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 Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber

the-book-of-strange-new-thingsThe story:
Peter, a Christian missionary, is sent to spread the word and provide spiritual guidance to the native inhabitants of Oasis – a colony that’s been established on a planet light years away. He arrives in a new world that is the complete opposite of everything he’s imagined. At the same time, his wife Bea is left to face her own personal problems on an earth that is gradually falling apart.

My thoughts:
At the start of the book, Peter comes across as anxious, needy and reliant on Bea’s emotional support. Separated from Bea across an infinite chasm of time and space, and preoccupied with his mission and with building a new community with the Oasans, Peter cannot comprehend what she’s going through at home. He essentially abandons her in the time when she most needs him. As a character, he didn’t win me over.

The religious aspect of this book didn’t appeal to me at first, but as more of Peter’s past and the situation on Oasis are revealed it became more interesting. Rather than being the central focus of the book, people’s beliefs are used to expose their motivations, backgrounds and various character flaws. Continue reading

‘The Prisoner of Heaven’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The third installment in a planned quartet of novels from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Prisoner of Heaven has been on my wishlist for a while now (see here for a full round-up). It’s predecessors, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angels Game were both gripping reads, so my expectations when it came to this book were understandably high. That said, it’s not necessary to have read the books in order, so if you haven’t read the others, it doesn’t take anything away from this one.

The-Prisoner-of-Heaven_225The Prisoner of Heaven tells the story of Fermin Romero de Torres – mentioned in previous novels but coming to a forefront here. Imprisoned in horrifying conditions by the regime during the Spanish Civil War, Fermin crosses paths with some of the most detestable and terrifying figures of the Spanish authority. Condemned to a prison where so called ‘enemies of the state’ are sent to die, his fellow cell mates and gaolers are varying degrees of crazy and intensely dangerous.

To survive, Fermin must put his trust in a man whose sanity is increasingly called into question, a brilliant but eccentric writer named David Martin. The words that pass between them and the pact they make within the prison walls will continue to reverberate for years to come. When a man from his past arrives on his doorstep, Fermin is forced to confront his worst memories and to relive a previous life. And as his story comes to light, it becomes clear that the past never truly stays in the past.

As with all of Zafon’s previous works, The Prisoner of Heaven is beautifully written and creates a brilliantly dark and realistic vision of post-war Spain. But ultimately what he does so well is to capture the magic and the mystery of the unknown. The skill with which he writes invites the reader to make their own connections, to see the scene as it continues to play out on the pages and to draw their own conclusions.

For me, The Prisoner of Heaven lacked some of the magic of Zafon’s previous novels. While it started off very much in the dark gothic vein that we’ve come to know him for, it soon diverged into a more straightforward, but no less sinister, plot. Still, there’s no denying that Zafon is a master storyteller, weaving together narratives to create a story with just the right amount of tension, pace and humour.

‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling

This month, the literary world has been buzzing at the revelation that J. K. Rowling has been unveiled as the author of The Cuckoos Calling. While this has generally been praised by critics, her first post-Harry Potter venture, The Casual Vacancy, generated a storm of debate, and this week I finally got around to finishing it.

casualvacancyThe Casual Vacancy opens with the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother, a central figure in the town of Pagford and an active member of the parish council. As the town looks to fill Barry’s empty seat on the council, the divisions, fractions and tensions between the town residents come to a head. As competition heats up, more than one family is set on a course for disaster. And when tragedy strikes, we’re left wondering whether events have been brought about by circumstance or whether they are the inevitable outcome of a flawed society.

First on every agenda is a longstanding issue concerning  local council estate, The Fields. The town and its parish council are essentially divided into two opposing groups. One side is keen to integrate the estate into the community, while the other is desperate to pass responsibility for the estate and its residents back to nearby Yeovil.

Told from multiple perspectives, the reader is treated to an in-depth character assessment of various town residents. Overall, the majority of these characters are deeply unlikeable, narrow minded and self-centred – from the pompous local shop owner Howard to his bored and acerbic daughter-in-law Samantha or the slightly ridiculous and over excitable figure of deputy headmaster Colin.

However, there are also a number of characters that really struck a chord with me. Most notably, this included local troublemaker Krystal Wheedon. The daughter of a habitual drug user, she is trapped in a constant cycle of circumstance. No doubt intended to illustrate the potentially devastating effects of inherent social prejudices, Krystal is shown as a victim of the system and the attitudes and stereotypes of the middle classes, but remains a completely believable and well rounded character in her own right.

Rowling puts herself firmly inside the heads of her characters, and the result is a relentless and damning exploration of the human nature. It actually made me quite uncomfortable to read, as throughout the course of the novel we’re exposed to every horrible, selfish and self-loathing thought that could ever cross a person’s head.

Did I enjoy it? I’m not sure. I thought it was really well written, and the tongue in cheek humour and subtle mockery throughout the book kept the plot flowing. All of the characters, those that I hated and those that I emphasized with, were well constructed and felt incredibly real to me by the end of the novel. Overall, it’s maybe a touch too political for my liking, but the themes explored by Rowling throughout the course of the novel stuck with me long after I turned the last page.

A review of ‘Snake Ropes’ by Jess Richards

On a remote and isolated island off the edge of the map, Mary is searching desperately for her little brother, missing since the day the Tall Men came to trade. Convinced that someone on the island knows more than they’re revealing, Mary will not rest until she finds him. But Barney is not the only boy to have disappeared lately, and the women of the island are calling on all their power, as well as their knowledge of ancient rites and rituals, to find the perpetrator.

