy plot. A second book may have an edge-of-your-seat plot and mediocre characters. Yet because of each book’s strong points, they may both be equally worth reading. Or not, depending.

5. Personal Taste: As much as I might wish otherwise, my personal taste can and does influence my reviews. So what am I especially fond of in a book?

• Something that challenges, encourages, or makes me stop and think, especially if it can make me laugh at the same time.

• Characters I connect with and pull for—so I have an extra-soft spot for underdog stories.

• Fast-paced plots—something that grabs me by the throat and won’t let go, thus providing me a small adrenaline rush.

• Happy endings—in a world where evil is so strong, I like being reminded the impossible is possible and there is a reason for hope.

• In short, I’m a very emotional person; I like stories that can challenge the mind, touch the heart, and tickle the funny bone, leaving me emotionally satisfied when I finish.

No one of these standards alone is enough for me to praise or condemn a book, which is why so many of my ratings fall between 2.5 and 4.5. Very few books are absolutely horrid or extremely excellent.

Of course, that could be just my opinion.

Feet on the ground, head in the clouds,

Chawna Schroeder

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