What Makes a 5-Star Book?

This is obviously a highly subjective question, but I am curious to learn what other readers think.

If I give a book 5 stars, it really must be special. For example, of the last 40 books I read, only 5 of them received a perfect rating on Goodreads. Two of those were actually 4.5 star reviews that I had to round up. (The conversation of what makes a book a 4.5 versus a 5 star book is another topic that I won’t discuss today!) Perhaps I have very high standards? I don’t think so.

I personally know someone who gives 5 star ratings on Goodreads to 90-95% of the books he reads. And if he doesn’t like a book, he gives it a 1! Basically, that means that if he reads a book it gets a perfect score and if he doesn’t like it, he HATES it. What is that about? It drives me nuts, honestly, but I don’t say that to his face because I’m nice and polite. :]

My Reading History

16  of the last 100 books I read received a 5 star review. I think that’s a fair amount. It means that when I do read a 5-star book, it becomes a special experience that will remain memorable.

Last 5 Books I Gave 5 Stars

I can’t see much of a pattern, except that they were all books whose subject matter/premise I had little previous exposure to or they presented a familiar story in a refreshing and ambitious new way. 

Also, all of them elicited intense emotion and interest from me.

  • Two of them moved me to tears
  • Cosmos taught me 1,000 things I didn’t know before. Seriously, this book is incredible and every human should read it.
  • They were all a blast to read and had my undivided attention the entire time.

I don’t have a specific, metrics based system for rating books, so many of my reviews are based on my emotional reactions. Admittedly, that kind of system isn’t very professional but I see 5-star books as rare works that have an intangible quality that I only recognize when I experience it. 

What about you guys? 

  • Out of the last 20 books, how many did you give 5 stars? Out of the last 100?
  • How do you rate books? Do you use a specific system or go on istinct?
  • Do you even use a numbered rating system?

Please let me know in the comments! 

21 thoughts on “What Makes a 5-Star Book?

  1. I’m very subjective with my 5 stars on goodreads, too, though I so so wish they’d allow for half stars! Your 5 stars books look like awesome reads, I can usually anticipate a great book since now I’ve started chosing books more carefully and less mainstream fiction everyone is recommending and also I have no more assigned reading. So my 5 star books are getting more frequent. I often think about plot, structure, characterization but mostly it’s a gut decision.

    1. Yes, of course we should take all those things into consideration, but for most readers it’s that incredible feeling we get after finishing a book that makes it special.

      What are the last 2 book you gave 5 stars to?

  2. 9 out of the last 20, 40 out of the last 100. I choose my books carefully and I’m pretty generous with the 5-star. But some books I would give 6 stars and out of the last 20, 3 have hit that spot:

    Obasan by Joy Kogawa
    Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
    Abeng by Michelle Cliff

    to make up five 6-star books, here’s a couple of others from the last hundred:

    The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

    I agree with you about those two Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie books = )

    1. 6-star books must be in an entirely different league!! Perhaps I should make such a category for myself :]

      Yes, you do seem a little more generous with 5 Star reviews than I am, but I’m glad you’re enjoying your reading experiences. Even though only a small portion of the books I read received perfect scores, I there were plenty of 4 star ones so I hope I’m not overly critical.

    1. 7/20 is a solid number and it shows you have been discerning in the books you choose to read.

      I’m glad Han Kang’s work is excellent. Very eager to read The Vegetarian and eventually Human Acts.

      1. Yes, I’m looking forward to reading The Vegetarian as well, she goes way beyond mere storytelling, I think her work really is literary art.

        The 5 star system isn’t perfect, sometimes I could do with that little half as a book hovers between the two, but then we have all the words to use to explain our response to the work.

        Recently I recommended the book that was my outstanding read for 2015 to someone, Jamaica Kincaid’s autobiography of my mother (a novel) and she said she didn’t like it, but then went to read my blog post to try and understand why it had been such an outstanding read for me, and perhaps in the same way that Human Acts is also a 5 star, outstanding read, she understood that for me, even though the subject and/or the character may be disturbing, the prose can elevate a work to that status.

        That’s probably where I have to be more discerning, in who I recommend certain books to! That’s why a blog is so great, the books find their readers without us having to match them. Another blogger mentioned that about A Little Life, the only book she can recall giving 5 stars to that she would hesitate to recommend to anyone.

