Random Musings: So an author wants a reader to ‘get’ their book?

Writing a work of fiction requires skill, persistence and determination. An author pours a part of themselves into their creation, crafting that original spark of an idea into a world and structure that the reader will find coherent and engaging. Like a child, when it is released the creator wishes it to be treated fairly and thoughtfully, recognised for the essential qualities that have been so carefully cultivated. The author wants the reader to ‘get’ their book and to appreciate, maybe even revere it.

The problem, of course, is that each reader views a story through the lens of their own lived experiences, and these may differ greatly from those lived by the writer. Readers wish to learn of other lives and cultures but also to find aspects they can relate to. What they take from a book, what resonates in the reading, may be far removed from the author’s intentions. To suggest that this reader is therefore incapable in some way smacks of the type of elitism that is holding back greater diversity amongst writers and readers.

When authors have thanked me for a review by expressing delight that I ‘got’ what was intended I have caught myself preening a little. That fleeting feeling of fellowship is warm and fuzzy, a rare treat for someone who generally feels a social outsider. Yet all that is being said is that, in reading the words, I travelled the path intended. I spotted the signposts and followed, noticing the highlights provided along the way. Other readers may be distracted by personal demons, struggling to navigate because they have been taught to interpret differently. They may still ultimately enjoy the reading experience but in a different way. This does not in itself make them a less able reader.

I have been writing in detail about events attended at this year’s Greenwich Book Festival. One author there suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction. The authors and publishers were eager to promote and encourage a widening of access to writers being published, and a broadening of readership. I ponder if this fine ideal would lead to greater divergence of opinion on what is regarded as impressive literature.

I regard a book as a success if it has been enjoyed by the reader. I understand that certain books I dislike are still well written, that it is the content rubbing against my wounds that has repelled me.

Other books, that have received a rapturous reception with reviewers expressing amazement at the art created, I have found dull. At times the impressed readers appear to regard themselves as somehow superior rather than simply having different tastes.

An author owns a book only until it is released. If it reaches a wide enough audience there will be a range of interpretations. Increased diversity means accepting difference. I think this is a good thing.

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Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

Random Musings: Why I read

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Why do we choose to read books? Perhaps we wish to learn, to gain empathy, to escape. As a reader it is possible to climb inside the pages of a book and imagine ourselves living a different life in a place beyond our dreams. There we may find love, become somebody elses hero, enjoy the adulation that will never be experienced in reality.

I have read that when the ‘Grey’ books were first published they proved particularly popular amongst middle aged women. There was speculation that these readers wished to live out fantasies when their own sexual lives had gone stale. Despite being a member of this demographic the phenomenon is beyond my comprehension. Having watched the film (I have not read the books) I cannot understand why anyone would desire such experiences.

I understand that desires are as individual as each person and would not wish to limit or condemn whatever others choose to read. When I am offered books to review I will always state that I do not enjoy romances. I try to avoid stories which involve a woman requiring a man for fulfilment, or a man using a woman as arm candy and to service his physical cravings.

A romantic plot thread can be written with depth, humour and originality without descending into lengthy detail. As ‘Pride and Prejudice’ demonstrates, suggestion can be a powerful device. My antipathy is not towards the background to a mutual attraction but towards the reason for the intimacy and the way it is described. I have written of my dislike of gratuitous detail before, here.

Yet this was not always how I felt. When I was in my late teens I devoured easy to read romances by the dozen. Through my twenties I read books involving peril and rescue which often ended with the handsome hero taking his beautiful conquest to bed. The stories have not changed but I have. My life experiences have darkened my views and I now look at that couple and extrapolate their future. In my eyes, happy ever after is Icarus before his fall.

If books are an escape from reality then perhaps our choice of book reflects the place to which we each wish to travel in our dreams. Some look for the heady excitement of a new romance. As a mother of teenagers I fantasise about being held in some regard rather than contempt.

