Discussion post: Overused expressions in book reviews

Overused phrases in reviews

We all know that sometimes reviewing books can be hard (I’ve written a post on this here), and that finding the right words to express yourself clearly and coherently is sometimes a struggle!

I’ve recently noticed that I tend to fall back on many of the same words and phrasing in many of my reviews because I know they work and help me to get from one part of a review to another more easily. At the risk of all of my reviews sounding the same, I have to actively try and not use these phrases when I’m writing.

Looking back over my posts from the last three years, these five expressions have popped up more times that I can count and stand out as being some of my most overused fall-back phrases…

  1. ‘It soon becomes clear’ – This is the perfect way to round off a plot summary with a bang and get onto the actual analysis of what I thought about a book, and I seem to be able to use it while talking about literally every book!
  2. ‘That said’ or ‘having said that’ – If I’m trying to write a balanced review that looks at both positives and negatives, this is a quick way to get from one to the other. I write it in every review and then have to force myself to go back and rewrite!
  3. ‘I wasn’t overly keen on…’ – Usually to be read as ‘I didn’t like this at all but I’m trying to be polite’.
  4. ‘Kept me gripped’ – If I’m scrambling to explain exactly why I was so absorbed in a book, this phrase inevitably pops up. It says nothing but hopefully conveys there was a certain something that kept me reading!
  5. ‘Ultimately though…’ – I sometimes struggle with ending a review. You can’t just stop, you need a way to round it all off nicely. This is my go-to last sentence starter.

Not using these phrases is harder than you’d think. My fingers type them automatically out of habit. As writing is literally what I do for a living (not the exciting creative writing kind though unfortunately), I feel like I should be better at finding alternative ways to express my opinions about books.

How do you write book reviews? Are there certain words you come back to time and time again? What are your most overused expressions?

House of Names – Colm Tóibín

House of NamesThe story:

Agamemnon, believing he is acting out the wishes of the gods, sacrifices his eldest daughter for success on the battlefield on the eve of her wedding day. His wife, Clytemnestra, cannot forgive such a betrayal, and silently seething, plots his downfall. Her actions force her down a dark path and her choices have far-reaching consequences for her, her remaining children and their kingdom.

My thoughts…

This is a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, full of scheming, revenge and murder. I must admit that I haven’t read the original text. While I’d heard of a couple of the key players, I didn’t know the story, so have nothing to directly compare this to.

As events unfold, all of the characters find themselves stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break. With each crime committed or action taken, there’s another character waiting in the wings to demand payback or retribution.

Although this is set in ancient Greece, there are themes running through this book that are entirely relatable to the present day – such as Clytemnestra’s loss of faith, her grief and her feelings of abandonment by a higher power after a tragic loss. Revenge and the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ also still resonates. Although the actions of Clytemnestra and those around her are extreme and melodramatic, the motivations behind them are understandable in the context, if not forgivable.

Despite the high emotions that the characters must feel, the writing style feels quite distant and detached. Clytemnestra is the only one that I felt any real attachment too. Her emotions shine through and I wish we’d had more from her point of view. Her actions reverberate through the palace, affecting everyone around her. This includes her daughter Electra, who brims with silent fury. Electra eventually becomes what she despises – another example of how without change, everything comes round in a circle and no progress is made.

Orestes was an interesting character. He’s continually being pushed in various directions by other characters, such as Leander and Electra, but never fully included. His sense of isolation is echoed in the rest of the novel – everyone has their own secrets and motivations and they’re not willing to share them. The result is a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion, summing up the pervading overall feel of this book.

In conclusion?

While I didn’t dislike this book, I can’t say that it really provoked any strong emotions in me either way. It was quite an interesting read though, and I did enjoy learning more about the Greek myths.

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterThe story: The drowning pool in Beckford has claimed many lives over the centuries. Originally the chosen place to drown witches, it’s now a notorious suicide spot. Most recently, Nel Abbott either jumped, fell or was pushed to her death, depending on who you believe. Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend, Katie, walked into the pool with pockets full of rocks months earlier. And 30 years before that, Lauren Townsend threw herself from the cliff. It soon becomes clear that all of these deaths are connected in more ways than one, and that the people in Beckford are hiding many secrets that they don’t want brought to light.

My thoughts: There are a large number of narrators in this book (around 11 in total) which I initially found confusing. After a while though, I’d managed to get everyone straight in my head and didn’t find this to be too much of a problem in terms of following the story.

As each section is written in the first person, we spend a lot of time in people’s heads hearing their inner monologues. Each of these narrators is also biased to their own point of view and influenced by their own experiences and beliefs. Many of the things they think are true are distorted by false memories, heightened emotions or a misinterpretation of the facts. This creates an atmosphere where we as readers are never quite sure of the facts. Nothing we find out is solid, and truths seem to fall away like an eroding river bed as things are slowly revealed.

While in general I quite liked the descriptive writing style, having so many narrators did mean that we often heard the same events from several points of view, with a new perspective to throw things into a different light. This got a bit repetitive at times. In my opinion losing a few of these characters – Nickie, the psychic, or Josh, Katie’s younger brother, for example – wouldn’t have taken anything away from the overall plot, and we could have easily kept up to date on their stories through their interactions with others.

The character I cared the most about was Lena. She makes some questionable decisions and often lies, but she’s fifteen and grieving. She’s allowed to make mistakes and her motivations are understandable. She’s struggling under the weight of a huge secret, and she doesn’t know how to fix the mistakes that have been made in the past. I really felt for her and wanted her life to take a turn for the better.

