Mid Month Mini-Reviews – March

Copy of Untitled Design (3)

Hello bookworms!

Due to the success of my last post, I’m going to keep going with a few more mini-reviews. Look, I even made a graphic! I had no idea how fun these things were to write so I think they might become a monthly feature. Woo hoo! No more trying to drag out interesting comments about dull 2.5 star books.

Today, I’m focusing on clearing out some of my NetGalley backlog, Marie Kondo style. That “older than three months” tab does not spark joy.

 

Golden State by Ben H. Winters

39599913

I quite liked this book – it was proper old-fashioned science fiction along the lines of Philip K. Dick and reminded me very much of Minority Report. The story centered around Lazlo Ratesic, a citizen of the Golden State and member of the Speculative Service whose job it was to enforce the Objectively So: the criminal offense of lying. The upholding of the truth requires Lazlo’s special sixth sense combined with the constant surveillance of all Golden State citizens but absolute power corrupts absolutely and when he stumbles across previously unknown truths, his reality unravels.

I really enjoyed the Big Brother overtones within the novel and it was interesting to read from the point of view of the enforcers, not the average dissenting citizen. The world building was great, very cohesive for such a bold idea and held together well. I enjoyed the questions that the book raised around morality – is it possible to be completely honest all of the time? Is freedom always such a good thing or should we appreciate the use of CCTV etc. as a protectionist measure? However, as the book went on it became a bit absurd, then a lot absurd, then descended into an ending that came so far out of left field that it could have belonged to another novel entirely. Still, I enjoyed the majority of the book very much so I gave it:

Three and a half “is honesty always the best policy?” out of five.

 

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

25766717

I have to say that I really, really tried with this book but unfortunately I had to DNF it at 60% (see, I told you I gave it a good go). It’s well written but, frankly, dull. Cass is  a singer-songwriter re-launching her career after years of shying away from the public and the book flips between her life now and her back story. I initially enjoyed reading about Cass’ early life and relationship with her family but as the book progressed I felt like the action was sorely missing. Cass has a horrible relationship with her jealous boyfriend (another member of the band) but this point is so laboured and the endless chapters about yet another gig, yet another argument, yet another London flat were so repetitive and dull that I lost interest.

I feel like there’s a good story within the novel but to stretch it out over 400 pages was too much for me. When my Kindle estimated that it would still take over three hours for me to finish I made the decision that life was too short and gave up on it.

Two “MY GOD WHEN WILL IT END” out of five.

 

Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

40381501

This book is a collection of personal essays focusing on a number of taboo subjects – the alcohol addiction of Emilie Pine’s father, her own problems with fertility, the loss of children, of miscarriage, of regret and death and guilt. Whilst the book is brutally honest, it’s just… a lot. That doesn’t make it bad exactly but it does make it a difficult read. Everything is laid bare in quite a matter-of-fact way and whilst I was glad that Pine never wallowed in self-pity it was the lack of personal reflection that left me feeling a little cold. I struggled to get a handle on who she was and her lack of empathy for others or consideration of the wider issues that impacted upon her life meant that in turn I struggled to empathise with her.

Whilst I wouldn’t say that this book was enjoyable, it was a powerful read containing beautifully written prose. I appreciated the honesty of the author in tackling such difficult subjects but I struggled to connect emotionally.

Three “check your privilege” out of five

 

So, have you read any of these books? Is 60% a ridiculously long way into a book before DNFing it? Let me know in the comments!

 

Advertisements

Review: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J Harris

 

Genre: Adult fiction, Mystery

Similar to: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of quirky characters who don’t mind repetition

Publication date: 27th December 2018

 

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge #13 Read a book by or about someone who identifies as neurodiverse

Jasper is a teenage boy being brought up by his Dad after the death of his Mum some years ago. He’s autistic and also has face blindness (literally doesn’t recognise anyone’s face, only their clothing/jewellery etc.) and synaesthesia (sees colours and patterns when he hears sounds i.e. a barking dog looks like it’s surrounded by yellow french fries). When free spirited Bee Larkham moves into Jasper’s street and starts playing loud “alien” music, disrupting the peace and causing Jasper to see shiny silver shapes, he’s intrigued. When he meets her and finds out that her “colour” is a rare shade of blue (just like his Mum’s) he’s excited. And when he talks to her about his beloved wild parakeets that nest in her tree and she actively encourages them, Jasper thinks he’s made a new best friend. So why is Bee Larkham missing, and why does Jasper think that he’s killed her?