I enjoy books involving strong characters who can hold their own against attacks on their being, to read of relationships founded on mutual respect rather than outward beauty. My heroes can stand alone against the world; they do not require another for fulfilment. When their life presents a trial they do not blame others or look to them for a fix. They appreciate their moments of happiness but can move on.

Books offer a window to the world and I choose to avoid voyeurism. I seek out varied settings that I may expand my learning of other cultures, the characters thoughts enabling me to empathise with why people think as they do.

I read more fiction than non fiction because I also wish to be entertained, to immerse myself in a story as if I were there. I rarely travel and have few people interested in conversing with me so perhaps this is my way of experiencing life.

What do you choose to read and why?

 

 

 

 

 

Random Musings: Book blogging

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As a book blogger I wish to champion books and authors. I love books. I find it gratifying to promote a book that I have enjoyed, to tell others about it in order that they too may gain pleasure from reading. It takes time to absorb all those magical words but it is time well spent when a book has left me sated.

Naturally I do not enjoy every book that I select. I will not choose to invest the hours it takes to read a book if I expect to dislike it, but neither am I likely to enjoy every book that I pick up. Until it is opened I cannot be sure what is between the covers.

A good review is more than simply a judgement on whether a book is a good example of its type. Of course this matters. If a book presents itself as a thriller or a romance then it should be judged against other thrillers or romances; the expectations of the reader must be considered. However, genres are fluid and the best books cross boundaries and offer more depth.

I see my reviews as part of a conversation. I have read a book and I wish to talk about it, to share my thoughts with those who may be interested. My reviews are always my honest opinion which means that they will not always be positive. I wish that they could be. It is more fulfilling to recommend a book than to attempt to thoughtfully articulate why I disliked it, especially knowing that the author may read what I write. Often my reasons are nebulous, a reflection of my experiences. Every reader comes to a book weighed down by their own, personal baggage.

I am a writer but not an author. I write my book reviews for this blog, Amazon and Goodreads. I write opinion pieces such as this one. Occasionally I create some flash or micro fiction which I publish on my sister blog, Dreams and Demons. This work, alongside conversations I have had with author friends, has provided me with some small insight into the sheer graft required to produce a novel. Every book I pick up deserves respect for that effort.

In my reviews I try to offer recommendations. As well as a brief, spoiler free description of the plot alongside my opinion on the quality of the writing (which will take into account the expectations of the target audience from the blurb), I will comment on whether or not I enjoyed reading the book. I will also try to explain why. If I dislike a book because it contains a large number of graphic sex scenes then it may well appeal to a reader who wishes to read about such things.

There are many different types of reader which is why we have so many different types of books. Whilst I try to read eclectically, so as not to dismiss an entire canon of literature of which I have no knowledge, I see no point in selecting a book that I am unlikely to be able to recommend. I feel guilt when I cannot go back to the author full of praise for their work. I feel bad if a publisher has provided me with a book that I cannot then eagerly promote.

However, if I invest the time in reading a tale which, from the blurb, sounded as though it would be my sort of thing then I will review it for the benefit of other readers. It is for them that I write. I am always aware that infrequent readers may be put off the pursuit by a book that disappoints.

It is hard to beat the feeling I get when I recommend a book and then hear back from a reader that they loved it as much as I did. This is, of course, a pale reflection of the satisfaction authors must gain from positive reviews. I am merely a conduit. However well received my reviews may be I never forget that it is the authors’ hard work that triggered my abiding love affair with books. It is that joy which I truly desire to share.

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Random Musings: My TBR pile

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My bookshelves are filled with books that I have not read. I regard this as a blessing, not a failing.

There are the many books that I have asked for as gifts or gone out and bought for myself because they sounded intriguing or entertaining.

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep South (Richard Flanagan)
  • Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
  • The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  • All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)

My TBR pile which contains the books that I have set aside as definitely wanting to read currently has 32 books on it.

