Bear with me, this may involve some navel-gazing.
In 7th grade, I had a whip-cracking English teacher who made us write a one page composition EVERY SINGLE WEEK. And! she took off a WHOLE LETTER GRADE if you wrote even one single sentence fragment, comma splice, or run-on sentence. (This post would get a failing grade, since I have embraced the fragment as part of my signature style).
If that weren’t bad enough, she required a book report every other week… and the format for said report was a TWO PAGE OUTLINE. Outline!! Figure at least a paragraph for each line in the outline—that’s a long book report. Sheesh. Erm. Not that it made any kind of impression on me or anything. The outline included things like “what was the theme of the book” and “describe the mood”-- much harder than "this book was about a girl growing up and I really liked it because she was nice and the book was nice and that's why I liked it."
Then in college I took a creative writing class which broke the elements of fiction down into a list. Each week we covered a short story that featured a particular element – my favorite was The Babysitter, by Robert Coover to illustrate the power of point of view, which was sort of a literary version of this Gilligan's Island episode (wait for the 2nd half). Also memorable was Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway, which the teacher used to talk about how setting could influence or reflect the theme/plot of the story. And so on. (This, by the way, is the sum total of my academic literary credentials, in case you were wondering.)
Then, after college, I joined a writer’s workshop. It was very lively, and the critique process was really enlightening. That group also had a pet list.
So from these sources, I’ve developed sort of a mental checklist of elements. It’s not that I cover every single one of them for every single book, but I typically write about whichever ones stand out for me, good or bad. The list is something like this:
Main Characters: are they believable, likeable, empathetic, interesting; do they develop through the story in believable ways? Do I believe in their love/attraction for each other? (this is my #1 requirement for a romance).
Plot: my bar is low here, really. Don’t screw it up. Don’t rely on the Big Misunderstanding, Stupid Omissions, the Deep Dark Secret, or the 180-degree Character Turn-Around.
Pacing: most noticeable when it drags. Love scenes and fight/action scenes are where this tends to be critical. Occasionally I might notice some choppiness, or confusing or jarring transitions. When it's good, you keep on turning pages even when dinner is burning or the sun starts rising or <fill in cue of your choice>.
Point of View: the story needs to be told from inside someone’s head. Who is it? Is the language appropriate for that person? Are the transitions between POV characters smooth and unobtrusive? Are there too many? Not enough? Are you (the author) telling me things that the POV character can’t actually know? a perfect recent example:
"So absorbed in the beauty of his pleasure, she barely noticed when something bounced against her throat. A pendant. A necklace had come free of his shirt's neckline, and the silver dagger encircled by snakes dangled against her skin, a cool sharp, caress." from Pleasure Unbound, Larissa Ione
See, that's a lot of detail for something that "she barely noticed." And if it's bouncing against her throat, how exactly did she see it? Classic POV problem.
Voicing: Related to POV. More than dialog; it’s internal as well as external; it’s about the language choices for each of the characters. Not just what they say and think, but the way they do it. Do the characters all sound the same? Is each voice consistent, and appropriate to his/her age, personality, place in the story, etc?
Setting/world-building: I’m not an expert on historical eras, so a lack of glaring mistakes is usually good enough for me. ( Please don’t have the word “Okay” in Regency dialog. Please. Pretty please?) However, in paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and sci-fi/fantasy, world-building will make or break your story. It needs to be consistent, believable, understandable, balanced, and have an interesting premise. Tip: be very wary of creating your own language. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but IMO few popular authors do it well and it can break my suspension of disbelieve pretty fast.
Secondary characters: as far as I’m concerned, you don’t NEED any characters beyond the hero and heroine. But secondary characters can add tons of interest to the book; they can mirror and/or add complexity to the main plot, give you a window to the main characters, and lend alternate points of view; they can add a humorous element to a dark story and of course, lay the groundwork for their own future stories, if we’re talking about a series. My biggest peeves with secondary characters is when they’re flat and boring, caricature-ish, or when they take over a story.
So these are the basics of the question “what works, what doesn’t work.” Usually I like my reviews to be more than “wow, this was really good, you should read it!!” so I look for a hook; something that is unique to the book or the author that I can build a “composition” on. I don’t write summaries – that isn’t a review, IMO. What happens in the story does not constitute a review. What does constitute a review, beyond what works and what doesn’t work, is why I like the story or don’t like it; what stays with me after I close the cover; what does it make me think about; what does it make me wonder about; are there connections I can draw to other books, other characters, other cultural icons.
If nothing else leaps out at me, I turn to the characters. I’m repeating myself now, but I can forgive mediocrity in almost any area of a romance IF the characters are great. Romance is fundamentally about two people falling in love – nothing else can compensate for characters that I don’t care about. So if I can’t find anything interesting to say about the characters, it’s probably not worth it to me to do the review.
So I usually spend some time focusing on the main characters and what draws them together, what keeps them apart. How do the characters slay their dragons? What’s the one thing that makes them a perfect match? And what do I have to say about it?
It can be tricky to do this without spoilering, so often you’ll just see me say things like “I love the pacing; I love how they overcome their obstacles; the author does this or that really well,” without telling exactly what is done. So it really kind of does boil down to “wow, this was really good,” but I try to be specific about WHAT EXACTLY is really good.
Oh, and PS: Thank you, Mrs. Rose! I wouldn't be doing this today without all those book reports under my belt. Sorry about the fragments.