Over the past year or so, I've begun to read and write more critically about various books, television series and films, which alternatively gets people interested in some of the things that I am reading, but also drives my friends nuts by picking apart everything that is supposed to simply entertain. The bottom line is, my brain likes to see how things work, how they fit together and what makes things work. I view literature, music, motion pictures, photography and so forth; as art, and accordingly, they are often a series of fairly complicated elements that come together to create the final product that evokes emotion and thought. This is what makes things interesting, and looking alternatively at the flaws and perfections within each piece is what I find interesting.
Reviewing is far more than just writing down what you like about any given book, television episode or movie. While a lot of reviews are made up of what the reviewer likes, it's often a lost cause because everyone has their own individual tastes and appreciates things in their own way. The real trick comes in looking at the characters, the world building, the problems that cause the story in the first place, and the characters' reaction to said problems. The second level often comes when a reviewer looks to the overarching themes and tone of the story that they are looking at.
When I read a book, there are a couple of things that I tend to keep in mind as I read. The first is that I'm not a teacher, reading a homework assignment that the author has turned into me. This is largely because I don't have a good eye for what really constitutes good writing, so often, an author's writing style doesn't figure into things, unless there is something really strange about it. Grammar, spelling, and other technical things just don't come onto my radar, because when I'm reading, I typically focus on the thing that will make the book really stand out for me: the story.
The story governs everything. A story, simply, is a challenge that arrives to confront the protagonist, disrupting their life and causing them to reevaluate their life or examine things differently as a result. This is a pretty basic element of reviewing, and the evaluation here is looking at where the character reacts to the problem in a way that might be somewhat realistic, based on their environment.
While I tend to review a lot of science, fantasy and other speculative fiction, realism is the thing that I look for. While elements of the story might be fantastic, the book or motion picture is written for an audience who live in the real world, and are typically looking for realistic actions on the parts of the characters. Art is created within the contexts of its surroundings. Thus, I find it harder to excuse a book that really acts illogically or unrealistically, whether it's in the reactions that the characters have towards each other or their own surroundings. The mark of a good book is whether an author can properly balance the fantastic with the real, all the while creating something that the audience can relate to.
The actions of the characters and the problems that they face are elements that the audience can likewise relate to. The best works of science fiction and fantasy are ones that can connect to a large audience over numerous generations, either because there is a common connection between generations, exhibited in the themes of the stories, or the story is basic enough for a large number of people to really relate to it. Fiction is a way to look at the world through a different context. Stories take the problems that people face, and place their characters in similar instances. Science fiction and fantasy are especially good at this sort of thing, because they can take modern problems and really twist them out of context for a reader to see things differently.
Once the story is finished, the next step is to write down a sort of analysis of the piece - how did the story, characters and themes interact with one another, and do they work in a way that entertains, interests and provokes thought from the reader? There are a number of brilliant books out there, but often, the writer misses the entertainment point of the book. Ultimately, a good book is something that will be all of the above, and will make you want to re-read it, and buy copies for all of your friends. Precision is needed for a review, and throwing out terms like 'Great' and 'Brilliant' are things that are done far too often - the great books are few and far between, the rare gems that come rarely, but really make an impact. The really good books are far more numerous, and in all cases of reviewing, a reviewer must be accurate and precise with his/her words.
But, in the end, it does come down to one simple point: is this a book that you liked enough to read again, and something that your friends would like?