Ten Random Book Blogger Dilemmas

A ramble through the crowded mind of a book blogger…

1. Book post arrives

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Hark! Is that the thud of a parcel landing on my doormat? Rushes excitedly to door and spots book shaped padded envelope. Does joyful dance. Rips open parcel in eager anticipation.

Looks at shiny new book. Strokes cover of shiny new book. Feels ecstatic about receiving this beautiful creation. Publishers love me. Can’t wait to read.

Realisation that am going to have to wait. Have publication dates approaching for many books on my TBR mountain. Have had some of those must read books on my TBR mountain for months.

Rearranges TBR mountain. Adds new book. Wonders how many books can read this week. Cancels all social plans.

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2. No book post arrives

emptymailbox

Hears postman at door. No satisfying thud on doormat. Stares diconsolately at non book post. Feels dark, empty sadness.

Publishers hate me. My reviews are no good.

Distracts self by browsing twitter. Wonders why have not been sent book everyone I follow is tweeting about receiving.

Brief moment of relief that my TBR mountain has not grown. Determines to read faster. Reminds self of every positive comment ever received about reviews.

Wonders if publisher would send book if asked. Stalks publicist on twitter.

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3. Publishes new book review

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Wonders if review does book justice. Agonises over star rating on popular sites. Wonders if review explains star rating. Hates star rating system.

Worries about tagging author in tweet. Wonders if author will read review and consider point of book missed.

Why has author not retweeted review? Author hates review.

Author tweets thanks for review. Joy! Realises author says same lovely thing to every reviewer.

Why has publisher not retweeted my link? Publisher hates review. Wonders if publisher will ever send books again.

So many people have retweeted my link! Feels love for the book blogging community. Feels guilt for not personally thanking everyone. Wonders if will ever be retweeted again.

Rereads review. Spots error / clunky phrase / repeated words. Wonders why considers self writer.

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4. Reads review of  book by other blogger

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Did we read the same book? Wishes I had thought of that turn of phrase. Spots publisher retweeting and quoting review. Worries my reviews are no good.

Reminds self of every positive comment ever received about reviews. Retweets other blogger’s review.

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5. Asked to take part in blog tour

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Requests guest post. Asked for ideas for guest post. Active and imaginative mind goes entirely blank.

Submits idea for guest post. Worries that author will hate idea. Worries that readers will not see funny / perceptive / thought-provoking side of author because of dull idea.

Reads other guest posts on blog tour. Why did I not think of that idea?

Wonders if publisher will ever send books again.

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6. Visits bookshop

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Shiny new books! Selects a dozen must reads. Reminds self of size of TBR mountain. Reminds self that haven’t read last dozen books bought. Puts all books back. Feels sad.

Selects just one book to buy and feels virtuous. Adds book to TBR mountain, non priority pile. Wonders if life will be long enough to find time to read new book.

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7. Friend asks for book recommendation

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Momentarily speechless with excitement. Provides list of awesome, must read books that would last slow reading friend a decade.

Remembers to ask what sort of books previously enjoyed. Offers smaller selection.

Feels guilty for not including amazing book from indie press / lesser known author / publisher who sends me all the best books.

Wonders why friend not telling me how much they enjoyed books recommended. Discovers they have not yet got around to buying them all. Tries to understand.

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8. Choosing a birthday present for a friend

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Has excuse to buy books! Spends hours checking back on every book read in past year. Selects a dozen that friend will absolutely adore.

Checks bank balance. Removes most of the books. Feels sad.

Spends next year wondering why friend is not raving about awesome books received. Remembers not everyone wants to talk books at every opportunity.

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9. Asked to produce Christmas gift list

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Sits down with favourite pen and notebook bought at great expense from lovely bookshop. Writes down titles of all books not received in book post. Adds all books recommended by friends. Adds book leant to former friend and never returned.

Ignores pointed comments from nearest and dearest on already tottering TBR mountain. Ignores request for non book related items.

Tries to be stoical about books not received.

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10. Runs out of bookshelf space

Overflowing-Bookcases

Decides to cull books. Looks at titles where multiple copies owned. Recognises importance of keeping both ARCs and final copies. Admires paperback edition containing quote from my review.

Gives away books didn’t enjoy or am never likely to read again.

Thinks of books given away and regrets loss.

Comforts self by buying more books. Feels happy with no furniture in house other than bed, bookshelves, and chair in which to read.

Book Review: Blackout

Blackout-Front-Vis

Blackout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the third book in the author’s Dark Iceland series. It is set in the time period between the previous two – Snowblind (which I review here) and Nightblind (which I review here). In this installment it is summer in Iceland, although the south of the island is suffering the effects of a volcanic eruption which has blanketed the area in an ash cloud.

