Random Musings: Book love and negative reviews

It has been a while since I posted a random opinion piece. This one percolated following a number of discussion threads on social media last week about book bloggers who post negative reviews. Some of the threads became quite heated and even personal at times. Umbrage was taken and participants were blamed for not behaving in a way others desired. It was all very unfortunate – at one stage a publisher became involved. My experience of book bloggers is of a supportive community. As numbers have grown I wonder if it has factionalised. Individual’s views will inevitably differ but infighting and its corollary, taking sides, is never good PR. We are, after all, trying to draw attention to the books, not to ourselves. At least that is where I am coming from.

I post a review for every book I read so, unavoidably, some will detail negative aspects. Whatever my thoughts I try to maintain balance. Few books are perfect and some flaws grate more than others. I will always try to explain why. The purpose of my writing is to inform readers. Even a book that I adore will not appeal to everyone.

I don’t have a problem with those who choose to post only positive reviews – their blog, their decision. What I object to is any attempt to force others to follow suit. The start point for last week’s discussion was the increasingly ubiquitous blog tour. As these are used as marketing tools – the organiser, although not the participants, is paid by the author or publisher – I can understand why there is pressure, even when not explicitly stated, to create positive posts. Most book bloggers will not have had a chance to read the book being promoted when participation is agreed. Suitable alternative content is not always readily available. Once again I felt relief at my decision to withdrew myself from blog tours at the end of last year.

Most of the books I now read are sent to me by publishers. Book post delights me and I am grateful for every parcel I receive. It can take some time to get to a title so when I post my review I will tag the publisher on social media. I do this that they may be aware that a book they have sent has been reviewed as requested. What they do with my words is up to them.

I only tag the author if the gist of my review is positive – few are entirely so because perfection is rare. If I have enjoyed a book I hope that knowing this will please its creator.

No reader, and book bloggers are first and foremost readers, wishes to spend time reading a book that leaves them dissatisfied. This is why I have a review policy – to try to limit books sent to me to those I will be happy to endorse. I derive pleasure from working with publishers to spread the book love but I am not in their employ. I neither ask for nor receive payment. My reviews and recommendations are willingly and freely provided.

Once I have reviewed a book I like to check out other readers’ opinions on a variety of sites. Whether or not we agree I will share many of these on my own social media timelines (although only rarely if part of a blog tour due to repetition – my choice). I enjoy reading reviews that are well written and reasoned; I want to know why the reader thought as they did. I will also share author interviews or related articles. Having read a book I maintain an interest and do my small part to increase visibility of the title.

The book blogging community has grown and its power is being recognised and harnessed. On this site, my site, I am more than happy to participate but I will not be shackled. I hope that the camaraderie amongst bloggers, and friendly relationships with publishers, can be maintained even if we do choose to run our blogs in different ways. Books are my passion, but I will not love them all.

Advertisements

Monthly Roundup – March 2018

March has been an unusually busy month for travelling, with literary gigs attended in London, Bath, Bristol and Manchester. Along the way I reviewed sixteen books, many of them translated fiction. I also posted one interview, with an independent publisher I have only recently discovered. First though, the books.

Reviews of translated fiction:

Reviews of British fiction:

Anthology of  non fiction and fiction:

Reviews originally posted on other sites

Interview with an independent publisher

Gigs attended:

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – February 2018

January on my blog focused on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, with just a few reviews of the books I was reading thrown in for good measure. This month saw a return to a more familiar format with a focus on new book reviews, although not all recent releases as I kept my New Year promise to myself and also plucked titles from further down my TBR pile.

These included a number of medical themed books. The announcement of the Wellcome Book Prize longlist reminded me that I still had several titles unread that I was eager to get to.

Click on the cover to find out more about the book from the publisher’s website – the links below will take you to my reviews.

  

  

 

I posted four book reviews originally written for other sites.

  

  

 

There were also original reviews of several new releases and books from my TBR pile.

Non-Fiction:

Fiction:

Poetry

 

I attended one book event, travelling to Manchester for

I will be posting more about the author and publisher panels and talks next week.

I posted one interview this month, with

Next month I have a number of literary outings to look forward to, including the winners event for the Republic of Consciousness Prize on the 20th. I also have more excellent books to read – thank you to the publishers who send me their titles for review.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – January 2018

We made it through January. I know illness has dogged a lot of us this month – if you are still suffering I wish you a speedy recovery.

