As a reviewer, I try to be consistent with the rest of AAR’s team in terms of what an A, B, C, D, or F grade means. I know, however, that there will always be judgment calls – not just in terms of what grade we think the book deserves, but even in terms of what the grades are. I wrote this piece to talk about what, very generally, places a book for me at each grade level. If there are multiple descriptors, the book might have all or just one of them.
I have given examples of books which exemplify the “type of B review” or “type of A review” I’m talking about. These are examples, but certainly aren’t comprehensive. A couple of the A reviews I’ve listed here are not mine but I agree with them; otherwise the reviews are mine.
A personal note: I don’t give A+ grades. At the beginning, I didn’t know I could, and now I want to stay consistent with some books in my review backlist. If you think I should start, leave a comment!
Perfection of a “type”: Romance is full of types, like the Regency comedy of manners, the romantic suspense couple-on-the-run, or the enemies-to-lovers trope. If you’re writing a blurb, you could call this book “Everything a Regency romance should be!” or “The perfect friends-to-lovers romance!” I can’t overstate how gloriously satisfying it is when everything goes exactly right, and yet is not trite, predictable, or clichéd. Towards A-, these books generally have a couple of flaws that you can skim over or skip on rereads.
For settings and subgenres: the classic Regencies of Carla Kelly, The Dark Knight by Elizabeth Elliot (medieval), the intense and masterful Inevitable Conclusions by Christina C. Jones (contemp), Forget Tomorrow/Remember Yesterday by Pintip Dunn (dystopia)
For tropes: Her Favourite Rival by Sarah Mayberry (coworkers; enemies to lovers); A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran (amnesia), The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad Of Mulan by Sherry Thomas (mistaken identity, cross-dressing heroine).
Reinvents/refreshes “type:” A “new spin on an old classic” here – a gender reversal, an exploration of a familiar trope or type from a new perspective, such as a Regency set outside the ton, or a fantasy built without any references to Tolkein. A book in this category also has to go beyond a gimmick and deliver a thoroughly excellent story.
Examples: Lord of the Abyss by Nalini Singh (a Beauty and the Beast with an ugly, beastly heroine), After Hours by Cara McKenna (working-class sexually dominant hero), Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss by Lydia San Andres (Christmas novellas, but in the Edwardian Dominican Republic, with working-class characters, including an older couple, and an f/f story)
Innovative and groundbreaking: This book changes the game. New stories become possible; new writing structures become possible; new HEAs become possible. At the same time, the execution is impeccable.
Examples: Sunstone by Stjepan Sejic (a sweet f/f BDSM graphic novel that isn’t male gazey); Earth Bound by by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (love in the Space Age at Mission Control), Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin (a Harlequin Historical in Tang Dynasty China), The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (two people sharing one bedroom on alternate work shifts fall in love through notes).
Satisfying, but not exceptional: A solid read, but one which generally conforms to type rather than elevating it or perfecting it. A B book is competent without rising to greatness. It may be consistently B quality, or it might average out to a B (an A-worthy setting, but a B- plot). You aren’t rushing to evangelize about it to people, but it made for a lovely afternoon, and you appreciate it.
Intriguingly original and risk-taking, but flaws in execution: When I write reviews of these books, the editor often flags them as too negative for B grades, because instead of focusing on the successes that brought the book to a B, I write too much about the flaws that kept it from being an A. This is my apology to all the writers of books like this. I’m very grateful for them, because they push the genre and open doors, and as a reader, they make me think.
And now we transition to the books I truly don’t recommend. I’ll give the minimum number of links necessary here to be illustrative (I don’t want to beat up on authors).
Undistinguished and predictable: This book blurs into the unwashed masses of the romance novel clearance bin. You’ve read a book like this before; you’ll read one like it again – and you might even pick this one up by accident because you forgot that you read it. In fact, you don’t really have to read it, because you already know how it’s going to end. It’s not a deliberate DNF; it’s more a book you put down and then forget you were reading.
Example: The Bull Rider’s Family by Leigh Duncan
Recurring irritation: Persistently annoying and full of recurring wrongness, this is the book equivalent of a leg covered in mosquito bites. Perhaps the heroine is supposed to be feisty but comes off as a moron, or there’s alcohol-based humor that makes you worry the character needs rehab. Often the problem in this book is one which some authors DO resolve successfully (ex: an alphole hero brought low in the third act) so you keep reading because if the author resolves it, the book could totally pull off a B. But we aren’t writing about B grades now, are we? Alas.
Example: The Witch of Clan Sinclair by Karen Ranney
A significant fumble: The author has mishandled a sensitive topic such as self-harm, racism, addiction, or violence. If this major issue occurs in an exceptional book, the book may still reach the B range; if the major issue is central to the plot, it may fall to a D. A C is what happens when you have a major issue surrounded by meh.
Example: Texas Destiny by Lorraine Heath
Consistently aggravating but a redeeming feature: A book is made of many elements. In a C review, something is going wrong; in a D review, most things are. The heroine is rude and also the prose is garbled; the plot is a slog and the characters are annoying. D+ books have fewer things or less egregious errors; D- books are almost a lost cause. Still, there is something to praise about this book, even if it is extremely faint and damning.
Unsalvageable – story should be scrapped, not edited.
I don’t think anybody should read this book, and I wish I hadn’t. I would never have finished it if not for review.
I know that “offensive” is a difficult term to define, and it’s certainly problematic to put things like racism on a scale (“So, like, if the book is sorta anti-Semitic in a supporting character it can get a C, but if it’s big-time anti-Semitic from the main characters it has to be an F?”). I try to consider the unsalvageability. With just a few minutes, could you NOT make your hero’s cutesy dad an homage to King Leopold of Belgium, the Butcher of the Congo? Well, the rest of the book is a joy, so I gave the A-. Could you take out the part where the Nazi commandant and the Jewish prisoner fall in love? Oh, that’s… your entire book? Do you, uh, have any other book ideas?
(I completely understand if you think a book should be an F if it has problematic offensive content in any quantity. It’s something I grapple with, and welcome thoughts on).
Example: Sweet Sanctuary by Kim Vogel Sawyer