The story opens with the discovery of a mutilated body outside a partially built house near the northern town of Skagafjörður. The victim’s legal residence is listed as Siglufjörður so this town’s police officers, Ari Thór and Tomás, are asked to assist in the suspected murder investigations. The third officer on their team, Hlynur, feels overlooked when his younger and less experienced colleague is given precedence by their boss. Hlyner’s increasing absent mindedness, due to persistent and threatening emails, has been affecting the quality of his work.

Ari Thór and Tomás travel around Iceland interviewing the dead man’s acquaintances. They are not the only ones doing so. A television news reporter, Isrun, is also taking a close interest in the case. She travels north in the hope of uncovering secrets that will enable her to regain the respect of her colleagues in the newsroom. All three soon discover that the man had been involved in shady dealings, the details of which are being kept secret by his acquaintances for a shocking reason.

Ari Thór is often abrupt and bad tempered. He is missing his former girlfriend, Kristen. Tomás is also lonely and contemplating moving south to rejoin his wife. Leaving Siglufjörður, where he has lived for so long, would be a wrench. The officers personal preoccupations distract them from reaching out to help Hlyner as he sinks deeper into a mire of his own making.

The writing jumps around in time and place offering many threads which coalesce as the denouement approaches. There are significant events from dark pasts to recount, the isolation and austerity of the land seeming to seep into its resident’s psyches. The style of the prose reflects this. It is succinct and spartan, atmospheric with elements of stark beauty.

This is another enjoyable installment in an excellent crime fiction series which is gripping but never formulaic. The reader is transported to Iceland where they become caught up in the twisty tale. Ari Thór is on form as the prickly yet likeable young protagonist. I am already looking forward to reading his next adventure when Rupture is released early next year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: breach

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breach, by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, is the first title in the Peirene Now! series, commissioned works of new fiction which engage with the political issues of the day. Set in the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, the eight short stories in this collection explore the current refugee crisis in Europe. As Popoola says:

“These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

The stories offer insight into the lives of the residents of The Jungle and their relationships with family back home. They look at the feared people smugglers so essential to the refugees’ journey, and at the people in France and the UK who fear the refugees impact on their neatly ordered world.

The collection opens with ‘Counting Down’, a story of waiting, of strangers who become friends yet are never really close. The residents of The Jungle are not one homogenous mass. They come from many countries, bound only by their desperation to reach the UK. At any moment their loyalty can turn.

‘The Terrier’ looks at the refugees through the eyes of a French local who offers to accommodate two young Syrians in exchange for payment from the City Council. Although she sympathises with the youngsters plight there is a lack of trust, on both sides. The refugees are lonely in this house so return to the camp for friendship despite the squalor. The landlady hides her involvement from friends who complain of the refugees proximity and the trouble they bring.

‘Extending a Hand’ tells the story of two young Ethiopian women. They are grateful for the dry clothes handed out by volunteers yet resent that they are a position that requires such help.

“No one makes trousers for your shape. The pair you picked yesterday aren’t the loose-fitting ones volunteers think are suitable […] Why people think they know what’s best for you when they are not you, you don’t understand […] Dignity involves choosing your own outfits, at least”

The women have not told their families back home about conditions in the camp, pretending that all is well and they have jobs. Now demands are being made to send their earnings home, and there is only one way that a women in this camp can earn.

‘Paradise’ offers the camp from the perspective of the volunteers who hand out tents, sleeping bags and donated clothes. They feel good about helping, perhaps not recognising how they are often despised by the refugees. What they do not want though is to become too involved, as happens when Marjorie brings her teenage niece along to help. Marjorie is forced to recognise the hypocracy of her situation and this makes her angry. The refugees also do not wish for too close an involvement. When the volunteers leave to go home and the refugees cannot, this causes pain.

‘Ghosts’ looks at the precarious and often violent world of the people smugglers. It helps explain why there is so little trust in the camp, why people are reluctant to engage and tell their stories.

‘Lineage’ simmers with the resentments felt by those forced to stay calm when their lives have been blown apart. The Jungle is not one big happy family. It is populated by mud and desperation.

‘Oranges in the River’ tells of the constant battle to escape, to find a way to get to the UK by whatever means. However risky the endeavour, this is why The Jungle exists.

