Let’s Talk: The Elusive Five-Star Book

The-Elusive-Five-Star-Book---She-Latitude

Reading is an extremely, extremely personal activity. As it’s often said, no one ever read the same book twice—each of us brings into a book our own perspectives, values, preferences, belief systems, and experiences, all of which determine how we perceive a book and its contents. This is why opinions are largely subjective, and this is why I can love a book you hate, and I can hate a book you love.

Personally I’m really quite stingy with giving five-star ratings to books. Out of all the 679 books on my Goodreads ‘Read’ shelf, I’ve only rated 41 books five stars—that’s a rate of 6%! That sounds pretty low, doesn’t it?

harry potter brilliantStinginess aside, what does a book have to have for you to rate it five stars? How does a book make that jump from ‘great’ to ‘WONDERFUL’, all caps? Where is the difference between a four-star book and a five-star book?

My review policy dictates that a five-star book “gets 90-99% of things right” and has an “interesting plot that stays away from cliches, or uses cliches but with (believable) twists”. They also need “realistic, flawed characters who have just enough to love”, are written in “a unique writing style”, and will probably end up in my ‘To Read Again’ list.

Generally speaking, every book that fulfils this criteria should end up in my five-star list, but it’s really not that simple. To receive five stars for me, a book has to be…

1) Enjoyable.

My number one reason for reading, most of the time, is for pleasure. Regardless of how diverse the characters, how interesting the plot, how prolific the author, if a book isn’t enjoyable to me 90% of the time I’m reading it, it most likely won’t get five stars from me.

2) Equipped with a likeable—if not interesting—protagonist.

I actually don’t need to like the protagonist to enjoy the book, but it very certainly helps when I don’t feel like shaking them and instead actually root for them! If nothing else, a likeable protagonist at least ensures that I care for them and want them to reach their goals, which means that right off the bat, I care about the story.

icarly reading

The greatest sin if I dislike the main character and find them boring. No matter how stellar the rest of the book is (plot, setting, pacing, etc.), if I’m not interested in the main character and couldn’t care less about them at all, the book won’t get five stars from me.

3) Well-written.

Despite not having a favourite quote or saying, I’m a sucker for pretty phrases and quotable lines. Good writing flows well, engages the reader, gets the point across without being too purple prose-y, and generally makes the book really enjoyable to read.

4) Unique.

I strongly believe that 80% of ideas in this world are recycled ideas. There’s almost nothing new anymore, especially in fiction, and no matter the genre, there are really only seven basic plots.

‘Unique’ here for me means authentic. A book does not have to be original at all, but it has to offer at least something different to all the other books I’ve read similar to it. This difference could be in having a protagonist with a different personality (i.e. a YA protagonist who’s ridiculously lazy but has to be the leader of a revolution because <insert reason>), a twist to the typical plot (i.e. Cinderella is the evil stepmother), a change of point of view (i.e. having seven POV characters instead of just the typical two), etc.

5) Able to make me feel.
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And by ‘feel’, I don’t mean that it has to reduce me to tears or make me laugh until I’m rolling on the floor—I mean very simply feel: happiness, satisfaction, sadness, heartbreak, fear, anxiety, frustration, annoyance, anticipation, etc.

It also doesn’t really matter whether the emotion is positive or negative—what matters is that I feel, because as long as I am feeling something, that means I care, and as long as I care about the book, well… I am a happy reader (though not always a happy person) and am much, much more likely to give it full marks.

What makes you rate a book five stars? Let me know in the comments!

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44 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: The Elusive Five-Star Book

  1. Maybe it’s just me but I tend to be very easily pleased with books that I read, so I have quite a number of 5 star reads in my GR list. As long as it’s enjoyable and does not make me annoyed, I would give it 5 stars. However, sometimes I went through the list once in a while and went like “why the hell did I give this book 5 stars?” and I changed the rating. I think now that I’m beginning to review books (as opposed to just reading them), I’m beginning to think critically in what I like and don’t like in books.

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    • I totally get that — I often go back to look at my ratings and give some books a lower score later on. If I rate a book the moment I finish it, my emotions are often heightened and I tend to give the book a higher score than I would if I’ve given it some thought. And like you, after I started blogging I’ve also started thinking more critically. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. This is a great post! I agree with all of the points you said. I tend to find that a book’s ability to make me feel is the biggest driver to make me rate it highly because that would mean that the book was impactful and had some aspects of points 1-4.

