Why I’m Not Doing A 2020 Reading Challenge

Hello Bookworms!

If you’ve read my previous New Year’s resolutions post, you may have noticed that there was something missing. Achievements? Stunning examples of my excellent organisational skills? Well, yes… but also something else.

Reading challenges.

You see, I’m oddly motivated by prescribed reading lists (initially, anyway) so for the past few years I’ve undertaken a number of challenges. Popsugar? Check. Book Riot? Completed it three years in a row, mate. I’ve done chapter-a-day read-alongs, I’ve done recommended reading, I’ve played bookish bingo. And I’m kinda… over it.

That’s not to say that I haven’t gained an enormous amount from reading challenges. I love how they force you to read more widely. I’ve had my eyes opened to genres I’d never even heard of and I’ve found some real gems along the way. I’ve found a previously undiscovered love of food memoirs, I am addicted to non-violent true crime and I’ve discovered a whole host of black, asian, trans, queer, feminist and disabled writers/stories that I may not previously have sought out. The thing is, now that I’m more aware of the sheer breadth of diverse offerings out there, I want to find them for myself. I want to read more Octavia E Butler. I want to hear more about Japan and Mexico and New Zealand. I don’t want to be forced to read poetry, or romance (although the Courtney Milan book that I chose was quite enjoyable) or to ever have to read another adult novel out loud. Ever.

I also don’t want to get to October and think “only ten books left!” then realise that they’re the books that I really don’t want to read. The pressure that I feel every bloody year is immense. And of course, after spending hours checking that the books you’ve chosen actually fit within the criteria (the discussion groups on Goodreads can get pretty spicy) you REALLY don’t want to DNF any of them. That means hours of grudgingly progressing through dull novels (“I need to read 50 pages before I can sleep!”) in the hope that there’s a massive reference section in the back that will knock 10% off your target. For example, one of Book Riot’s prompts for their 2020 challenge is “read an audiobook of poetry” (please God no – if there’s anything worse than the majority of poetry out there, it’s slow poetry) or “read the last book in a series” (soooo… read the whole series first? Or just read the last book like an absolute psychopath and ruin the whole thing?)

One of the problems with reading challenges that no-one ever mentions is cost. If I were to buy a paperback for each of the 24 categories in the Read Harder challenge at an average cost of, lets say, £7, that works out to be £168 per year on books that you may not even want to read. Yes, there’s libraries and NetGalley and your already-purchased TBR but with such narrow categories you’re often left with no choice but to fork out. Think of how many amazing, interesting books you could get for £168. Think how many titles you could knock off your TBR if you didn’t feel forced to read around five books a year that you really didn’t want to and inevitably put you into a reading slump.

There’s also an issue with repetitiveness. I often eagerly check a newly released reading challenge, only to find that many of the categories define books that I’ve already read for a previous challenge. There’s only so much diversity out there that still gives readers a good choice of material and you often find that the only books that you want to read for a specific prompt are ones that you’ve already tackled. If you consider that the main point of a reading challenge is to make you read more widely but you’re already aware of the genres/types of books defined, you have to question its effectiveness. Remember how I said that I love a good food memoir? One of Book Riot’s prompts this year is “read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before”. Hmmmm.

So, I am officially Taking A Year Off. We’ll see how long that lasts.

TBR, I’m coming for you!!!!!

 


Are you taking part in any reading challenges this year? Do you enjoy them or have you found similar issues to me? Let me know in the comments!

 

Books to Help You Through Brexit

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Now I know we are all sick to death of Brexit so I wondered what could help us all to weather the inevitable shitshow *ahem* adjustment period that is nearly upon us… and as always, the answer is BOOKS! No, not any of the plethora of highly biased texts that either drone on about MAKING BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN or EVERYONE IS GOING TO HELL IN A HANDCART but some lovely novels that will distract, amuse or come in handy.

So, whatever happens: keep calm, brew some tea and check out my book recommendations!

