Reviewing a book means we make a judgment about it. Basically, we decide whether or not a book was “good.” So what do we base our judgment on?
What makes a book “good”?
The simplest answer – If you like it then the book is good, right? Well, kind of.
Problem is people don’t all like the same books 100% of the time. We have different tastes and preferences in genre, subject matter, and writing style. Our like or dislike of a a book depends so much on our own personal preferences and opinions which are not quite good enough standards for determining a book’s worth for the world in general. How could there ever be any agreement on giving a book an award or recommending it for study in a book club or high school English class if the merit was all based on opinion? I found The Grapes of Wrath to be depressing and Great Expectations annoying in high school, but that doesn’t remove them from the Classics list, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some worth in the literary world. Hearing me admit that would probably give my high school English teacher a heart attack as my teenage mind was rather adamant that both books were just lame. But thank goodness for a college children’s literature class that opened my mind.
In that class we were required to read books from a variety of genres, some of which I was not as excited about as the others. I liked reading for an escape from my reality for just a little while, so I never got terribly excited about nonfiction. I also had never been able to read a “high fantasy” book without getting bored part way through and just giving up. But I needed to pass the class for my elementary education degree, so I decided to keep an open mind and give all the genres a fair chance.
It was surprising which books I enjoyed most. My number one favorite from the class actually turned out to be a nonfiction selection called Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and The Endurance . And surprisingly the “fairy tale-esque” Seven Daughters and Seven Sons wasn’t just the reality escape I was expecting. I enjoyed the book, but it was also the source for some great class discussion about controversial reading material. And So Far From the Bamboo Grove caught me by surprise with the horrifying real-life events it covered while still fitting into the children’s literature category. The fantasy book The High King turned out to be more amusing and easier to read than I had anticipated. Being able to discuss all of these books in class and hear others explain and justify their opinions and preferences really helped me to find greater enjoyment in genres I would have normally not considered reading.
I came to recognize that I needed knowledge and experience with various genres in order to make appropriate recommendations and choices for the elementary school children and the curriculum I would be teaching. I would undoubtably have students one day who had different opinions and preferences for reading and I wanted to be able to encourage a love of reading and to help develop their interests. And even more importantly I learned to appreciate the “good” aspects about books which in turn allows me to now enjoy a much broader scope of genres. I can even recognize the “good” when I don’t necessarily like the book as a whole. My experience with a variety of genres taught me that a “good” book is more than just its subject material. That may pique our initial interest, but a book’s true worth comes not only from what is written, but how it is written.
My 2nd grade daughter has been learning about the elements of a good story. These include setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. Sound familiar? Pretty basic stuff. We all have heard about these aspects of storytelling since at least the 2nd grade, but hopefully that doesn’t make them seem worn out. They are in fact just as essential to making a good story as our elementary school teachers taught us. It is really difficult to feel interested and satisfied by a story that is missing any one of these elements or that incorporates them badly. Consider early reader books – “See Jane run. See Dick run. Dick and Jane run.” This may certainly be helpful in a child learning to decode the word “run” but it doesn’t give any drive to keep reading to find out what happens. That’s because nothing happens. The book is missing a plot and a conflict and therefore is also missing people who want to read it.
The most important story element for me is probably characters. I need to connect with the people in a book so that I actually care what happens to them. Otherwise I just have no interest in reading even the most exciting of plots. Stardust by Neil Gaiman was such an interesting story idea and yet the characters were so one dimensional that I didn’t really care to find out what happened to them. On the flipside great characters can make even those most normal of plot events inspiring. Anne of Green Gables is a perfect example of this. Anne Shirley is a dynamic and relatable character so reading about even a simple walk past “the lake of shining waters” is engaging.
Characters must also be consistent. We need to know what motivates them to act the way they do and then their decisions and actions throughout the book must align with those motivations. And if the character undergoes a change of heart then the catalyt(s) for such a change must be explained well enough that we can believe they would truly spur that change in the character. Without that consistency the characters will be difficult to understand, to relate to, to believe in, and therefore to care about.
