I review books, so while I'm reading, I'm evaluating, unless I've told myself explicitly that I'm reading for pleasure and not for review.

Of course, whenever I do that, I end up having plenty to say about the book and will write a review, probably because I told myself I didn't have to.

Read the last Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on the bevy of romance choices out there.

More and more, I find myself reading and making notes at the same time, especially if I'm reading something digitally where note taking is a simple process. But even on paper I'm the type of reader who grabs a pen and dog-ears a page while scribbling a note in the margin. I've become a very interactive reader. Any book I read is littered with evidence that my experience of reading a book is one of dialogue and interactive reaction within the text. I would love to load all the notes I've written about different books on my digital reader and read them all in line, to see if there's similarities that emerge. I suspect I write, "WTF?" and "COME ON NOW," and my favorite, "Who says stuff like that?!" One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader of fiction is unrealistic dialogue and conversations that are in the service of the plot's development rather than developing the characters who are speaking.

The notes also serve to help me form my review and ultimately my grade. My rubric, or the scale against which I judge a book, begins with my overall impression of a book, positive or negative, and why. But the individual grade assigned can be really tricky, because I want very much for the text to match the grade. If the text of the review doesn't match the grade, the first question I'll get in a comment is, "But why did you give this book a C? This reads like a B review!" And it's a fair question. Readers who seek out reviews from other readers don't merely look at the grade and move on. They read the review and weigh the things mentioned against their own reading preferences.

As a reviewer, consistency is one of the most important things to maintain. I have received e-mail messages that read, "I love everything you hate, and dislike the books you enjoy." Works for me. That means I'm consistent. Readers are using reviews to gauge where a book might fall on their own mental grading scale, without having to read the book first. This is why part of why spoilers are controversial. Readers are, I think, making both buying decisions and potential grading decisions at the same time. They don't want to have the entire book spoiled for them by the review. Readers want to be confident they will enjoy the book they've read a recommendation for, but they don't want to be overinformed about the plot so that the book's surprises are no longer surprising.

There are some standards to my rubric that I am consistent about mentioning: I like original, inventive and realistic dialogue, and I dislike character movement or plot decisions that are unrealistic, or completely inconsistent with the story so far. And I hate cliches. I hate cliches a lot. I hate cliches with the burning hatred of a thousand suns filled with fiery hatred. Or something like that.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that a book will automatically reach above a C in my grading rubric if it distracts me completely from everything else, even the fact that I'm evaluating it, to the point that I nearly miss my train stop, or burn dinner, or fail to notice something really obvious, like a flamingo in my chimney (kidding). If I get caught up in my reading and forget to pay attention to what I'm reading OR where I am and what I'm doing, that's a sign of a very, very good book, or at the least a powerfully good scene or chapter.

This happened to me yesterday while I was reading An Affair with Mr. Kennedy by Jillian Stone (Pocket, Jan. 2012). I have been reading a paper ARC (which is somewhat rare for me, as I prefer to read most things digitally) and brought the book with me on the train in and out of Manhattan, about an hour each way. I was not so far into the book that I worried that I'd finish it. Besides, I had my phone with me and an extra battery to prevent a "reading emergency." When you run out of things to read before the commute is over, that is no fun at all.  

Yesterday, on my way home, I was reading happily when I looked up and noticed that everything looked familiar. We were in my town. No wait, I've walked by that house. OH CRAP. MY STOP. Was I ready to get off the train? NO.

I had to grab everything and pray I didn't drop something important while I hauled ass up the aisle and off the train before it moved off to the next station, which a good mile from my stop with no sidewalks for walking safely between them. I nearly dropped the book on the train tracks as I stumbled off the train. I was so engrossed, I nearly ended up missing my stop. When that happens, I know I've turned off the reviewer, the critic part of my brain, and my note-taking self and am fully engrossed in the story.

As nerve-wracking as it is to jump off a train hoping that I didn't leave a shoe or my wallet behind, I love when that happens.

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.