Discussion post: Why reviewing books can be tough

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Most of the time I love writing book reviews. There’s a reason why there are so many more review posts on my site than any other type. However, sometimes it can be harder than you’d think to come up with a balanced review that you’re happy with – for a whole variety of reasons. Here are some of the main reasons I’ve found that reviewing books can be difficult!

  1. You just don’t care about it either way. Sometimes books just aren’t remarkable and don’t inspire any emotions at all. These are filler books – a way to pass the time but nothing to write home about. Or nothing to write about at all in fact. These don’t make for very interesting reviews – if you don’t care and can’t think of anything interesting to say, why should anyone else care about reading it?
  2. You received it as an ARC but you hated it/couldn’t finish it. Sometimes it’s easier to bury your head in the sand and put reviewing books off for a while than tell the publisher that provided you with a free copy that you thought it was garbage and no-one should waste their time on it. If you really don’t enjoy a book, it can be a real challenge to pick out some positives and present the negatives in a way that’s fair.
  3. You read it and liked it but it’s been a few months, you’ve read twenty other books since then and you just can’t remember what was so great about it. Then you either have to spend ages reading other reviews to remember the finer details of the plot, wing it and risk your own review being sub-standard, or get into the whole to reread or not to reread debate.
  4. You can’t review it without including major spoilers. This is hard. Sometimes the best bit about a book or a character revolves around a particular plot twist, but you really shouldn’t talk about it, or else you might ruin the book for others before they’ve even picked it up. It’s like playing that game where you can’t say the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it’s much harder than you first think!
  5. You’ve just finished a second or third book in a series and realise that you never reviewed the first book. You could go ahead and review it anyway, but you have nothing to refer people back to. The OCD in me feels like things need to be in order and I just can’t review out of order, which means some books unfortunately go un-reviewed!

Do you ever come across similar issues? Do you have any tips for overcoming any of these stumbling blocks?

The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew and part of a series of books that aim to bring Shakespeare plays into the modern age. It lead me to think about whether Shakespeare can ever be truly updated, or if our values are just too different.

The Taming of the Shrew is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, due to how women and gender roles are portrayed, and while this plot may have appealed to the Elizabethans, it doesn’t immediately seem like it’s one that would translate to a modern audience.

Before writing this review, I also read the original text of The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the story involves a father marrying off his outspoken elder daughter, Katerina, to the first man that comes along, Petruchio. Interested only interested in her dowry at first, Petruchio, often described as a ‘madman’, then resolves to ‘tame’ Katerina. He proceeds to give her a taste of her own medicine by bullying and berating her at every turn, until she agrees to submit to him in every way – even believing that the sun is the moon if he says that it’s so. She then gives a long final speech about wifely duty and obedience. I’m sure there are more complex ways to interpret this play, but I won’t go into them here.

How does Vinegar Girl compare?

The basic premise of Vinegar Girl is very similar to The Taming of the Shrew. Kate lives at home looking after her father and younger sister. She’s happy on her own without a man and can sometimes be a bit spiky and rude. Pyotr needs a green card so he can stay on as a lab assistant to Kate’s father, and the two men come up with the perfect solution – Pyotr should marry Kate. Kate is horrified, but her objections are eventually worn down and agrees to give it a go.

As opposed to the Shakespeare original, Kate’s developing relationship with Pyotr does feel genuine. He shows a real interest in getting to know her, and he’s also the only person who can see through her sister’s fluffy nonsense. Language and cultural barriers, as well as Pyotr’s single-minded devotion to his job, are used to excuse his offensive or neglectful behaviour, in contrast to him setting out to be deliberately hurtful, as Petruchio is in the play.

Kate never really comes across as a shrew, as she’s perceived to be in the play. While she may be somewhat socially awkward, she’s doesn’t seem to be particularly headstrong or independent – in fact to me she seemed more like a put-upon doormat right from the opening page. Of course this may also be true of Shakespeare, depending on how you read it.

Kate gives a similar final speech, although this time it’s about how Pyotr is just misunderstood, along with men in general. Although it mirrors Shakespeare, it felt contrived and unbelievable.

There’s no doubt that Kate and Pyotr are the main stars of the show here, while the rest of the cast felt a little one-dimensional. Other characters, such as Bunny, the sister, and her suitors, seem to have lost their purpose in this update, and could easily have been removed entirely.

Conclusions?

Some parts of Vinegar Girl did make me laugh and the dialogue between Kate and those around her is actually really witty and amusing. It’s a testament to Anne Tyler’s writing skills that I didn’t dislike this book more. But at the end of the day I just didn’t believe real people would behave or react the way they did in this book. Some actions, conversations and decisions felt forced in order to move the story in the right direction. The concept of needing to marry to please your parents or gain independence also feels outdated, given that this book is set in modern day Baltimore.

Even though I can acknowledge why the play might be problematic to update, I found it frustrating to read. I would have loved to have seen more character development. It’s a relatively short book at just 240 pages, and if it was longer and given a bit more love I might have enjoyed it more.

Compared to other attempts to bring The Taming of the Shrew into the modern world, such as 90’s teen rom com 10 Things I Hate About You, I think Vinegar Girl unfortunately falls short.

What are your thoughts about updating Shakespeare? Have you read/watched any modern interpretations that you think have worked particularly well?

 

Flame in the Mist – Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the MistThe story: Mariko is on her way to be married to a member of the royal family when her carriage is attacked and her companions murdered. Disguised as a boy, she sets out to find and infiltrate the notorious Black Clan, defend her family’s honour and discover who wants her dead and why. At the same time, her twin brother will stop at nothing to find her again, while others are scheming away in the background to manipulate events to suit their own agendas.

