Five stars, or maybe 4 or . . . taking the mystery out of rating a mystery?

We all enjoy being asked for our opinion. On Facebook, for example, there are the occasional polls where you can click on a radio button to register your vote for or against some current social fad, or you can amuse yourself with one of the endless quizzes that promise to help you identify everything from your selfie style to what kind of Mexican food you are. Sometimes I even take the bait and have a good laugh at myself. But then there are the pesky, persistent, and usually annoying surveys that want you to rate—usually on a scale of 1-5—your recent dining experience, or that can of hairspray you just bought and have barely had time to put away let alone use, or whether your bank teller was nice to you when you made your last withdrawal.

Ratings, ratings, ratings! Books fare no better than hairspray or bank tellers, do they? Please tell me what it means to give your last book read 4 stars as opposed to 5 stars? I struggle to be objective and fair, but really it’s an entirely subjective system. Out of frustration I’ve decided to try my own hand at creating a way to rate the books I am reading that is more useful and relatable to someone who asks for my opinion (or in this case those who read my blog). Here is my first draft followed by a few examples. I think it’s working:

☆ I started to read this but didn’t make it through the first two chapters

☆☆ I made it through the first few chapters or so but lost interest before the halfway point.

☆☆☆ I finished it or almost finished, but the book was lacking in language, plot, character or depth.

☆☆☆☆ I finished the book; it was entertaining, even well-written, just not compelling for me.

☆☆☆☆☆ I found it a sophisticated and compelling read on multiple levels—language, plot, character, etc.

Now, using my newly created rating system, here is how the last batch of books on my summer Bucket List stack up (uh-oh, sorry about that bad pun).

  • The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. Historical fiction. Tells the story of the late 19th century ‘current wars’ between Edison and Westinghouse for control of the “lightbulb” market. I admit this one sentence synopsis is a bit of oversimplification on my part. I like legal thrillers so though it was missing the thrills it made up for the deficit with good writing, good plotting, and larger than life characters determined to one up their opponents. If you think Edison was a nice guy from Menlo Park, think again! ☆☆☆☆
  • Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. Detective fiction. Penny’s first and second Inspector Gamache novels. Set in “cozy” Three Pines, Gamache and his team eat their way through two puzzling murders in this idyllic Canadian village. Five stars for making my mouth water with each meal our protagonists have at Olivier’s Bistro and for a regular cast of empathetic and charming characters. Three stars for the plot in Grace, which shares (I feel) too many elements with another mystery by Elizabeth George. Let’s average them out at  ☆☆☆☆.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake. A novel. An oddly benign coming-of-age story given its setting in post-WWII occupied Japan and the “mystery” surrounding a young woman who leaves home to earn extra money by entertaining lonely GI’s in a seedy nightclub. Kutsukake’s novel could pass for young adult fiction given its superficial treatment of what were excruciatingly difficult times for many Japanese citizens after the war. The book meanders, has too many loose ends, is written at about a middle school level, and lacks depth given the subject matter available. However, Kutsukake’s intimate knowledge of her protagonists’ life situations and the fascinating snippets of Japanese language and culture she peppers her story with redeemed the novel from my 2-star rating. ☆☆☆
  • A Great Deliverance, Elizabeth George. Mystery fiction. George’s first Inspector Lynley novel. This is a compelling page-turner; tightly written and plotted, its detecting duo—a properly titled (eighth Earl of Asherton) Scotland Yard Inspector, Thomas Lynley, and an irascible Detective Sargent Barbara Havers—are engaging and relatable characters with a long series life ahead of them. This is no cozy mystery, however; the denouement will remind you what it means to loathe and abhor. Enough said. If you enjoy a well-crafted contemporary British mystery as much as I do, you will probably agree with my five-star rating. Sadly, not all of George’s later novels are as well edited or compelling. This one, however, nails it. ☆☆☆☆☆

Now it’s your turn to rate the rater. What criteria do you use to determine how many stars a book is worth in Goodreads or at your local reading group? Would mine work for you?

A Buzz in the Meadow

Dave Goulson is a gifted storyteller. He is also a scientist. In my experience there are only a handful of people who can effectively sync both sides of their brains well enough to write something that a non-scientist could read and (possibly) enjoy. Stephen Hawking is oIMG_4191ne, and Dave Goulson is, thankfully, another. Although the subtitle to A Buzz in the Meadow invites you to learn about the natural history of a French farm, it is more a series of vignettes about the secret (and surprisingly seductive) world of some of our planet’s tiniest, most plenteous, and seriously at risk denizens—insects.  Who wouldn’t find the life cycle and mating rituals of the death-watch beetle en-GROSS-ing? Seriously, you will like this book and you will learn things your mother couldn’t possibly have told you.