    I just checked my Goodreads shelf and found that I rated 41/276 of my “Read” books as 5 stars. My ratio is more than double yours at 14.86%. This might be because a lot of books I rate 5 stars are actually 4.5 stars in my head, but I round up whenever I rate books on Goodreads. Either way, I would still consider a 4.5 or 5 star rating hard to achieve. 15% isn’t that high either!

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    • Thanks, Jorelene! Yeah, 15% isn’t actually that high either. I feel like the rating I give the most is 3 stars — but I’m a very ‘moderate’ person in general, i.e. most things tend to be ‘average’ for me, haha.

      I’m sooo undecided on half-ratings. I don’t tend to give them since I have trouble differentiating between, say, a 3 and a 3.5, but I can see where a book is a 4.5 (and not a 5), if that makes sense. Even with the ones I rate 5 there are actually still books that I rate a lower 5, while some are definitely a high 5. 😛

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  3. I”m rather stingy with my 5-star reviews as well. Some people say that they are so good at picking the books they read that they’re not surprised to discover they give half their books 5 star reviews. I say they’re a too easily pleased!

    I want my 5-star books to be special and unforgettable. I read plenty of great books that I give 4 or 4.5 stars and, but few reach that elusive perfect score.

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    • Good to hear that I’m not the only one! I sometimes wonder if I’m too picky, but then there are books that I rate five stars and other people rate one or two star(s). I guess at the end it just comes down to what your personal preferences are. 🙂

      And a perfect score is definitely elusive — even with books that I rated five stars, some are a low five-star while others are a high five-star (i.e. as close to perfect as it can get).

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  4. This is SUCH an intelligently written post. As a reader, I agree with everything you said about what makes a book a five-star read. As a writer, you gave me lots of good things to think about. Making the reader feel is so important!

    Usually as soon as I’m done reading a book I immediately know how many stars it deserves, but sometimes I’m not totally sure and have to let the story sort of cure for a couple of days so I can fully understand the impact and give it a proper rating. Assuming that the prose is passable, the most important thing for me is a story and characters that surprise me in a way that stems organically from the characters and the world (forced plot twists are so annoying).

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    • Thanks, Eve! Most books are like that for me — as soon as I finish it I know immediately what rating I’ll give it. Others, like you said, need a bit of a curing for a couple of days, especially those that have things I really dislike but also have things I absolutely love. I’ll need to actually weigh the pros and cons before giving a rating, in those cases!

      Haha, forced plot twists are annoying, but I can kind of see why some authors do it. I think I’m forever amazed though when authors pull plot twists that are totally unpredictable but then also make sense at the same time — it’s just so clever. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great post! I have to agree with everything you just said, and the points you mentioned. For me to rate a book 5-stars, it has to be unique, a bit different, with great writing, characters I can like, or at least root for, and, obviously, it has to be something I enjoyed reading. I’m a huge “feelings” reader, if I can say it like that: I love when a book moves me, makes me laugh, cry, breaks my heart, and so on. If I have SO MANY feelings, then I know I will rate the book higher than if I feel some kind of distance between what’s happening in the book, and well, myself…If that makes sense?
    Great post! 😀

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    • Thanks, Marie! Yeah, for me the more emotions I feel when reading the book, the likelier it is for me to give it full score and the likelier it is that the book actually stays in my mind. Very often I read a book and think very highly of it, but give it a couple of days and it just doesn’t feel as good anymore, you know? Like I’m over it within a few days, haha.

      Feeling disconnected with the book is the worst, though. No matter how good the story is or how interesting the plot, if I feel that distance it’s just almost impossible for me to enjoy reading it!

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  6. Great post, Reg! For me, point #1, #4, and #5 are very important. I’m not much of a beautiful prose fan, it’s cool if they’re there but lyrical prose sometimes made my head hurts. lol. That’s just me though.
    There’s also the mind-blowing factor, perhaps similar to your #4 point. If a book concept make me think and/or reconsider important principles – question humanity, if you will – it will usually get at least 4 stars from me. And of course the FEEL factor is very important. I loved books that make me angry and want to throw things and books that make me smile and feel all fuzzy. Like you said, it doesn’t matter whether the feeling is positive or negative, a book has to evoke emotional response from me to get 5-star.