‘Expect Me’ is set in the UK. Alghali has made it across the channel and is studying hard to learn English and accounting. He visits Mr Dishman, an elderly local, to improve his ability to converse in this new language that, when his papers come through, he may find work. Mr Dishman talks of Europe being overrun. Alghali believes there is no other way for him to move forward with his life. He is mourning the death of a young friend who died trying to make it to England. He is blamed for a terrorist attack.

Even after reading these stories I pondered why the refugees chose the UK as their destination. It is understandable why they flee but not why other supposedly safe countries are rejected. Perhaps it is the language, the fact that some had learned English before. Perhaps it is because when they ring home they do not admit how bad things are. They make it sound as though they have jobs and safety, thereby encouraging the next set of refugees to follow in their wake.

The authors have produced poignant, challenging stories that facilitate an empathy that is often missing when these issues are discussed. If the human tide is to be slowed then the causes need to be addressed.

Through fiction, tales like these can help to bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. This is an important but also a satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

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“against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs, that change us most.”

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, is a story of friendship and love set against a backdrop of the unimaginable suffering of the Second World War. It brings home to the reader how it must have been to watch the known world crumble, and why many of those who lived through it baulked from talking of their experiences in any personal detail afterwards.

When war was declared Mary North was eighteen years old and saw it as her chance to begin life beyond the shadow of her mother’s expectations. A society beauty, Mary and her best friend, Hilda, had no need to work but longed for more excitement than was offered by the social conventions of their privileged circle of acquaintances. Mary volunteered and was surprised when assigned a position as schoolmistress (she had wondered if she might be made a spy). Hilda was less ambitious, seeking only opportunities to meet handsome young men in uniform.

Tom Shaw regarded the war as a foolish endeavour and did not believe it would last long. When his flatmate, Alistair Heath, enlists he comes to realise that, despite his ambivalence, life is about to change. One of these changes is his promotion to supervisor at the Education Authority when his work colleagues leave to join up. Having a school district to run would have been more rewarding had most of the children not been evacuated.

Tom meets Mary when she arrives at his office demanding he find her a school, having been sacked from her first for behaviour deemed unsuitable in a teacher. Bowled over by her beauty, wit and persistance he agrees to reopen a class for those children rejected by host families in the countryside. The evacuation, it seems, was a beauty contest from which the coloured, disabled or in any way different were rejected.

Alistair completes military training and is sent to France. Mary and Tom fall in love. Hilda is introduced to Alistair when he returns home on leave but he has been forever changed by what he has seen and done. The war’s progression is about to change them all.

This is more than a simple love story. The author is a wordsmith, an artist who paints the world he is creating with a depth and hue that brings it to life. Amongst the rubble and despair, the hunger and desperate humour, he makes each character believable with their flaws and foibles. There are acts of bravery but also betrayal. There are enduring prejudices amidst the dreams of a better future.

Immersed in the pleasure of reading this prose I did not want the story to end. I savoured each chapter and cared for each character, grieving when their impossible situations forced them to act in ways that would haunt them. There is no sugar coating but neither is the horror dwelt upon. The narration balances perfectly between the poignancy of an horrific war and the hope to be found in love.

A rare and affecting account of friendship in adversity; a compelling love story that is beautifully told. Although fiction it is inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences. The authenticity shines through, yet it is the skill with which the tale is woven that makes this such a satisfying read.

Book Review: Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade cover

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe, is the author’s debut poetry collection. It includes explorations of family, history, migration and inheritance. Within each work is an inherent restlessness tinged with longing. History, fable, Chinese culture, and modern life are skilfully woven together.

“Something sets us looking for a place. Old stories tell that if we could only get there, all distances would be erased.”

Howe was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Chinese mother, moving to England as a child. Her experience of living with dual roots seeps through.

The collection contains musings on parents and childhood: a mother’s voice that is firm then almost querulous as demands go unheeded; a father in thrall to the glow created by a remote control. There is curiosity about customs left behind. There are undercurrents of guilt.

A theme returned to several times is the historic treatment of women in the culture of her forbears.

“According to old Chinese custom, the midwife placed near the birthing bed a box of ashes scraped from the hearth so that, if female, the baby might be easily smothered.”

Several poems portray the madness of rulers and the historic treatment of daughters. Men denounced woman, appearing to blame them for existing – “for lust brings many monsters”. There is a suggestion that women may only be regarded as a father would, or as a lover, never as equals.

Travel, changing school and being other are scrutinised. There are musings on art and caligraphy. It is the smallest details of a memory that are recalled.

‘Crocodile’ picks up on a moment in a restaurant:

“She looked down at her napkin, then up; in that second, when no eyes met, it seemed perfectly right that words should be things you have to digest.”