Theme is a necessary story element, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be provided by the author. The best book themes are those that the reader gets to discover, and that means there can be as many themes in a book as there are people who read it. I find that books where the author preaches the theme in no uncertain terms, those in which we are told bluntly what it is we are supposed to learn are generally bland and sometimes annoying. Even if the message is a positive one, one that we completely agree with it can be unsatisfying to have it spoon fed to us. It takes away some of the power and meaning if I don’t get to use my own capacities for observation and perception to unearth how a book is applicable to my life. The best stories present the events and happenings and leave the analysis and judgment to us.
Miracles on Maple Hill is a book that I found to preach too much. The theme of the healing and restorative powers of nature is a truth I wholeheartedly embrace. My own life experience shows me it is true, but in Miracles on Maple Hill that theme is presented so directly that it feels trite and maybe even cheesy rather than inspiring. (You can read my full review of that book here.) Contrast that with the way the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett presents the same theme. In that story nature almost becomes one of the characters and its interactions with the rest of the cast show us its power to transform, but we are given the opportunity to unearth that conclusion for ourselves. The book and its message become a journey and a memory rather than a sermon.
Writing Style and Voice
When all story elements (setting, characters, plot, conflict, theme) are present and accounted for a work can actually be defined as a story. But what about making it a “good” story? Or how about a Newbury award winning story? What sets those books apart? That all comes from the storytelling. How each element is presented is just as important as its presence. An author’s writing style or their voice is a key element in any “good” book.
An author’s voice is what may set him/her apart from all the other writers out there for good or for bad, depending on the preferences of the reader. If you don’t like a particular writing style in can be more difficult to enjoy a book. I have tried some high fantasy books by a couple of different authors and I have determined that it is just not the genre for me because of the writing style that seems to accompany it. It feels like such hard work to wade through all of the description and background information for these epic fantasy worlds that the authors dream up. I need the plot development to move more quickly. I felt that way with Eragon, The Eye of the World (From The Wheel of Time series), Mistborn, The Hobbit, and The Fellowship of the Ring.
The extreme detailedness of these books kept me from loving them, but I didn’t necessarily dislike them either. I am able to appreciate some of their other “good” qualities and even understand why all of that extra information is important. In writing fantasy an author must suspend our disbelief in magic. We have to believe that the world they have created within the pages could actually exist and work. We have to know the rules of the book’s reality and agree that if those rules were to in fact possible that the events in the book would then also be possible. I may get bored by the way author’s describe their epic fantasy worlds but I can still respect the skill and genius it takes to think it all up in the first place. Add in consistent characters with relatable desires and motivations and you have a very interesting story. Unfortunately, just not interesting enough to make it worth trudging through pages and pages of supplemental information that in no way develops either the plot or the characters.
In addition to well paced plot and character development, I love any writing style that can “show” the people, places, things, and events rather than “tell.” When an author does too much “telling” it can feel like reading a grocery list – “This happened. Then this. They were wearing this. It looked like this. It felt like that.” Boring. “Showing” allows us to experience the story events and live them in our imaginations. The words we read register more as images in our mind’s eye, and in addition to the sights, sounds, and events of the story emotions are illuminated and created as well.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is the ultimate reader sensory experience. The words paint vibrant colors, action, and feelings that envelop you and take you on a journey through rhododendron lined drives, a stylish mansion, and a haunted life. It has been years since I read that book, but I can conjure an image of the Manderly estate as easily as I can picture my toothbrush all because the words actually took me to that place. It wasn’t just described to me; I feel like I actually saw it.
There are all kinds of other “technical” terms we could use when talking about good writing; we could analyze sentence structure and dialogue, or the use of similes and metaphor, but good writing is more complex than a checklist of literary jargon. While these checklist items can certainly help a writing style to be more engaging, the real sign of success is that we don’t notice the use of specific writing conventions. Instead, we as readers are simply caught up in the flow of the words. We might pause to reflect on a particularly beautiful word arrangement, or choice of descriptors, but if we are paying attention to sentence structure and other conventions while reading it’s probably because it has been written badly.
The criteria for judging good writing style or voice is not really measurable or specific; opinion and personal preference certainly play a role in it, but that’s where exposure to a variety of author’s and genres will help us develop more educated opinions. The more different writing styles you read the more you will be able to pinpoint the differences and then justify why you like or dislike something. I guess that old TV slogan was right: “The more you read the more you know.” You just know when writing flows well, sounds good, and works; or on the other hand you know when it is confusing, awkward, and just missing something.