Then there are the books that my children have bought for themselves which look enticing. I would love to find the time to discover what lies between the covers of:

  • I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
  • The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The Earthsea Quartet (Ursula Le Quin)
  • His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy (Jonathon Stroud)
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • The Star Dancer Tetralogy (Beth Webb)

These are just the titles that I noticed on a quick glance through the shelves in our library. There are many other treasures lurking in bedrooms amidst the detritus of teenage life. I would never ask my children to tidy away the book towers by their beds.

As a book blogger I only ever ask for titles that I would hope to enjoy. Quite apart from the time it takes to read the book, a positive review is much more satisfying to write.

Once I have received my ever welcome book post I feel committed to opening myself up to whatever each author has to offer and subsequently writing down my thoughts for the benefit of potential readers. My books to review pile currently contains eight titles, about a months worth of reading at my normal rate.

My husband questions why I consider buying more books, why I continue to ask for new titles from publishers when my unread book collection is so large. Bibliophiles will understand.

The books that I purchase tend to be well known and popular. They have often achieved critical acclaim and I am curious to discover why. I hope that I will enjoy them, and I do intend to read each and every one of them, but if readers only buy already established books then how are new authors who produce works that deserve equal recognition ever to become known?

It is not as if I expect my reviews to make a singular difference. They are, however, a very small part of a wider movement which exists to spread the word of the choices available.

And I get so much out of this too. I get to read authors I may not otherwise find. I get to tell everyone I know that a book exists which I think they would enjoy. I feel such delight when I recommend a book to a friend and they come back to tell me that they were as blown away by it as I was.

I find it hard not to buy more books. I have read only two in the past few months which I did not acquire specifically to review:

  • The Humans (Matt Haig)
  • Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut)

Both were worthy of all the praise and recommendations that they have received but so many lesser known works are worthy of attention too.

I read for pleasure. There is something rather special about discovering a new book and shouting about its wonders to all who will take note on publication. There is something rather special about gifting previously unknown books to others that I am convinced they will enjoy.

I salute the authors of all the wonderful books. I thank them for providing pleasure for so many.

Celebrating the pleasure of reading

Today is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland. Do other countries take part? Perhaps it has an aspirational nomenclature. It is certainly an event that it would be good to see celebrated widely.

When my children were younger their school asked them to dress up as their favourite book character. Not being a skilled seamstress I would encourage my brood to choose a character who wore clothes resembling those they possessed. My son once went as Arthur Dent which he particularly enjoyed.

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Schools often invite an author to visit and talk to their pupils. These days I am looking at these visits from the other side as my author friends mention the places they have been invited to attend in order to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. I hope that the children treat them kindly.

All under 18s are given a token which enables them to pick up a free book produced specially for the occasion. These contain an original story, often from a series which is popular with young readers. My children still have a number of these books in their collections.

I love the idea of World Book Day with its emphasis on encouraging all children to read. It is an inclusive event which aims to share the pleasure that books can bring.

Next month I will be joining in with another initiative which aims to share the literary love with adults. World Book Night gives away a range of books which have been specially selected for the occasion. Having been accepted as a volunteer I will be giving away Chickenfeed by Minette Walters at my local train station.

I derive so much pleasure from reading and am eager to encourage others to discover that joy. As has been said of children but is equally applicable to adults:

There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.

Random musings: Burqas and bikinis

The idea of wearing a burqa holds certain attractions. Until I am able to purchase an invisibility cloak it offers the chance to hide away from the judgemental eyes of other people. What I don’t like about this garment is the repression that it represents. It is worn because men say that it is required, because a woman’s body tempts a man to sin simply by being on display. It absolves these men of their most basic responsibility: self control.

Those who try to claim that a girl in a skimpy outfit is asking for sex are speaking the same language as those who insist on women covering themselves from head to toe in a black or blue tent. I don’t buy this argument. Any individual should be able to display themselves as they wish without fear of attack, physical or verbal. An attack is always the fault of the attacker, never the victim.