My favourite poem was ‘Loop of Jade’ which ponders an unexpected late night conversation with mother:

“It’s as though she’s been conducting the conversation in her head for some time and decides disconcertingly to include you.”

The daughter is unsure how much of the recollections from childhood can be believed.

I do not read much poetry finding the need for concentration in order to appreciate the nuances a challenge. I did, however, enjoy this collection immensely. The variation in style and length appealed. Senses were pierced, a sharp focus on place and life offered, snapshots of emotion felt.

Loop of Jade won the TS Eliot Prize in 2015. For poetry, a recommended read.

 

Book Review: High Rise

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High Rise, by J.G. Ballard, tells a story of extreme social breakdown in a modern London apartment block designed to provide everything the discerning resident could desire. Although first published in 1975 it is disturbingly prescient, or perhaps timeless, examining the way man behaves when he is freed from the civilities forced on him by authority figures since childhood. There are Freudian undertones, a desire for obeisance and power, especially as regards the opposite sex.

The High Rise in question is the first of five upmarket apartment blocks being developed on wasteland near a river. Each contains forty floors of accommodation and is divided into three sections by amenity and service levels. The higher the level an apartment is on the more desirable it is seen to be. Each third is regarded by the residents as the lower, middle and upper social classes, with the penthouse apartments the ultimate in achievement.

The story is told from the point of view of residents in each of the three sections. Richard Wilder works for a film making company and lives on the second floor with his wife and two sons. Doctor Robert Laing, a childless divorcee,  has a studio apartment on the twenty-fifth floor. Anthony Royal, one of the architects behind the design of the building, lives with his aristocratic young wife in one of just two penthouse suites. He comes to regard Wilder as his nemesis.

The detached narration adds to the tension and enables the reader to cope with the increasing brutality of the unfolding drama. What starts as low level discontent, as services fail and disturbances caused by loud and lively partying become increasingly invasive, soon turns to confrontation. Those on the higher floors expect and demand preferential treatment in a building designed to offer access for all. As simmering resentments boil over there is regrouping around more radical and belligerent leaders. Each resident watches unfolding events voyeuristically, to some degree hoping to see neighbours they secretly despise debasing themselves.

In places the story makes little sense (why did so many residents stay?) yet it also exposes why man often behaves as he does. The same ruthlessness and aggression exists widely, concealed within a set of polite conventions. It is common to hide the flaws in a life from others, to keep up appearances.

Early on there are observations on the apparently homogenous residents who have populated the High Rise:

“By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments”

At one of the first parties Laing attends he observes that:

“never far below the froth of professional gossip was a hard mantle of personal rivalry.”

By the end, when the order of both building and residents has been subsumed, Royal observes:

“he had constructed a gigantic, vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realized that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.”

Perhaps what this story most demonstrates is that nothing in life is as secure as we may like to think. When breakdown occurs, the actions of those we thought we knew can be hard to predict.

A blistering deconstruction of supposedly civilised society. This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

Book Review: The Place That Didn’t Exist

The Place That Didn-t Exist

The Place That Didn’t Exist, by Mark Watson, is a simmering murder mystery set in Dubai. It is a variation on the locked-room trope, and the mirage like setting of the desert city is perfect for all that unfolds. So much exists beneath a veneer of excess and is not what it seems when probed. Even the suspected murder may have a more mundane explanation, one of over indulgence as is common in such a place.

The plot centres around a group of film makers and backers, brought together to shoot a commercial for a charitable organisation based in Dubai. It is largely narrated by a Junior Creative, Tim Callaghan, who is representing the London advertising agency who pitched for and won the project. Tim has travelled little and is thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the renowned and glittering metropolis.

The other members of the team appear more jaded. They also seem to know more about each other. Tim soon suspects that there are secrets to which he is not being made privy. As he struggles with the excessive yet sterile surroundings, the obsequious staff, and the slow progress of the project, he tries to fathom the relationships between his colleagues as well as their aims. When one of them is found dead the surreal atmosphere of this improbable location take a darker turn.

The author’s observations of people and place balance humour with a healthy critique of westerners’ desire to escape the reality of their competitive, acquisitive lives via temporary oblivion. Feeling good about shooting an expensive commercial which aims to encourage charitable contributions demonstrates how shallow good intentions can be. Dubai is emblematic of the inequalities in global wealth distribution, yet it is still regarded as a desirable destination.

The denouement explains why events occured without asking for concord. It points out the little noticed clues required to solve the puzzle presented.

Throughout the writing is thought provoking but never heavy. This is an engrossing and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.