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    • Thanks, Windie! Haha, I totally understand — there’s a limit to how lyrical prose can be for me too before it starts crossing into ‘pretentious’ territory and I stop enjoying it myself.

      That’s actually a very good point, one that I forgot to mention in my post. I also really like books that make me question society/humanity/etc. and any book that does so is on a fast-track to five stars if everything else also works. And you put it so eloquently! 🙂

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  7. I’m a very easy to please reader, listener, viewer, eater, etc. With anything I can give my opinion on I’m usually easy to please haha so when it comes to the overall rating of a book it’s generally based on how I feel about it. If I love, like it, hated it, etc that’s what the overall rating will show. Then in my reviews I look at it critically and give star ratings to the plot, writing style and characters. These rating don’t average the overall rating but it helps me to step back and look at the book for the actual content and not the entertainment factor

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    • I’m actually really easy to please with everything else — movies, food, songs, TV, etc. With books I get pickier though!

      And that’s a good way to process things, I think. Reviewing has definitely helped me to look at things more critically and break down a story into its various elements as well as look at it as a whole, instead of just how I feel about it. 🙂

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          • I always try to reiterate, specially when it’s a book I didn’t enjoy, that everyone’s tastes are different. Even if a book has a lot of bad reviews, if the premise is interesting to me I’ll still give it a chance because what I like might not be the same as those people. So I always try to get that message across as much as I can

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  8. I’m definitely also stingy about giving 5 stars, but it’s often hard to encapsulate why I give my 5-star books 5 stars. The “feel” factor probably plays the biggest role. If a book gives me lots of joy and just “feels” right, I’ll give it a 5. I tend to like books that are cleverly written; prose is extremely important to me. Characters that seem like genuine, human, complex people is also a big factor. Though I have realized that my feelings about a book can change over time, and what I once thought was a 5 is decidedly not a 5, and sometimes vise versa! Great post! 🙂

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    • Those are some very good points, and I agree with all of them, especially your last one! My feelings about certain books can change over time too, although I think for me it just goes in one direction (i.e. I lower my ratings afterwards), mostly because most books I read tend to not ‘stick’ well over an extended period of time… but then again, I actually do have a pretty bad memory so maybe I should start taking that into consideration. 😛

      And thanks!

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  9. I rate pretty much on how much I enjoyed reading it. Even if I didn’t love the protagonist, even if it wasn’t the most original plot, if I couldn’t put it down, if I was constantly flipping the pages… it’s likely to get 5 stars from me. However… I’ve only recently started rating books using half stars. I think if Goodreads allowed that, I’d have a lot fewer 5-star books. A lot of my 5-star reads might really be 4.5 because they were reeeeeeeally good, but not quite perfect!

    If I had to guess my percentage of 5-star books, I’d probably say about 25%. Which probably seems like a lot but… oh well. Maybe I’m too easily pleased!

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    • Enjoyment is a pretty big thing for me too, perhaps even the biggest on this list I made! I’m hesitant to say that any book can be perfect, but boy, there are definitely books that have come close to that!

      I love the idea of allowing half-star ratings but I’m not sure how I would deal — I can’t seem to differentiate between, say, a 3-star book and a 3.5-star book, but I can see where the difference lies between 4.5 stars and 5 stars. Maybe that’s just me, though. 😛

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      • Yeah, I don’t really do 1.5 stars or 2.5 stars. Just 3.5 and 4.5. I just have some books that are 5s which are my favorites, and sometimes I don’t feel right giving other books 5 stars because I think, “Well, I really, really loved this book… but was it as good as -insert favorite book here-?” So if I could give 4.5 stars instead of 5, I’d feel a lot better!

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        • I wonder then if like a 7-star rating scale would work, so 1, 2, 3, 4 (for 3.5), 5 (for 4), 6 (for 4,5), and finally 7 for that perfect score? Or would people still want the half-ratings then? What about if we use a 10-star scale? 😛

          Oh yeeees. I think that way as well when rating books five stars — “It’s not as good as this one, is it REALLY five-star material?”

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          • If I thought that way though… I’d have like 3 books with 5 stars. But maybe that’s okay!

            I’ve thought about doing a 10-star scale or even something like a 7-star scale. But in the end, I just go with the 5-star. I’m not one for conformity or anything, but I just find it much easier when we all use the same scale!