I started the month with a few thoughts on the year just past. I have now been blogging for over five years and my site continues to evolve as I work out the ongoing direction I wish to take.

My first review of the year was for Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen which is to be published by Headline in May. I had intended to include this as one of my end of year books to look forward to in 2018 but ran out of reading time over the festive season. My new Fitbit encouraged me to get out walking which was probably a good thing.

I then took a week’s break as I had a family holiday to enjoy and a big feature planned for the remainder of the month. These things take time to organise and prepare.

Those who follow my blog regularly will be aware that this month has mostly been about The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, who last summer invited me to join their reader panel and help judge submissions for the prize. After the longlist was announced in November I contacted the longlisted publishers inviting them and their authors to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. The before Christmas period is just about the busiest time of year for those who provide us with books so I am grateful for the positive responses received.

As part of this feature I posted author interviews with:

I included publisher interviews with:

I received guest posts from:

I am also grateful to my fellow judges, Graham and Paul Fulcher, who offered their carefully considered and detailed reviews to run alongside the content I received from authors and publishers. As I had already posted my reviews of the longlisted books I felt that these alternative thoughts added to the feature.

My bookish adventures took me along a new path when I participated in my first ever podcast, adding a few thoughts on one of the longlisted books – We that are young by Preti Taneja – alongside interesting interviews with the author and with the publisher. You may find out more about the podcast, created by The YYY Books Podcast, by clicking here.

As well as my Republic Of Consciousness Prize posts, I published a few reviews of other books I managed to read this month:

I attended two bookish events in January. The first was in Bristol, a stop on the New Voices of 2018 roadshow organised by Headline. The second was the Judges Dinner for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Held in London this gave me the opportunity to meet my fellow judges offline, and to discuss the longlist with a view to whittling it down to the five or six titles that will go forward from here. I will be writing more about this event next month after the shortlist is announced in Manchester on 19th February.

I was privileged to receive a number of new titles from publishers which have been added to my TBR pile. For those interested, I post pictures of my book post on my Instagram feed. Thank you to all the publishers who send me books to review. Like most book bloggers my TBR pile is vast and enticing. If I have received your book I assure you I am doing my best to find time to read it.

Thank you also to the many readers, bloggers and publishers who share my words on their social media feeds. I very much appreciate your support. February will see a return to more personal book reviews. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts.

Looking back and looking forward

My little family and I have raised our glasses to the old year and welcomed in the new. There was discussion about how worrying the world has become with extremism on the rise and compassionate leaders apparently in short supply. There was concern expressed over upcoming exams. There was also much to share and look forward to. I recognise how fortunate I am in the people I know from my small corner of rural Wiltshire and among my wider online friends, from whom I have received much encouragement and generosity in the past twelve months. I go forward into 2018 aiming to share this kindness and support.

I reviewed 187 books last year, putting myself under pressure at times to meet deadlines. To enable proper appreciation of a book, which is the least the author deserves, I believe it should be read for pleasure; despite the quality of prescribed texts I did not enjoy the books I was required to read at school. My desire to read in a positive frame of mind was one of the reasons that led me to withdraw from participation in blog tours at the end of last year, a decision that affected the number of titles I received from certain publishers. Despite this, it is not a decision I regret.

Also last year I created a review policy page for my blog although it still needs some work to achieve its aim. I find it a challenge to succinctly describe the books I wish to read, or not read – I have enjoyed so many titles that would not fit within the parameters I have attempted to set down. I may also remove my email address from this policy page as, despite what I have stated, I have been approached by self-publishing authors and feel uncomfortable declining their creations. I have no doubt that many of their books could be worth reading but without the filter of a publishing house that does not charge its authors to put out their work I am reluctant to add them to my vast TBR pile. My refusal to read ebooks (remember what I said about reading for pleasure?) results in the authors incurring a cost sending me their book and I feel guilt if I do not manage to read in a timely manner. So many books, so little time.

I have much to look forward to in the coming year. As well as reading new books to come and unread books from my pile, I will be revisiting the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist in preparation for the judges meeting. Prior to this gathering I plan to post interviews with several of the authors and publishers whose work is being considered along with guest posts and other content. I am very excited about this prize and am delighted to be involved.