        1. Would you recommend A Little Life? I’ve only heard great things about it, so I’m curious to know why someone would be hesitant to recommend it.
          The author will be in my city in 2 weeks and I have considered reading her book before I meet her. Though, I can’t be sure if my reading schedule will currently allow for such a large work..

          1. I haven’t read it, and although I am sure it’s well written, it’s not right for me to be absorbing all the pain for the moment, I think that’s the hesitancy, it’s a riveting read from all accounts, but a harrowing read. If you’re feeling strong, go for it, if you’re in a vulnerable period, leave it for later, that said, if the authors going to be in your city, I’d probably read it, because that’s too good an opportunity to miss!

  3. I avoided the 5-star system because most people only rate books 4-star or 5-star, and only the bad ones get three stars. So instead I use letter grades A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, and C. So far I haven’t gone below a C, but it does offer me a little more flexibility than a star system. Most of us use quite a lot of care when we pick out books to read, so the grades are going to be relatively high. I haven’t graded a book A+ yet, and want to avoid that grade.
    For me the big question is should I give this book an A- or a B+, a subtle difference..

    1. Yes, I noticed your lettered system when I was going through your reviews. It’s definitely a good idea because I do feel some reviewers don’t use a 5-star system correctly.

      For me a 3-star book is one that I enjoyed and will recommend to certain people. I do feel that 3 stars has been stigmatized and people use it to give a book they didn’t like a seemingly good score.

      I look forward to reading your review of the book that finally earns that A+!

  4. The stars bemuse me. 🙂 Many times, I have gone back, and changed the ratings, only because the book would have lived with me for longer than I expected. I am now reminded now of this passage from ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’. “Remember, Maya: the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”

    1. I have gone back and changed my ratings for a few books if I’m being honest..
      Also, rereading a book has led me to lower or increase my rating of a book, but that’s fair. That is especially true for Classics. I remember hating or feeling intense indifference to some of them, only to fall in love with them 10 years later.

  5. I give loads of 5 stars and am happy to do so. About 50% of what I read gets either 4.5 or 5. Simple reason – I know what books I’m likely to enjoy, and loads of the books I read are from favourite authors. I can’t really understand why so many people are so reluctant to give 5 stars – we all love reading, and surely we don’t waste time reading books we don’t like. If I’m hating a book, or simply bored by it, I’ll toss it aside for something better, and since I don’t review books unless I read at least 50%, ‘bad’ books rarely get reviewed. The exception to this rule is books I’ve specifically taken for review, or am reading because of part of a challenge (though I don’t do that often). Most of my 1, 2 and 3 stars come from them. And occasionally a book is so bad I know I’ll be able to have fun with the review, but that’s just my wicked side… 😉

    I guess it depends what people think 5 stars means. I started reviewing on Amazon, where it simply means ‘I love it’, and that’s what my 5 stars rating means. It’s not a quality judgement, simply an enjoyment one, and if I ever reach a stage where I don’t love most of what I read, I’ll give up books and take up knitting…

    As of today my blog has 274 5 stars out of a total of 545 reviews – clearly I’m good at picking books I’ll like! Oh, and 11 1-stars in over 3 years.

    1. Yeah, the 5-star rating is complicated. A perfect scores could mean so many different things, from “I love it” to “exceptional and masteful.”

      I am clearly in the latter category and I’m not sure why. I really must have high standards! For me 4 stars means I love it! Lol.

      I guess it doesn’t matter what we rate it unless we have a clear review policy and our words actually reflect the last rating.

  6. I don’t rate books on my blog, because I find ratings to be too personal. Everyone rates using different criteria, and everyone has different interests and tastes in their reading. I do rate them for myself on Goodreads, though. It looks like I have about 100 5-star books out of about 550. Most of the the rest are probably either 3 or 4, I rarely read all of a book that I would rate lower than that.
    My 5-stars are mostly based on my reaction to a book. I either find it completely fascinating or emotional.

    1. One of the advantages of reviews that don’t include a rating is that (at least for me) it forces me to read the entire review, as opposed to skimming and getting a quick impression based off the rating. I generally try to read most of a blogger’s reviews, but sometimes I’m in a hurry and can’t, which is when a mini review and a rating come in handy.

      I’m trying to get better about putting books down that I don’t enjoy. I used to have an unhealthy obsession with completing books I started, even if I hated them. I’m better now and a happier person in general!

  7. Good question! My average rating on Goodreads is quite high because I may have mastered the skill of selecting great books! I give books 5 stars if they’re very well-written but also if the content resonates with me, if it’s new or refreshing.

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