Snake-RopesElsewhere on the island, Morgan, the ‘hidden daughter’, is confined behind a tall fence and a padlocked gate, the key of which never leaves her mothers grasp. Living life through the characters in her books, she dreams of the day when she can escape to the mainland.

Snake Ropes is a book made up of a fascinating combination of myths, legends, fantasy and folk tales. It’s a book of shadow selves, buried truths and keys that can talk. It’s a book where ghosts can cross paths with the living, where poisoned hair spreads across the sea onto the shores, and where seals shed their pelt to walk on the sands.

It’s a book of mysterious and mystical places that cannot be explained, from the Weaving Room, where the women decide on the fates of wrong-doers, to the mysterious and deadly Thrashing House, which can be controlled by no-one and which never relinquishes its hold on its victims.

Snake Ropes is a real exploration into the unknown, and I really enjoyed how the author played with our perceptions of what’s real, what’s not real and what we can make real through the power of our beliefs. It’s a really interesting debut novel, and it’s easy to see why it was nominated for awards.

However, I do have one thing that I have to criticise. While the writing style is certainly interesting, at some points I found that the unusual style, and the numerous diversions into fantasy, took away from the story rather than adding to it. It was quite intense, which also meant that it could be a little confusing. For me, this made it difficult to keep track of the main storyline.

Jonas Jonasson’s ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’

(Hesperus Press, July 2012)

I’m the first one to admit that lots of books make me cry. I’m a softie. When it comes to the really sad ones, I’m a mess. John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ left me sniffling for a good half an hour after I’d finished the last page and I had to abandon ‘Marley and Me’ for an emotional break until I’d recovered enough to continue. But very few books make me actually laugh out loud. However, Jonas Jonasson’s ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ was a delightful exception to the rule.

100It’s a tale of two halves. In 2005, Allen (the aforementioned centenarian) climbs out of the window of his nursing home to escape his 100th birthday party. The unprompted theft of a suitcase full of money sparks a series of progressively unlikely events that sees Allen being pursued by a criminal gang on one side and an increasingly bemused police department on the other. Along the way, his band of unusual companions expands to include a petty thief, a hot dog vendor, a flame haired beauty, an Alsatian and an elephant.

In a separate thread, we learn about exactly what Allen has done with his 100 years on this planet. We follow his journey as he travels around the globe, going wherever the wind takes him, exploiting ludicrously fortuitous circumstances for all they’re worth and doing precisely whatever comes into his head. By his late 60’s, he’s been on first name terms with some of the world’s most famous leaders – Franco, Stalin, Truman, Churchill and Kim Il Sung to name but a few – and has sat down for dinner with at least half of them.

We discover that Allen’s actions have played a crucial role in some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, from the Atom bomb to the Cold War, despite the fact that he is unswervingly uninterested in politics. He also shows an almost unparalleled aptitude for languages, an astonishing lack of tact and what by all accounts should be an incredibly unhealthy ability to drink large quantities of vodka.

Some people have commented that by the end, this book gets a little bit too far-fetched, but you just have to take it with a (small) pinch of salt. Reading it was like watching a comedy TV sitcom. You know the jokes are coming and you’re waiting for the next one, ready to laugh along in time to the pre-recorded studio laughs. It makes you feel good.

One of my favourite parts was how the group gets around the problems involved in transporting an elephant throughout the book, whether that’s by getting an almost-qualified carpenter to transform a second hand bright yellow bus or by bribing officials in Bali. I also laughed out loud when I reached a section where Allen, pondering his next holiday destination, has a casual chat over drinks with some of the world’s most infamous communist leaders to discuss where they think will be the last place on earth their ideology would reach.

I read this as an e-book and as such, I can’t physically lend it to anyone. All I can do is stress, again, that you’ll enjoy it! Trust me. And when you’ve read it, let me know so I can talk about it some more!

A review of Julia Gregson’s Jasmine Nights

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I have a soft spot for historical novels. I especially like it if these historical novels happen to focus on a subject that I know relatively little about. As any reader will know, World War II has – quite rightly – inspired a whole plethora of books over the years, and in my experience it’s quite rare to come across one that has a completely fresh take on the genre. However, Julia Gregson’s Jasmine Nights managed to do just that.

Jasmine nightsFar away from the trenches of central Europe or the grey, rationed world of 1940’s London, Jasmine Nights presents a completely different aspect of war experienced in the exotic cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul and the open skies over the Egyptian desert.

Against the wishes of her family and in a move may alienate her from her father forever, ENSA singer Saba has risked everything to pursue her passion and to serve her country. Egypt offers her a chance to grow in ways that she could never have imagined, but as the war progresses she finds herself increasingly embroiled in the shady world of espionage, with devastating consequences.

Pilot Officer Dominic Benson, serving with the Desert Air Force, has recovered physically from a traumatic injury but is struggling with the guilt of losing his best friend. When he hears Saba singing in a hospital concert, he dares to hope again. But taking to the skies again comes with it’s own dangers, and when disaster strikes, can they find their way back to one another?

The switching narratives give an insight into two very different sides of war, from Saba, fighting for her independence from the constraints of home, to Dom, who has experienced the all the horrors of war first hand but can’t bring himself to talk about it. At it’s heart, it’s essentially a romance novel, and yes, it does have some clichés and yes, the characters could have been developed a little further, but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it.

Prior to Jasmine Nights, I hadn’t read much about WWII in Africa, and this book was packed full of vivid visual imagery and a wealth of detail and description that spoke to all the senses. I listened to this as an audiobook, mostly on my way to and from work, and on several occasions found myself loitering in the snow because I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off! The protagonists are interesting and appealing and there’s enough tension and intrigue to keep you hooked all the way to the end. Above all it’s entertaining, what more do you need?