The pace of Into the Water is definitely slower than Paula Hawkin’s first novel, The Girl on the Train, and as a result the twists and reveals felt like they had less impact, and I also had a good idea of what the final twist might be. I also wasn’t keen on a particular subplot that delves into the supernatural – it wasn’t needed in my opinion. While I did enjoy Into the Water, it didn’t keep me gripped as much as others in this genre have recently.

 

Buy it here: Amazon UK

Discussion post: Reading outside your comfort zone

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When it comes to reading, I’d say I have quite eclectic tastes. I’m just as happy reading literary fiction as I am epic fantasy. I’ve always got time for a good thriller or crime novel and if I hear about a great new dystopian or post-apocalyptic book, I’ll buy it straight away.

That said, there are a number of genres that in general, I don’t tend to read. This includes poetry, non-fiction, autobiographies and books that are too focused around war or long-drawn out battles. I’m also not a huge fan of young adult contemporaries.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I recently read and really enjoyed When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. I do enjoy character driven novels set in the time period of WWI or WWII, just not those that are overly focused on the technicalities of battles. I really enjoyed Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which looks at a real life crime and its repercussions. I’m also hoping to explore poetry more in the future and have heard that Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey is a good collection to start off with.

Sometimes when browsing through other book blogs, I see reviews of books or lists of new releases that sound great or that have amazing beautiful covers – even though they aren’t in a genre I usually read. I also hear a lot of hype about particular books in the blogosphere, particularly YA contemporaries, that makes me wish that I’d read something and could join in the conversation. This can sometimes tempt me in, but a part of me is still always wary of investing in something if I know there’s a high chance it won’t be for me.

In the long run, I do think it’s best to understand your own likes and dislikes, and to accept that they might well be different from other peoples. There’s nothing wrong with trying to read outside of your genre every once in a while, especially if it’s something that’s been recommended to you, but I personally think I’d rather focus my time on genres that I know I’m more likely to enjoy based on past experiences.

What are your views on this? Are you an adventurous reader? Do you feel sometimes feel pressured to read books that aren’t generally your go-to genre or do you know what you like and stick to it?

The Ice – Laline Paull

The IceThe story: In the near future, the polar ice caps are melting, the transpolar shipping route is being heavily utilised and individuals and countries are jostling for power and control. When a cruise ship searching for an increasingly rare glimpse of the elusive polar bears travels into the restricted waters of the Midgard Lodge, they get more than they bargained for when a calving glacier reveals the preserved body of a man.

The Midgard Lodge is a private retreat run by businessman Sean Cawson, and the body discovered is that of his long-time friend, business partner, and ex-Greenpeace activist Tom Harding. The discovery of Tom’s body starts an inquest into the events that led to his death, led by his friends and family, while Sean also faces an internal struggle that is increasingly difficult to contain.

My thoughts: Much of the novel focuses on Sean’s character development. At the beginning of the novel, he is presented as a selfish opportunist taking advantage of the people around him for his own personal and monetary gain. I feel like as we got to know him more we were supposed to see that there was more to his character, but for me this never really happened. I couldn’t connect with him as a character. He wasn’t likeable and I struggled to see his redeeming features.  I think as a character though, he was written really well and came across as totally believable.

The environmental message is one that is impossible to escape from. At the end of the book, I wasn’t thinking about the characters or their stories, I was thinking about the trans-polar route, global warming and capitalism – and the future of the world as we know it. There are two conflicting viewpoints set out here – those who can see the damage that is being done to the environment and want to slow it or stop it as best they can, versus those who can see that change is coming no matter what and believe they may as well be at the forefront of progress.

The descriptions of the Arctic from the early polar explorers talking about the hostility of the natural landscape, which precede each chapter, are sharply contrasted against commercialisation and modernity. There’s a real sense that the natural world as we know it is shrinking and dying, to be replaced by luxury hotels and convenient mod-cons.

This conflict is brought to life through Sean and Tom’s personal story. Although I thought this was handled a bit heavy-handedly at some points, it is a valid and valuable debate and it certainly made an impression.

Pacing was a bit of an issue in this book for me. I felt it really took some time to really get going. Until I got to around 50%, I was struggling to find a compelling reason to pick it back up. After this, the story does really pick up the pace, but if I hadn’t received a copy of The Ice for review, it might have taken me a while to get through it. Having finished it though, I’m glad I persevered. It was a really insightful and thought provoking read.

May wrap up

Wrap up May


Books read: 8
I really enjoyed a lot of the books I read this month, which was great as it’s been a while since I had a 5 star read. My favourites were The White Road and And the Rest is History. The book I was most excited about reading this month was A Court of Wings and Ruin, and although I did enjoy it, it didn’t quite come up to the high standards of ACOMAF in my opinion.

  • A Court of Wings and Ruin, Sarah J Maas
  • The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare
  • The Green Road, Anne Enright
  • Into the Water, Paula Hawkins
  • And the Rest is History, Jodi Taylor
  • The White Road, Sarah Lotz
  • The Hundredth Queen, Emily King
  • The Ice, Laline Paull

Books acquired: 20
Whoops. This list is quite long. Only two are review copies and only two are library books, which means that my book shopping got a little out of control this month. Four were bought using up credits that had built up on my Audible account, but even taking these out I still bought too many books! Continue reading

My recommendations: If you liked… (Part 1)

One of my favourite things about book blogging is getting new book recommendations, so I’ve pulled together some of my top recommendations based on other popular books out there. These are all books that I’d recommend based on my own experiences and similarities in theme, writing style or general feel. This is part one, which mainly looks at the fantasy, urban fantasy and dystopian genres. Other genres, such as crime/thrillers and general literary fiction, are still to come! Continue reading