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Read something to take your mind off it…

If you feel like you see more of Laura Kuenssberg in her lovely pink coat than you do of your immediate family then it’s probably time to turn off the TV and lose yourself in a great book. I recently read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton and it was sooooo addictive I couldn’t put it down. It’s so intricately layered that it should distract you from whatever excruciatingly dull bit of legislative change has been painfully negotiated with the EU. There’s also any number of thrillers out there that would also serve to provide a bit of distraction from the political chaos – my favourites include The Woman in the Window by A.J.Finn and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough.

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Read something funny

If the merest suggestion of the Question Time music raises your blood pressure several millimetres of mercury (no, I didn’t know that was the unit of measurement either) then why not turn that frown upside down with some comedic books instead. I will never stop recommending The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy which is properly laugh-out-loud hilarious or Bad Science by Ben Goldacre which is similarly spit-out-your-tea amusing. Or, if you’re a pervert, there’s always good old Belinda Blinked by Rocky Flinstone – the podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno (where Rocky’s son reads out his Dad’s erotic literature to his friends) is incredible and the books are so-bad-they’re-good comedy gold.

Read something boring

If you’re lying down at night with the sound of John Bercow shouting “ORDERRRRR” ringing in your ears and all the sheep you’re trying to count are bleating “will of the peeeeeple” then try reading something boring to get you off to the land of nod. There’s tons of books out there that seem to have been published sans storyline – I personally found Atonement by Ian McEwen extremely dull; ditto The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Read something inspiring

Whatever happens with Brexit, change is a-coming and with any change, inevitably, comes opportunity. There are lots of books that can help you to deal with tumultuous situations but a classic (and one I’ve read several times) is Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson.

(answer:

a) no-one, because all of the ferry ports are jammed or don’t actually have any ferries/ a usable dock/ terms and conditions that haven’t been stolen from a local takeaway

b) Bloody *choose one* David Cameron/ Theresa May/ Jean-Claude Juncker/ Boris Johnson/ Jeremy Corbyn/ Anna Soubry/ Nigel Farrage/ whoever wrote £350 million on the side of a bus etc.

c) Young people who don’t know what they’re talking about/ old people who don’t know what they’re talking about

d) It hasn’t moved it’s been BANNED by VEGANS

e) IMMIGRANTS

Take your pick depending on how left-wing/right-wing/prejudiced/racist you might be.)

How To Stop Brexit - And Make Britain Great Again

Read (or not) something practical

I hesitate to recommend books that I haven’t yet read, but The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is literally everywhere right now, looks like an amazing read and judging by the sheer size of the thing could also come in handy as a weapon, should things take a turn for the worse in your local Wetherspoons.

Also, I see Nick Clegg has published a long-awaited book called (I’m not kidding) “How to Stop Brexit and Make Britain Great Again” which looks like it could have a variety of uses – TV prop, cat litter tray liner, kindling… obviously I’m joking, I haven’t read it but I thought it was a bit rich coming from a man who couldn’t even deliver his key election pledge!

 

So, what will you be reading over the next few weeks? Let me know in the comments!

Love in all its Forms…

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Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Happy Valentines Day, Bookworms!

Now, I know today isn’t for everyone (me included) so I’ve put together a little list of books that take a more alternative approach to love – everything from queer interest to to platonic friendships – so hopefully there’s something for everyone. Forget going on a date and snuggle up with a novel instead!

For people who think they’re too gay for all this boy-meets-girl rubbish

There is SO MUCH excellent stuff being published about queer romance at the moment. A lot of it is YA based (which is not my thing) so if you’re looking for something featuring slightly older protagonists, I’ve got a couple of recommendations. For m/m romance I love anything by Nick Alexander, especially his earlier books like Fifty Reasons to Say Goodbye. They’re funny, sweet and often eye-opening and I loved the entire series. For f/f relationships I really liked Women by Chloe Caldwell which is less romance and more breakup driven but still an excellent piece of writing. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, which I have spent the last twenty minutes trying to describe; it’s a love story, it’s a coming of age novel, it’s a terrifying and sad exploration of the intersection between faith and homosexuality, it’s hilarious and charming and warm and yet completely disturbing.

For people who think they’re too nerdily awkward for relationships

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls ed. by Hope Nicholson is a really interesting compendium of the niche loves of women who self -identify as geeks – everything from random fandoms to cosplay relationships. The content is really varied, champions the whole of the LGBTQ+ spectrum and celebrates alternative love stories in a really cool and creative way.