A highlight of 2017 was my participation in the Guardian newspaper’s Not the Booker Prize process which culminated in me being invited to join the judging panel. Reading for the RofC prize and the Not the Booker prize introduced me to many books that I would not otherwise have discovered and included some true gems.

Another endeavour that I have derived satisfaction from in 2017 has been contributing to Bookmunch. This site focuses on the sorts of books I particularly enjoy and I am delighted to be on the team. If you are unfamiliar with their work, do check it out.

I ended the year on my blog with a series of reviews for books to be published in the months to come. Of these I particularly recommend The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees, Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary, On The Bright Side by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans) and Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. There are, of course, many more new books to be read and I look forward to sharing my thoughts.

Those who follow my Instagram may have noticed a decrease in bookish posts over the festive season. I have been enjoying some down time with my family, taking walks and recharging my batteries. This will continue through to next weekend when we have some time away planned. In the coming year it is my aim to find a better balance between my book blogging and other pursuits.

For me, book blogging is about more than just reading and writing reviews. I have literary events to look forward to, guest spots on various media arranged, and hope to meet many more authors, publishers, event organisers and bloggers as the year progresses. I am grateful to have found the bookish world to be a friendly and supportive place thus far. It is my fervent wish to make a positive contribution.

A huge thank you to the publishers who provide me with many of the books I review, and to the publicists who have kept me on their lists. Thank you also to all who have read, commented and shared my words. Although I may not say so directly each time, I always appreciate your support. I hope that you have found books that inspired, gave you pleasure, and facilitated a better understanding of different cultures and points of view. I wish you all much good reading, and a Happy New Year.

Reading Bingo 2017

This fun little exercise is not something I have participated in before but, having enjoyed reading Cleo and Marina‘s choices, I decided that I would take part too. If you click on the covers you may read my reviews.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

The Last Hours by Minette Walters.

A captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for the lords and serfs in England, 1348. They lived in fear of a wrathful god and are now facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days. I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed.

A Forgotten Classic

The Beauties by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater).

A collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories and my first foray into this esteemed writer’s work. Snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens.

A Book That Became a Movie

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Despite knowing the story well I enjoyed, once again, immersing myself in the world of the boy wizard and his nemesis.

A Book Published This Year

Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary.

I don’t read as many crime novels these days as their plots had started to merge into each other, but Sarah’s books remain outstanding. This is the fourth in her Marnie Rome series. A battle for survival is being fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns of the plot, each new scene oozing menace. Masterfully crafted.

A Book With A Number In The Title

2084 by various authors.

Anthology of fifteen short stories set in a variety of dystopian societies. Each builds on contemporary topics, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed. The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling.

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

Stanly’s Ghost by Stefan Mohamed.

The third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. An adrenaline pumping adventure that never takes itself too seriously. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers.

A Book With Non Human Characters

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris.

A dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. A reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

A Funny Book

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige.

Interpreting funny as curious, quirky.

Council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. This previously ordinary middle aged man, who had never before thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman he glimpsed as he was felled. Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world, the depiction of which is fabulous. The book is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale.

A Book By A Female Author

So the Doves by Heidi James.

Intelligent murder mystery. An evocative study of memory and the stories we create to shape how we regard ourselves. Artfully told this tale demands that the reader question their core perceptions of themselves. It is a disturbing, compelling, ultimately satisfying read.

A Book With A Mystery

Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates).

The fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English. In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. Excellent reading.

A Book With A One Word Title

Glass by Alex Christofi.

One young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. Entertaining and engaging with an understated depth and intelligent humour.

A Book of Short Stories

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips).

Fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Mostly set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

Free Square

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja.

A fabulous reworking of King Lear set in modern day India. A literary feast and my book of the year.

A Book Set On A Different Continent

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.

A story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the surviving sibling. Deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered.

The First Book By A Favourite Author

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

The author’s only book to date but I met him at a festival and he is lovely so, a favourite.

This is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrels and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past. A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging.

A Book I Heard About Online

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers.

A fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. Multi-layered presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.

A Best Selling Book

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

A story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Booker shortlisted. Original and engaging.

A Book Based Upon A True Story

Tinderbox by Megan Dunn.