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  10. I used to give out 5 star ratings a-lot, however I think since starting my blog I look into ratings in a different way. Now when I give a 5 star rating its because i’ve not been able to put it down at all and can’t get it out of my brain, I found it kept me interested throughout and I could easily adapt to the writing style as well as the emotions it made me feel.
    I always opt for a higher rating on books that can shock me, I hate a predictable read!

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    • I’m so stingy with 5-star ratings! Sometimes there are books that I gave five stars to but several months afterwards I’ll knock down a star (or worse, two) because the book just doesn’t ‘stick’ well anymore. But reading as a reviewer has made me a bit more critical too, and I think that’s a good thing. 🙂

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  11. Agreed on all of this! It’s been a long while since I last gave a book 5 stars. I usually do so if the effect on me is too big, like if I can’t look at life the same way. I’m so melodramatic but yeah, that’s a fact.

    Main characters play a huge role as well. Unpleasant main characters eclipse the fact that a book has a great plot for me.

    Great points, Reg! 😀

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    • High standards! I actually wonder how much impact a book can make on me — I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that literally changed my whole perspective on life. It might encourage me to reflect, but it won’t be enough to actually alter my perspective… unless maybe it’s a couple of REALLY good books over a long period of time. Have you had that experience?

      Thanks, Trisha! ❤

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  12. Interestingly, I’ve been giving out a lot of 5 stars this year – have I been reading good books or have my standards lowered? I have no idea. (Though, I will admit that sometimes I intentionally pick up a bad book because I enjoy reading bad books in a very jouissance sort of way?!)

    For me, making me feel or helping me learn something about myself or the world is very important. Now that I am thinking about it, I don’t really need characters to be super likable or *stand for something*; sometimes I like flawed, annoying characters because they help me encourage me to empathize. For example, I really loved Red Rising and gave it a 5 star, and I will happily concede that the protagonist has no character development or depth – but, for me, he was an excellent vessel to convey an outstanding plot and themes, so I was happy with that!

    But yes – for me, feels and introspection/learning. ^u^

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    • That’s good news! That to me just means that you’ve enjoyed many of the books you’ve read this year, whether or not they’re ‘objectively’ good. (And like you, I sometimes read really ‘trashy’ books as well just because they’re usually a quick, instant fix. :P)

      I’m not sure if I like annoying characters, but I do like flawed characters — these two don’t go hand-in-hand in my experience just because someone can be flawed and yet 100% someone you want to root for, and someone can be perfect and annoying. Actually, I think perfect characters tend to annoy me because they’re too unrealistic and one-dimensional.

      I haven’t yet read Red Rising but I’ve heard many, many good things about it! The way the society works seems interesting — I suspect you’ll recommend it as you gave it five stars? 😛

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  13. I agree with you so much. I’m a little more liberal with my five stars, but I still relate to everything you said. I’ve actually heard before that – similar to the seven plot graphs – there are only eight ways to live your life. Therefore, everything you’ve done, someone else has already done before you. I can’t remember where I heard it, but it’s actually really helpful in times where life is just a bitch, coz you can think: “someone else has done this before me, and that means I can do this too”. This went wildly off track. Ahem.

    Have you read many books where the protagonist is an unreliable narrator? I’m looking to read more books with dodgy narrators.

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    • Eight ways to live your life! I should Google this — sounds like it’s exactly the kind of thing I need in the midst of my various mini life crises, haha. And that’s okay, I love that whole tangent you went on. 🙂

      Hmm, I haven’t — Gone Girl comes to mind (I loved that one) but I heard The Name of the Wind is also another really good one, except it’s quite long and I’m intimidated by it for now! Have you? I like dodgy narrators too… and anti-heroes. 😛

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      • I’ve actually read The Name of the Wind but it was so long ago, my memory of it has faded immensely. I definitely need to go back and have another read soon! I remember that I really like it, though, so I definitely recommend it!

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  14. I love this. This is a perfect summary of why I have such a hard time giving 5 stars. It needs to bring all those elements together and deliver an enjoyable read, which isn’t that easy!

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  15. Ha! I understand how you feel, Reg. Before this, I used to be very generous with my stars but lately, I’ve become more selective with what I read and I tend to analyse more into the story – which isn’t a bad thing – and you are so right when it comes to books that are insanely quotable! ❤

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