For people who prefer Galentines to Valentines

I love reading about female friendships and there are some fantastic books out there that represent women getting stuff done with the help of other women. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a personal favourite of mine – I love the different personality types of the the four March sisters and the fact that they’re all so different and yet they all pull together when needed. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is a more modern take on the theme (and is a cracking good mystery at the same time) and The Lido by Libby Page is a brilliant example of women from different age groups finding commonality and friendship across the generations.

…or who just want to see platonic friendships

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a fantastic book featuring neurodiverse representation, as well as a lovely platonic m/f friendship. It has some difficult themes but they’re handled really well and there’s a good dose of humour to stop things from getting too dark. If you want to read something with more of a sci-fi/fantasy feel, Skyward by Brandon Sanderson has a really strong m/f friendship at it’s core, features a number of young male and female characters but crucially contains ABSOLUTELY NO SNOGGING – hallelujah!

For people who love their pets more than anything or anyone

There’s loads of really heartwarming tales of people who love their animals – think A Cat Called Norton by Peter Gethers, A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen or Marley and Me by John Grogan. For a broader take on one woman’s love for her dog, Spectacles by Sue Perkins is an autobiography that hits every theme I’ve just mentioned above but it’s her love for her dog Pickle that really stands out. I defy anyone to read the letter that she wrote to her without bursting into uncontrollable tears.

I hope you’ve had a good Valentines Day! Do you have any suggestions for alternative takes on love/romance? Let me know in the comments!

Discussion: Rating Systems for Books

Hello Bookworms!

I recently found a super interesting post (and subsequent Twitter thread) about star ratings for books. The original post was “Rating My Books” by Martjin Hartman (@MartjinHartman) on his blog thedaybeforeyoucame.com. The post really made me think about how I apply ratings to my own book reviews and how much use they really are. I hope Martjin doesn’t mind me using his blog as inspiration but I had quite a few thoughts of my own that I wanted to share…

In the original post, Martjin asked if there was a better system than a one to five number rating. Now, I’ve seen a lot of you use different ways to rate books – everything from breaking down the book into constituent parts (characters, plot etc.) then working out an average (3.7686543 out of 5!) to using letters (B+ etc.) to ignoring star (or heart, or bananas) ratings entirely. But which way is best? FIGHT!!! Let’s discuss…

If you use a rating system, they can be arbitrary, entirely dependant on your mood at the time and can seem crass if you’re talking about a book that covers a sensitive topic (these war poems were great! Five stars!). You also have the issue of interpretation, where you might see two stars as ok-ish but others may think that you mean terrible. One way round that could be to publish a disclaimer explaining your rating system but I don’t think many people will go searching for it before reading your review. 

Not using a rating system seems like an obvious solution but I quite like having a numeric distillation of my thoughts and feelings – not least because it allows me to easily identify which books I loved/hated for end of year stats!

Now, I don’t want to get too philosophical here but I do think there’s an overarching issue with rating systems that I’ve struggled to get my head around and that’s who is this rating actually for? Obviously, I’m going to rate a book based on my experience of it but because a numerical rating can be taken so out of context it does feel I’m saying 4/5 stars – read this book! or one star – this book is awful! when actually what I’m saying is I liked/disliked this book and if you’re like me, you might enjoy/not enjoy it too. That’s an incredibly difficult idea to convey using quantitative data.

For example, my last review (The Secret Loves of Geek Girls) was really difficult to write and score. I know that I’d absolutely recommend the book to certain people because it’s a well written, fun anthology but I personally failed to connect with it. I didn’t want to put anyone off reading it by giving a low rating, but equally to score it highly would be disingenuous. What number out of five can you give to reflect that? 

The answer is…I don’t know. There are so many problems with rating systems and yet I still kind of like them. Personally, I favour the use of half stars to give a bit more variance but I do tend to stick to the 1-5 rating system (1=terrible, 2.5=average, 3=good, 5=OMG-couldn’t-put-it-down-got-completely-lost-in-it-didn’t-realise-it’s-now-2am). However, I think that slapping a number on a book without somehow showing my working out is a bit, well, arbitrary so I also include a little summary passage explaining my reasons (including whether I think this is a great for you but not for me book). 