As you can probably already tell, this is a highly original book. Jasper is a great, multi-dimensional character  – an unreliable narrator whose innocent view of the world puts a very different spin on the main narrative. On the other hand, Bee Larkham is a horrible, manipulative individual. She had a terrible childhood and I’d guess that she was mentally ill but she’s literally a paedophile. A lot of people seem to have glossed over this (perhaps because a woman having sex with an underage boy is somehow seen as not as bad as a man having sex with an underage girl?) but as far as I’m concerned abuse is abuse – and there’s a lot of it in the book. However, because of Jasper’s narration, it’s all wrapped up in a kind of cozy, childlike innocence that takes away from some of the horror – but works brilliantly to amplify it when something bad happens to him.

The main plot of the book is fairly straightforward, but with Jasper narrating the action you have to very carefully read between the lines to see what’s really going on. His inability to recognise faces (even those of his parent’s) adds another layer of complexity, although this makes the story somewhat hard to follow in places and the repetition of endless descriptions of colours did get a bit tedious. I also thought that the plot could have been a bit tighter – to me, the book felt overly long and there were some slack parts during the middle chapters where nothing really happened.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the light and shade within the novel – the overall tone was lighthearted and amusing despite the dark subject matter. Jasper was totally naive to the situation going on around him but there was just enough information for the reader to be able to guess at what was really happening. There were a few red herrings thrown in for good measure too, which kept me on my toes and meant that I didn’t even begin to guess at what the final conclusion might be.

Overall, I liked The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder for it’s charm, complexity and uniqueness but there were times when the writing got a bit tedious and I disengaged from the storyline. I liked the neurodiverse representation and felt that this really added to the intrigue but the novel felt overly long and I sometimes found it hard to follow who was who. It’s a shame because this could have been an absolutely brilliant read – it’s certainly a great idea – but unfortunately the author didn’t quite pull it off.

 

Three and a half “don’t eat that pie!”s out of five.

Quirky, funny but oh-so repetitive and slow in parts.

A good – but sadly not great – read.  

 


Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

 

Genre: Literary fiction

Similar to: A slower version of The Essex Serpent

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of literary fiction who don’t mind a dash of magical realism

Publication date: 17th January 2018

 

This is an awkward post to write. Initially, I LOVED Once Upon A River – like, sent out a tweet that the author liked about how much I was enjoying it – but once I got into the book…well… I got a little bogged down.

Let me explain…

It’s midwinter in England, in the old Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames. Stories are being told by candlelight by the village locals. Suddenly, a man bursts through the doors, heavily beaten and holding what appears to be a doll. But when the villagers try to help him, they realise that he’s holding the body of a drowned girl. They lay her to rest in a room on her own but hours later – a miracle! – she stirs and seems to come back to life. So starts a tale of intrigue, deception and magic, heavily laden with folklore.

So far so good.

But when the entire book is based around who is the girl  in an age when no-one could tell for sure, I felt like I was literally getting caught in the weeds.

Luckily, Once Upon A River is beautifully, magically written. The prose is lyrical, flowing, well… like a river. However, it also meanders about, with a huge cast of characters forming a number of slower moving tributaries that feed into the main narrative flow. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me but it took a while to understand. It also made the pace of the book s-l-o-w… really slow. Occasionally, the storyline was so stagnant I thought we’d veered off course into an oxbow lake. The gorgeous writing just about managed to pull me through the silt though.

The book is also incredibly atmospheric. I could literally see the characters (there’s pages and pages of descriptive text) even though they’re numerous and somewhat similar. Combined with the writing style this made the novel far more engaging but after a while, instead of gliding effortlessly through the prose I felt like I was drowning in it. I got somewhat swamped by the side stories and exhausted by the sense that I was treading water, waiting for the next thing to happen.

Oddly, the narrative picked up pace towards the end – to the point of feeling a little rushed – which I found quite jarring. I didn’t fully understand the ending (I sensed some kind of moral message but couldn’t quite decipher it) although I appreciated how the author tied all of the narrative threads together. I hated the idea that getting married and having a baby would make everything better though.

Overall, this was a very difficult book to review. I can completely see why some people (a lot of people) have given it five stars – it’s an easy book to immerse yourself in. However, I struggled with the slow pace and the lack of action. Whilst I quite enjoyed reading Once Upon A River, I didn’t love it – but I’m sure plenty of other people will.