My thoughts: Mariko is a strong main character, and over the course of the novel she undergoes a real transformation. Disguised in a male dominated environment, the characteristics she was always taught to value above all others are useless and she has to learn from scratch the practical skills that others take for granted. As the novel progresses, she also has to come to terms with various home truths about herself and the world she was brought up in, casting off her privileges to become her own person for the first time in her life.

As a female in feudal Japan, she feels that her life has been mapped out for her based on duty and honour. She feels that her gender has her boxed into a corner with no other options available. However, her experiences and the characters that she meets help her to redefine herself, her relationships with the people around her and her place in the world. Continue reading

Golden Son – Pierce Brown

Golden SonThe story: Having made it through the Institute and secured a patronage from one of the most powerful men on Mars, Darrow has continued his studies in warfare and leadership. This goes further afield than his own planet and includes commanding fleets of ships in epic space battles. He’s fully embedded in the Gold ruling classes, while also working hard to break it apart from within.

My thoughts: I’ve read enough YA thrillers to know that sometimes they fall down flat when they try and move past the trials of book one into the wider universe of their fictional book world. Golden Son manages this feat magnificently, despite having a far vaster and more complicated world than any other series I’ve ever read.

Where in Red Rising we were focused on just one tiny part of the universe Pierce Brown has created, in Golden Son we see much more of it. We also learn more about the structure of society and how it all fits together. Politics and strategy play a far greater role in this book, and there’s an emphasis on how all actions and decisions have consequences. Continue reading

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – Hannah Tinti

The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe story: Loo has spent her life travelling the country with her father, never staying in one place for too long and always ready to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. Samuel Hawley, her father, has a dangerous past – one that’s written across his body in scars. When they attempt to settle down in the hometown of Loo’s mother, resistance from the local community causes problems for them both. As Loo grows up and struggles to fit in and become her own person, she also has to reconcile her idealistic childhood views of her father with the man that he used to be, and the man that he’s become.

My views: I really enjoyed this book. The format – which is made up of stories of Samuel’s past and how he came to get each of his twelve bullet scars, interspersed with the story of Loo’s present as she attempts to deal with bullying, boys and an absent mother – worked really well and kept me gripped.

Samuel is unapologetic about his past. He knows that he’s made some bad decisions and chosen a dubious path on numerous occasions, with repercussions that have affected not just himself but also his daughter. He may not have been the model father, but he’s fiercely protective of Loo, and has turned his life around to raise her as best he can. As she grows up and starts to question him, he’s forced to deal with the fact that she’s no longer a child but a young woman capable of making her own decisions and her own mistakes. Continue reading

Caraval – Stephanie Garber

CaravalThe story: Scarlett and her sister, Tella, live with their abusive father on a tiny island, and Scarlett’s father has arranged an imminent marriage for her. The girls receive invitations in the post to Caraval, a far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show. With the help of a mysterious sailor, the sisters end up at Caraval, where Tella is immediately kidnapped as part of the game. Scarlett must find her sister before the show ends, and although she’s been warned in advance that nothing that happens in Caraval is real, the lines between reality and the game soon blur.

My thoughts: It’s been a while since I read a book with so much hype surrounding it – literally everywhere on the internet there are glowing reviews. Because everyone else seemed to love this book, I was expecting great things – which made it even more disappointing that I really disliked this book! I know lots of people will disagree with me, so I’ve tried to break down my reasoning below. There are some spoilers (sorry) and unpopular opinions below – so please don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know things that happen!

  1. The main character: Scarlett seems to have the personality of a goldfish. She keeps repeating that she needs to find her sister so that she can get back home and marry a man that she’s never met. She fails to work out the clues left for her and just seems to stumble across the right answers by accident. She spends a lot of time saying how much she doesn’t like Julian, but then swoons over him every chance she gets and falls in love with him within a week.

    The bond between the two sisters is talked about a lot, but we see very little evidence that they really care for each other. Tella comes across as impulsive and selfish, and Scarlett only seems to want to find her so she can drag her back home to her abusive father – even though Tella has repeatedly said how much she wants to escape.

  2. The plot: There are lots of things that just didn’t make sense and weren’t explained, even after the big reveal. I’ll pick just one as an example. There are supposed to be many people playing the same game with the same set of clues. These clues are not that hard to follow – but Scarlett, who wastes loads of time bumbling around doing stupid things, is still the only one to work them out. I felt there was too much focus on Scarlett and her story and not enough on world building.
  3. The supporting characters: All of the characters in this book are flat and one-dimensional and their motives are never explained. The count for example has zero character development, closely followed by the girls’ father. Also almost everyone we meet is described in terms of how physically attractive they are, which I really wasn’t keen on.
  4. The language: I understand that Caraval is supposed to be magical and mysterious, but the flowery language used throughout the book got really repetitive, and sometimes felt like random pretty words had just been picked out of thin air and strung together. For example – “He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue.” What does midnight taste like? What do shades of light blue taste like? I have no idea.

I think I’m maybe just far too old for this book. I also feel quite strongly that it shouldn’t be billed as being similar to other books like The Night Circus, which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately the thing I liked most about this book has to be the cover – which really is beautiful.

I appreciate that others will have different opinions on this and I’m glad that so many people enjoyed it – these are just my personal feelings!

ACOTAR/ACOMAF re-read (and giveaway)

With the release of A Court of Wings and Ruin just a couple of weeks away, here’s a brief recap of the first two books in the series – as I haven’t reviewed these books on here before. I’m also currently running a giveaway for a pre-order of the next book from the Book Depository. It’s open until midnight BST on Thursday 21 April, so if you’d like to enter you still have time. You can view the original post and how to enter here.

As I’m reviewing the two books in one post here – there will definitely be spoilers – so please don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know what happens! Continue reading