I recently offered up a form for reviewing fiction, using five categories, consisting of plot, characters, setting, pacing, and tone. Each was rated from 1-20 points, so that every book was awarded stars based on the total number of points out of 100. In my example, I made up a non-existent book as my teaching tool. But yesterday afternoon, after finishing Maggie Needs an Alibi by Kasey Michaels, I had the chance to apply the form to a real book. How did it work for me?
I'll be honest. I thought I would just zip off a review and post it. But those five categories actually forced me to stop myself and really think about what I read. And when it came to giving points, I actually found myself readjusting the numbers up and down as I weighed what mattered most to me in the book. Was I being fair to the author and the story? Was I being too harsh? Was I giving either or both a pass on things that affected my enjoyment of the story? Suddenly, I wasn't just offering my vague, capricious opinion on a book. I was offering my opinion on the specific parts of a book and how they were woven into the story. And that's where I came to recognize both the flaws and strengths the author brought to the story. I actually understand why I felt the way I did about the book by the time I finished -- what worked for me and what didn't. Best of all? I didn't have to give away any of the book's "gotcha's" for other readers.
One big surprise for me came when it was time to add my review. I had picked up this paperback in a shop, so I didn't actually see the ratings and reviews until I was posting it. My final point tally was 75 out of 100, or three-and-a-half stars. On Goodreads and Library Thing, that was spot-on for other reviews of the book. Here's mine:
Maggie Needs an Alibi
Kensington Books, 2003
Total number of points -- 75 points out of 100
Number of stars -- 3.5
1. Plot -- 15 points out of 20
The wacky storyline, although firmly lodged in fantasy, follows a logical, intelligent progression. Maggie Kelly, a NYT best-selling author, stymied by psychological issues and an addiction to cigarettes, discovers that two of the characters in her Regency romances come alive and take up residence in her apartment, complicating her life. At first thinking she's gone mad, she is much relieved to learn that others can also see and hear these men, even as she tries to protect them from discovery. The misuse of modern amenities, such as credit cards, TV shopping channels, and local pizza delivery, in the hands of the financially naive Viscount Saint Just and Sterling Balder adds to the charm of the story. The murder victims are hardly well-loved, and the weapons used to dispatch them turn out to be more clever and sophisticated than first glance suggests, enabling the killer to avoid scrutiny until the very end. In many ways, the insider view of the publishing world was an eye-opener, as Maggie navigated her way through the cutthroat world of romance best-sellers.
2. Characters -- 16 points out of 20
The characters, especially the imaginary ones, did actually ring true, right down to their flaws, of which there were many. The use of flowery language and obscure English dialogue by the roguish Viscount Saint Just and his sidekick, Sterling, was a big reason why it succeeded as well as it did. When the fictional pair goes head to head with the down-to-earth detective, Steve Wendell, in a battle of testosterone, the conversation and rivalry sounds all-too-human. As Saint Just and Sterling become used to being alive, they evolve in their social awareness and self-reliance, at least as long as Saint Just can get his hands on Maggie's wallet. While Ms. Michaels worked hard to create tension between the real and imaginary characters, none of them ever seemed to be people with whom I would choose to spend time or seek out for friendship. This made it difficult for me to relate to them on a deeper level.
3. Setting -- 16 points out of 20
New York City proves to be a handy locale for the story, allowing the author to have some fun with her cast. Although much of the action takes place in Maggie Kelly's apartment, Ms. Michaels uses the urban setting to thrust her characters into various predicaments typically found in the Big Apple.
4. Pacing -- 14 points out of 20
I found the first third of the book slow-going, and yet amusing -- the one-liners were funny, but the story didn't seem to get wheels to go anywhere, aimlessly bumping along like a cocktail party with guests that have all had one too many. The amount of time the author took to set the stage for the killing dragged on a bit, but once the murder got underway, the pace picked up and the personalities of the suspects seemed to emerge and become more important to the mystery.
5. Tone -- 14 points out of 20
The first half of the story seemed rather contrived and self-conscious, as if the author struggled a bit too hard to make the fantasy aspects seem believable. Once she finally set the stage and just went with it, the dialogue seemed a little more believable and flowed better.