A book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides. It is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

A Book At the Bottom Of Your To Be Read Pile

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill.

Not from the bottom of my TBR pile as I question if I will ever get there but one that sat waiting to be read for longer than it deserved.

Two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other is rejected by her husband and returns to her studies, trying for university. The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. History and supposed progress in a country I knew little about.

A Book Your Friend Loves

Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Not just my friend, anyone who has posted comments about this on line.

A hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. A glorious, heartfelt read.

A Book That Scares You

Nasty Women by various authors.

A collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. Predates the #MeToo campaign. Enlightening and discomfiting, an important read.

A Book That Is More Than 10 Years Old

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

The first instalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. An imaginative page-turner.

The Second Book In A Series

Freefall by Adam Hamdy.

The second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy. A high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement.

A Book With A Blue Cover

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernieres.

A story of a boy and his dog, somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect but still good reading for any age. As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. Loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s.

Reading the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize Shortlist

Last year I set myself the task of reading the Guardian newspaper’s Not The Booker Prize shortlist – you may read my roundup here. The exercise left me feeling a little jaded, the reading not always being as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. I did enjoy attending Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. Not many in the audience had read the complete shortlist so this at least provided a sense of satisfaction for my efforts. It did at times feel quite an effort.

Nevertheless, when summer rolled back around and nominations were invited for the 2017 prize I once again became caught up in the excitement of promoting lesser known works – something I always enjoy doing. This year, at the initial stage, I waited to see what titles others would nominate. To gain a place on the longlist only one nomination is required and some of the books I would have considered putting forward had already gained a place. I added The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel (Salt Publishing) which richly deserved consideration.

Voting on the longlist proved challenging as so many good books were included amongst the 150+ to get through to this stage. In the end I gave my two votes to The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (Salt Publishing) and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books). Sadly, neither made it onto the shortlist.

It was, however, an interesting looking selection which I therefore decided to read. Grateful thanks to the publishers who supported my efforts by providing copies of their books.

On each of the past six Fridays I posted my review of the book Sam Jordison was to discuss in the Guardian during the following week. You may click on the title below to read my thoughts.

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin (Honno Press)

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li (Legend Press)

The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald (Aardvark Bureau)

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society by Ann O’Loughlin (Black and White Publishing)

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige (Bluemoose Books)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)

I found this a stronger shortlist than last year, much more enjoyable to read. The final book, Anything Is Possible, was not selected by public vote but rather chosen by last year’s judges as a wildcard entry in a new idea being trialled this year. Having read it I was surprised by the choice. It is a follow on to the author’s critically acclaimed novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I have not read. Comments on my review suggest that it will be well received by the author’s fans as it builds on characters previously referred to. It does not, in my opinion, stand alone. Anything is Possible is also the only book on the shortlist not published by a small independent press, something that may be indicative of the sort of prize Not The Booker has become. In my view this is a good thing.

I made a conscious decision to post each of my reviews prior to Sam’s appearing in the Guardian that I may not be influenced by his thoughts. I was then able to add my views BTL and consider points made by other readers. I enjoyed this process and was only sorry that more comments, especially from those who voted the books onto the shortlist, were not submitted.

Last week, in what I believe may be an unprecedented move, Ann O’Loughlin requested that her novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, be withdrawn from the shortlist. You may read her statement here. Whilst respecting her right to act as she sees fit I have mixed feelings about an author reacting in this way to a negative review. One of the other authors, Sara Gethin, gave her thoughts on the withdrawal here.

And so the process continues with the remaining five books. Although I have a clear favourite – Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige – I am glad to have read each of the first three, which I may never have discovered had they not been included. This is a strength of the contest.

If you would like to attend this year’s Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop on Thursday 12th October you may book a ticket here. Sam Jordison will chair the event where those authors who accept the invitation will read from their books and may then respond to his Guardian reviews.

The winner will be announced in the Guardian following a public vote and then a meeting of the chosen judges which will be broadcast live by the paper on 16 October. The winner will receive a rare and precious Guardian mug such as that pictured above. They may then bask in the glory that goes with winning this inimitable literary prize. Despite the withdrawal it has been a fine year.

The Competition is powered by the collective intelligence of Guardian readers. Enough said.