Three “the words LITERALLY washed over me”s out of five.

Beautifully written and highly original but a little slow for my taste.

 

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

Review: The Map of Us by Jules Preston

39320656

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Could be enjoyed by: Quirky fiction lovers

Publication date: 4th May 2018

In keeping with my highly focused and organised lifestyle, I’ve FINALLY got round to reading and reviewing The Map of Us which I requested one whole year ago on Netgalley. Better late than never!

You see, the reason that I delayed…and delayed…and delayed reading the book was that I simply had no idea why I requested it. I think I got sucked in by all of the “next Eleanor Oliphant” hype but in reality it’s nothing like that.

The Map of Us is a complicated story of one family across the generations. There’s Violet, physically disabled and seemingly disowned by her family, growing up at a time when that kind of treatment was somewhat socially acceptable; Tilly, her granddaughter who likes statistics, analyses her relationships with quantitative data and creates a Compatibility Index to prove where her and her ex went wrong; her father who is a professional sand sculptor; her sister who is addicted to buying designer handbags she can’t afford and her brother who is leading world authority on the colour blue. There’s also a whole host of other odd people who crop up along the way, adding to the narrative of the numerous main characters. And – hahaha – they’re all super quirky too! Hahahaha…ha. Oh.

To me, it felt like the characters were all a bit, well, weird purely for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love an oddball but when literally everyone in the book has their own thing going on that is nothing whatsoever to do with the main narrative then it gets a bit tedious. It’s even harder when the novel is character driven and the plot is wafer thin. For example, Tilly’s Dad refuses to sculpt dolphins, even though they always win the competitions that he enters. Fine – that’s a nicely observed bit of humour but the point was repeated so many times it felt utterly laboured.

My other issue was with the structure of the book. The chapters are written from a first person perspective but it takes a while for you to work out who is actually speaking and that there’s more than one narrator. This stops being a problem once you’ve got to know the family a bit – the chapters are short so it doesn’t take too long – but it is quite hard to get into at first. I don’t know why you’d deliberately make it awkward for the reader?

Overall, I think my main issue was that I just couldn’t engage with the characters and as such, wasn’t really bothered about what happened to them. The book was described as being charming and quirky and I can see why but for me it needed more action and a stronger narrative thread. I didn’t hate the book – it was a nice enough read but unfortunately I got bored with it all.

Two and a half “Oh, do grow up”s out of five.

Cute and quirky but kinda dull. Not for me!

 

—————————————————————————————————————————————–


Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

 

Review: Of Women by Shami Chakrabarti

Genre: Non-fiction, feminist literature

Similar to: A Good Time to be a Girl

Could be enjoyed by: People looking for a broad overview of feminist issues

Publication date: 26th October 2017 

*puffs out cheeks, blows out through pursed lips* 

Yeah.

This book was so close to being a DNF multiple times but I was just about interested enough to keep going. 

JUST.

Of Women in the 21st Century (to give it it’s full title) is a series of essay-like chapters regarding the treatment of women in various different areas of life (education, faith, healthcare etc.) highlighting the myriad of injustices that they face. Light bedtime reading it ain’t.

As the description suggests, the book is, well…it’s pretty depressing. There are SO MANY issues facing women and Shami Chakrabarti has detailed them all, with credible stats and references, eleventy billion times throughout the text. My main takeaway is that women are basically f*cked.

And that’s my problem, because I’m generally a positive little sunflower and I like to think that the world is ever so slowly changing for the better. I know that all these problems exist but there are lots of people working very hard to tackle them. It would have been great if they had got a mention – or if Chakrabarti has proposed her own solutions in a more concrete fashion.

I’m not knocking the inclusion of facts and figures in the book – far from it, Of Women is impeccably researched – but that doesn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience. The endless stats became meaningless when read as large chunks of text and the whole thing felt highly impersonal. I didn’t disagree with anything that she said but I wasn’t fired up by her arguments either.

I also felt that the book was highly, highly biased. There was no interrogation of the data presented and no consideration for any counter-arguments. I also got the impression (even though it’s not overtly stated) that it’s those bloody Conservatives who have caused/failed to solve some of the problems detailed – remembering of course that Chakrabarti is a Labour Party politician. Again, I didn’t necessarily disagree with what she was saying but it was all very one sided.