Imagine a timber-framed cottage, grandad lying in bed . . . slowly dying from . . . some indeterminate (at the time) disease, the family gathered around his bed in respectful silence. A faint drumming can be heard coming from the walls, from the ceiling. Five or six beats in quick succession, like someone drumming their fingers, or the tip of a pencil being tapped on a wooden table. Legend had it that this faint sound was the Devil, impatiently drumming his fingers as he waited for his chance to snatch the soul when it departed from the body. . . Of course it was not the Devil—at least not most of the time. As you might have guessed, it is actually the mating call of the death-watch beetle.

A Buzz in the Meadow, p. 110

Each of the chapters in this book stands on its own, and each is introduced by a diary entry from the author that takes you along on his morning run through the meadow he has recreated in rural France. “9 May 2008. Run 39 minutes 6 seconds.” People spotted: 2, dogs 4, butterfly species 11. I compared this to my Saturday morning walk in the Edmonds, Washington farmers’ market. People spotted: too numerous to count; dogs: also too many to enumerate—mostly friendly; butterfly species: conspicuous now by their absence entirely. I did see 1 tiny fly and 1 fuzzy bumble bee nuzzling in a flower. This leads me to the author’s point, which you will find in the last section of Buzz. The insect world is at risk, and it is critical that human beings learn about these fascinating creatures and appreciate their invaluable contribution to our common ecosystem. All of them, dung beetles to dragonflies.

I have only one caveat to the potential reader. If, like me, you are in the habit of multitasking by catching up on your reading while you munch on your lunch, you might want think twice about picking up Goulson’s Buzz lest you risk sharing your turkey sandwich with the Filthy Flies of Chapter Five. I found it to be just a bit too much to digest.

Magpie Murders – Double Troubles

If anyone could be expected to play well with the murder mystery genre, it would be Anthony Horowitz, novelist and screenwriter for the likes of Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, not to mention (though of course I am doing just that) eleven episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. And play with the genre is precisely what Horowitz does with the Magpie Murders. In The Elements of Mystery Fiction, William Tapply provides budding mystery writers with a list of no-nos—the not so obvious pitfalls of poor detective fiction. Horowitz might have read and certainly must have enjoyed tinkering with nearly each of Tapply’s taboos.  Continue reading

A Bucket of Books

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A fellow blogger suggested putting together a ‘bucket list’ of books we need to read before—well, in my case, before the end of summer. My collection is a bit eclectic, and the choices I’ve made were sometimes impulsive, not necessarily with a great deal of forethought. Take Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, for example. I bought this on the first day of its release (June 6, 2017) mostly because I loved the cover and only then did I pay attention to the author, who just so happens to be the writer responsible for many of my favorite Midsomer Murders episodes, and only then did I read the first chapter and decide it was going to be time well spent reading. And how was I to pass up a title like Tova Reich’s One Hundred Philistine ForeskinsThis tantalizing satire was passed along to me by a good friend; caveat though to those unfamiliar with the alternative universe of orthodox Judaism, you might want to find someone who is or keep Google open to look up unfamiliar terms. Continue reading

The Usual Suspects

Mysteries have long been a favorite genre of mine. Beginning with Agatha Christie and Dick Frances as a teenager, I became an early addict to these compelling reads. Decades later I am still hooked. Recently, I moved to the Pacific Northwest where finding a reading group is as simple as a trip to one of the many (still) independent book sellers that thrive in our neighborhoods. “The Usual Suspects” is one such group that I have joined, sponsored by the local branch of the University of Washington bookstore . We are a new group, on our fifth mystery novel, and speaking for myself, having a grand old time talking about our passion.

This month’s read was Donna Leon’s first Comissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice (1992). Though I understand it is difficult to classify mystery writing, I think Guy Magar’s categories (and their historical derivation) are helpful: Private Detective Stories, The Cozy Mystery, Historical Mysteries, Police Procedurals, Legal Thrillers, and the necessary other, “everything else”. Death at La Fenice would fall into the Historical category first – it is set in Venice during the 1950s – and perhaps police procedural second (though as one of our members pointed out, the story is a bit short on actual police procedure), and third, the means of death might earn this story a place in the “Cozy” section of the bookshelf. I don’t want to have to issue a SPOILER ALERT here, but another of our members with a doctorate in pharmacology provided us with a quick lesson on the offending substance that makes a star appearance in Brunetti’s case.

Continue reading