With twenty-five years in education behind me, it will come as no surprise to readers who are also teachers, or who know teachers, to read that my book reviews are based on something called a rubric. A rubric has several meanings, but in education, it means:
a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests
So what are my criteria?
I consider the following major categories in reviewing a book:
- Writing style: does it scan? Is the mix of active and passive voice appropriate to the story? Is there too much description, or too little? Does the tone fit the story? Is the pacing of the story balanced?
- Dialogue: is it realistic? Is it complex – are emotions, nuances, subtleties conveyed? If meant to, does it convey regional accents or cadences?
- Plot: is it either original, or a new telling of a genre-standard story? Is it internally consistent? Does it rely on coincidences or happenings that strain the reader’s belief?
- Character Depth and Development: are these real characters, or stereotypes? Do they have dimension? Do they develop over the story?
- World-building: does the author make us believe in this world? Is it fully explained over the course of the story, or are we left guessing? Does the author appear to understand her/his world thoroughly? Are phrases/terms used correct for the setting? (e.g., not using Australian terms when the book is set in Canada)
- Spelling and grammar: Are conventions followed? Are spelling errors the result of spell-check limitations? (e.g., overseas/oversees). If non-conventional use is purposeful, is it used consistently? Do spelling/grammar errors detract from the story?
I also look at production issues (the way the book is formatted) and reading level if it’s not an adult book.
Each of the 6 main categories is rated out of 4, and then the overall rating made. (Educational rubrics, at least here in Ontario, are always out of 4…so that’s why I rate out of 4 – habit.) I then mathematically convert that to a rating out of 5, to be consistent with Amazon and Goodreads. (Unlike those sites, though, I will report 2.5 or 3.5 or 4.5, but I will use the next full ‘star’ when posting the review on either of those sites.)
I read with a clipboard and the rubric beside me, and I take notes. Using a rubric means I’ll be more consistent, and, it allows me to rate a book in a genre I don’t usually read. But I’ll be honest – there’s a bit of gut reaction still in there. I’ll give you an example from film. Years and years ago my husband and I saw a film called Blood Simple. It had internal plot inconsistencies. It had production issues, especially with continuity. It was clearly low budget – and both of us loved it. It was the first Joel and Ethan Coen film to be released (I think) and it had all the hallmarks of their quirky, eccentric film-making, and those qualities over-rode the problems, in our opinion.
And the last thing to remember about any review? The friends we were with hated Blood Simple. In the end, it’s only my opinion. I’ve been known to be wrong.