Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rating System

Though it is not depended upon or included in the individual reviews, Speculiction does have a five-star rating system.  Perhaps only personal, it is merely a footnote to the index.  That the ratings are also slightly in flux means that it is a more subjective than objective exercise.  All too often ideas about a book will strike long after I’ve finished—for better or worse—causing me to reevaluate the opinion.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to qualify the system.

5 Stars books are singular, timeless, engrossing, poignant, prosaic (experimentally, lyrically, or in some other quality fashion), and address the ideas and questions of being human in profound and interesting form. In short, they represent the peak of the art of fiction.  The overwhelming majority of books on my blog that have five stars are also older, which leads me to believe that in order for a book to receive this distinction it must also pass a test of time.  Some examples: Solaris, Master and Margarita, Stand on Zanzibar, Brave New World ...

4½ Star books present all the attributes of five star books, but are missing that little something, up to and including books which are superb in every category yet possess one quality which is wholly detrimental, e.g. misogyny or a narrow religious agenda.  In other words, they fall just short of being stellar.  Some examples include: River of Gods, Gateway, Book of the New Sun, Lord of Light, The Prestige, Count Zero, and others...  (4½ Stars is also the highest rating books which seek only to entertain can aspire to on this blog—and it must be storytelling of the highest order.  I feel The Hobbit is gloriously wonderful reading and has inspired others to no end.  But it is storytelling for storytelling’s sake, nothing more, which ultimately prevents it from greater heights.  Bottom line: for a book to be five stars, it must transcend mere story.)

At 4 Stars things become less simple.  Generally it is well planned and executed idea with more than one layer, but is missing one vital aspect or a couple smaller aspects of high quality writing.  The author accomplished the majority of what they set out to do and told an engaging tale in the process. But there is still a noticeable void of some variety or varieties.  Prose should be better than serviceable to good, and does not necessarily have to be superb if other elements are presented well (and vice versa); it should at least show some hint of subtlety.  Not as straight-forward as better books, some books receive four stars for being coherent, well told stories, while others may tell less-than-exciting tales but still achieve the mark based on different merits, e.g. style, content, or social/individual commentary.  4 Stars is thus a mixed bag of great stories which lack complete coherence, but possess confident, positive intention and presentation, and succeed far more often than they fail.  Some examples, include: The Lord of the Rings, Red Mars, The Time Machine, The Pastel City, The Player of Games, etc.

And we move closer to the mean... 

Being good but not great, at 3½ Stars a great convergence takes place.  These may be books with a new spin on an old idea; an idea that is well conceived but lacks the prose and structure to support it; an idea that is wholly unique but is missing more than one important element of quality writing; or a book that is pleasant to read for prose alone, yet the story only just good enough.  3½ Star books are enjoyable, perhaps even intriguing, but have not achieved timelessness or set themselves apart from the crowd enough to warrant such singular recognition.  They are unique faces but in a crowd, and thus account for the majority of books reviewed on my blog.  Some examples: Curse of Chalion, Veniss Underground, Schismatrix, Perdido Street Station, A Game of Thrones, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Dune, The Windup Girl, Non-Stop, The Anubis Gates, and others…

3 Stars is my borderline for re-reading and about as high as a book with excellent intentions but poor execution can aspire to.  Overall it remains a better than average book and one that can be recommended with caveats.  The stories are largely mainstream in aim, but may possess one, possibly two original elements.  They might also be wholly original, yet fail in several other important categories.  The prose is typically pedestrian or uninspired with a flash here or there of skill. It might also be overwrought or purple, but kept afloat by other qualities.  In short, a 3 Star book is missing major pieces of high quality writing, possesses several things familiar, and does most things correctly but not wonderfully.  Some examples: The Prefect, Mistborn, Ringworld, Elric, Deathworld, A Fall of Moondust, Foundation, and others.

The hump…

I do not regret having spent money on a three-star book, however, at 2½ Stars doubt starts to slip in.  Halfway between 0 and 5, it is the average book.  No expectations are placed on the reader’s intelligence.  Story utilizes well worn devices, prose is merely serviceable, and plot is more than likely rehashed or only loosely cobbled.  It is mainstream in relating to its readers’ expectations and may possess one element that is original, all else borrowed, copied, or stolen.  This is not to say the book is terrible, rather that it is light reading capable of entertaining for the time it is being held, but is lacking anything special enough to earmark it for re-reading, or even remembrance.  Some examples: The Last Colony, Barrayar, Legend,  The Skinner, The Day of the Triffids, and others.  (For the record, there are also 2½ Star books which have tried something ambitious and worthwhile but failed, e.g. Speaker for the Dead or The Postman.)

And downward we go…

At 2 Stars the scale tips toward the negative.  The book may have tried something original, but failed terribly.  It may also be poor presentation, or that prose is weak and the story ho-hum, worn, or ragged.  Cliché adorns some if not many sentences and the plot probably has more than one hole.  A 2 Star book can be read, but it is not without occasional eye-rolling and moments requiring forgiveness for the various excesses or unoriginal material included.  Some examples: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Starburst, Lankhmar stories, Black Man/Thirteen, Iron Council, and others.

1½ Stars – I was able to finish the book, but it took patience and effort. Suffice to say the half star is to acknowledge there was one thing worth merit about the book, and that one thing kept a glimmer of hope alive in my fingers to keep turning the pages.  Everything else is disposable.  Another attribute I notice is the significant distance to which belief must be suspended, i.e. a significant lack of coherence or consistency.  Subjective, I know, there are just some elements that should never be presented in the same basket or plot advances which are so contrived as to remove the book from any discussion of integrity.  Some examples of 1½ Stars are:  Little Brother, Dark Moon, Pushing Ice, etc.

A 1 Star book may or may not have been read to the end.  It is deficient in most every literary category.  The “prose” is unpolished, unpracticed, and perhaps unreadable.  Cheese oozes from the pages—and it may be Swiss, because the plot is full of holes or is so laden with cliché and melodrama you get nauseated—just like my metaphor.  There simply was no ambition on the writer’s part to include worthwhile content.  I will resell this book at the earliest opportunity or be thankful I merely borrowed it from the library.  Some examples: A Fire upon the Deep, Black Sun Rising, Lost City, etc.

A ½ Star book is a special category on its own.  Like a train wreck, you just can’t turn your head except to shake it in amazement.  Such books are usually so bad they become unintentional entertainment.   The half a nod is simply to the fact somebody was willing to produce copies and try to sell them.  Only one example thus far: Conan the Warrior.

As can be seen, I try to use the full spectrum of stars. 5 Stars actually means something (I hope) and is not just based on the thumping of my heart after turning the last page of the latest thriller; 2½ Stars is not an insult, merely acknowledgement of the routine, blasé nature of a book’s qualities (the book does not wholly disappoint, but at the same time it doesn’t aspire to be anything greater); while 1 Star denotes a book that is just plain poor material and would have been better left unpublished.

As I mentioned in the opening, I sometimes change a book’s rating.  My initial opinion after reading a book may be altered by discussions with others, learning of ideas that were present but that I wasn’t aware of, or by having a book stick longer in my brain than I initially thought it capable of—for better or worse.  Take this as Speculiction’s rating system—it too being subject to change.

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