I like to read diversely. Fiction is such a fabulous way to learn about different ways of thinking. I do not tend to seek out books featuring sexually diverse characters or those with varied skin colours because I already see these people as just like me. Skin tone is of as little significance as the colour of clothes. I eat meat but have friends who are vegetarian, am heterosexual but have friends who are gay or bi. Personal preferences are not my concern, unless there is an element of coercion. I do not wish anyone to tell me how to live my life.

What I do like to read about is characters whose day to day lives are coloured by expectations that are foreign to me, whose actions are ruled by cultural differences, acceptance of which I find hard to comprehend.

I will actively seek out a book that will enable me to better understand the issues faced by a child raised in a traditional Pakistani family, or who is expected to adhere to rules laid down by a religious organisation to which their family has always subscribed. Whilst I may wonder at the way these people think, I can learn more about why traditions have developed and see benefits beside the many flaws. I can broaden my understanding and challenge my thinking; see oppressors as people who, perhaps, have never known that it can be beneficial to act in another way. I may not agree with their choices, but I can gain a better understanding of why they behave as they do.

I find it much harder to empathise with those who have been raised with the ability and freedom to decide for themselves, yet who consider it vital that they always present an outward appearance that is acceptable to those around, such as women whose main aim in life seems to be to achieve a bikini body, big hair and smooth skin.

I tend to avoid books where the heroine must be beautiful and has her life enhanced by a handsome hero who will take care of her every need. Why does she have to be beautiful to find love? Why can she not look after herself? I am not against relationships, I have after all been married for more than twenty years and value my husband’s place in my life highly. He is not, however, responsible for my happiness, that is down to me and me alone.

I support the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I recognise that there are too many people who think it is fine to have only pale skinned, heteronormative, cisgendered, able bodied protagonists. In young people’s literature especially, a more realistic physical, sexual and cultural mix matters. All children should be able to see themselves as the hero in at least some of the books that they read.

Still though, I am uncomfortable reading books that contain characters who match a huge section of the society in which I live, those who feel it is desirable to look like Ken or Barbie. I do not understand why so many fear wrinkles and grey hair, why they feel unable to don a bikini because of the very natural shape of their stomach following childbirth or because their legs are dimpled by their love of cake. I find it sad that some men are now swallowing the marketing hype and feel a need to build muscle or moisturise skin. I cannot comprehend this way of thinking.

My hankering after invisibility indicates that I am not immune to other’s judgements. I may struggle to understand why so many think so much about outward appearance, but I am affected by the knowledge that how I look generates negative comment. My antipathy and therefore avoidance of books where the young and beautiful win some mythical happy ever after may well be feeding my prejudices. If I am to gain empathy and understanding then I need to step beyond my view that these books are damaging because they sell an impossible to achieve lie, and try to better understand why they are so popular.

I decided to review a book titled ‘Diary of a Diva‘ because I expected it to be an amusing if superficial account of life from the point of view of a beautiful, media type person who moved in the sorts of circles that are anathema to me. Having read it I suspect that I wished to pat my prejudices on the head and feel quietly superior. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I feel ashamed.

I judged this book by its cover, the author by her looks and career, something that I call others out on doing all the time. This searingly honest account was as much of an eye opener as any of my chosen, foreign based reads. I had wrapped up ‘media type people’ as a vain, homogeneous mass to look down upon. It would seem that I still have a long way to go in dealing with my negative responses towards those who think differently to me. The protagonist of this non fiction book had many admirable qualities to which I should aspire.

I will wear neither burqa nor bikini because that is my choice. I will however continue to try to read more widely. The author of ‘Diary of a Diva’ was able to see and acknowledge her flaws which she then worked to improve. In reading her book I have uncovered a fair few of my own. I will try to do better.

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