AND THAT’S THE BEST I’VE GOT. It’s not perfect (don’t get me started on whether to round up or down half stars for NetGalley/Goodreads or what to do with books I’ve DNF’d) but it seems to work for me.

So, what rating system do you use – if you use one at all? Have you encountered any of the problems that I’ve mentioned above? Let me know in the comments!

Discussion: Are ARC’s Actually Worth It?

Potentially unpopular opinion alert….

Recently, I noticed a bit of a trend with my review ratings being higher than normal. Whereas I’m usually pretty stingy when dishing out stars (two and a half is ok, three is good, five has to be earth shattering) I found I was consistently rating books at around the four star mark and one month even had two five star reviews. Unheard of. So what was going on?

I did a bit of light digging and found that my NetGalley deadlines were pretty quiet for the months in question. Hmmm. When I looked closer, I found that I have a tendency to not enjoy NetGalley ARC’s as much as books I’d obtained from other sources (bought as new, bought second hand, borrowed from the library or a friend). That’s odd, right? 

Now, I’m not saying that I haven’t found some amazing novels on NetGalley. A quick flick through my book journal shows brilliant books like Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, The Feather Thief, Bitter and The Woman in the Window all came from there, plus many others. However, I definitely feel like there’s a tendency for me to find an ARC a bit meh. Why?

Well, I guess there’s a pretty slick PR department at NetGalley who are professionals at making books sound A-MA-ZING when in reality, they’re probably not. In my reading life, they’re the only professional source of book marketing that I engage with. The only other thing that comes close is authors or blog tour organisers who directly approach me to review their books. The thing is, a direct email is so much more personal that I’m far, far pickier about participating. I have to be almost entirely sure that I’m going to like the novel before I agree to review it because, well, how super awkward would it be to send a negative review directly to the author or the person who was counting on you for some publicity? I have almost zero qualms about sending a negative review to NetGalley though because it’s so…impersonal. I’m just a random person sending feedback via an intermediary. Nothing ever comes of it so there’s no fear. 

Apart from the marketing angle, I guess the idea of free books gives me a kid-in-a-sweet-shop mentality. I want them all! I was exactly the same when I first bought a Kindle and discovered the Top 100 Free chart. Unlimited free books from the comfort of my home! My dreams have been realised! Then I started reading them and found the quality to be…let’s say variable…trending towards the lower end of the scale (again, not knocking anyone, I’ve found some great free books over the years. They just tend to be few and far between). 

But Lucinda, you use the library! Free books! It’s the same thing, right?

Well actually, no. Firstly, the library doesn’t send you vaguely manipulative emails every five minutes telling you that only 100 people will get to read this book now or give you professional marketing literature about a book that they’ve been told to push. The most you’ll get is a “If you liked this you might like…” or an impartial recommendation. Plus you can still only have six books at a time (presumably to stop people like me with no impulse control from turning up with a wheelbarrow and emptying the shelves). The library exists as a publicly funded entity, NetGalley is a profit making PR firm. 

Major. Difference. 

But you must buy books that you don’t like?

Yes of course but since I’m not a millionaire they tend to be considered purchases. I see buying books as a treat, so I need to choose wisely. I’ll spend far more time looking at reviews, reading synopses and shopping around than I would for an ARC. I mean, I could be spending that money on gin.

So, are you going to stop using NetGalley?

Of course not, I’m not an idiot. Free books, remember?!?

Seriously, I don’t think using NetGalley is a bad idea – on the contrary, it’s a brilliant resource for book bloggers like myself. I’ve found lots of amazing novels through the site and I love it when I find out that my request to read something has been approved. I am going to be more restrained though. I’d like to spend more time on my actual, long-standing TBR instead of succumbing to the latest whim. Boringly Annoyingly As always, it seems like moderation is the key. 

What are your thoughts on sites like NetGalley? Do you find a difference in your enjoyment of ARCs vs bought/library books? Let me know in the comments!