However, there were some parts of the book that were genuinely enjoyable. In particular, the section on faith was really interesting and well researched. I think this area is often overlooked in feminist discussions so it felt like Chakrabarti was bringing something new to the table, instead of summarising the main points of old ground.

Overall, I felt like the book was a fantastic overview, a starting point, an introduction to some of these issues but the tone of the piece was so dry and heavygoing that I could only really recommend it as a reference book for the basics of gender studies.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

A good overview of the main issues facing women but written in such a dry, uninspiring fashion that what should be a hard-hitting account became meaningless.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

Review: The Cows by Dawn O’Porter


“Don’t follow the herd”

Genre: Fiction *refuses to say chick lit*

Similar to: Marian Keyes? (she says having never read any Marian Keyes)

Could be enjoyed by: People who think feminism is the Spice Girls shouting “Girl Power!”

Publication date: 6th April 2017

I really like Dawn O’Porter so I was expecting great things from her novel The Cows, but oh my goodness what a letdown. The characters were horrible, the scenarios they found themselves in were utterly ridiculous, no research had been done and the sentences all went on and on, forever, like this, with far too many, commas. Urgh.

The Cows is the story of three women: Camilla, a blogger; Tara, a TV producer of investigative documentaries and Stella, a PA. Now, the whole premise of the book is that women shouldn’t be defined by whether they have kids or not. We’re far more complicated and nuanced than that. OK? Because what you also need to know is that:

Camilla is option A: Does not want kids. 

Tara is option B: Has kids.

Stella is option C: Doesn’t have kids but wants them.

These choices define absolutely every action that the characters take. The entire book is about the very thing it purports to be against.

AARGH!

The book tries to be funny, irreverent and lighthearted so features all of the usual tropes: death, living with the BRCA gene, the desperation of wanting a baby before it’s too late, mental health issues, abortion, isolation…what? You don’t think these themes are funny? That’s probably because they’re not. At all. You’d need to be a fairly skilled writer to include any of them in a humorous novel without being eye-strainingly jarring. And after reading The Cows – I have eye strain.

There’s a lot that I could rant about but I’ll give you a little example of how farfetched this book is. Camilla the blogger has eleventy billion followers that she found by printing off flyers and posting them to her neighbours. She blogs every day by thinking “hmmmmm” then brain dumps whatever’s on her mind, uploads it to her site then swanks off for some casual sex with her twentysomething hunk boyfriend. Approx. time blogging: half an hour. This makes her a millionaire. 

I laughed SO HARD.

The characters are all basically horrible people. Camilla -no-kids writes awful blog posts about not wanting children, shaming those who do because she had to be “controversial” (at one point she sees her sister (three kids) naked and describes in detail how the little darlings have ravaged her body, leaving her sounding like an incontinent old crone). Tara-one-kid gets caught masturbating on the tube (don’t ask – also an empty tube in central London on a Friday night – as if) and goes into woe-is-me meltdown, losing her job and being publicly shamed because she’s a woman (which, while I understand the double standard around sex for men and women, I actually think worked in her favour since she wasn’t arrested for public indecency). And Stella-wants-kids is a woman losing her grip on reality, facing her own terrifying demons, dealing with the death of both her Mum and twin sister plus the knowledge that she carries the BRCA gene. So she tries to seduce her boss purely so she can get pregnant by telling him she has cancer and hoping for a calculated sympathy shag. I don’t even know what to say about that if I’m honest. 

It was this sheer lack of subtlety in the writing which astounded me. When one of the characters makes a dubious moral choice (has a baby without telling the father), Dawn O’Porter clearly thought “I’d better clear this mess up!” so *spoiler alert* has her find him (takes five minutes of tracking down, how fortuitous), tells him but then “from the look in his eyes she could tell he wasn’t interested and she’d made the right choice in not saying anything”. Erm sorry but that’s bullshit. He might need, oooh I don’t know…ten minutes to absorb the information that he has an eight year old with a woman he can’t remember? 

In the end, I was thoroughly bored of this book. I give it plus points for showing a bit of female solidarity and a couple of chapters of female friendship but overall I found it jarring, clumsy and horribly stereotypical. Lots of people seem to think it’s hilarious but it really wasn’t for me. 

Rating: Two “don’t follow the herd who are reading this book” out of five.

Please note that I read this book for free via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks NetGalley!

Review: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

“Claim the Stars”

Genre: Sci-fi, YA

Similar to: Illuminae, Top Gun, Star Wars (ish)

Could be enjoyed by: Nerds 😉

Publication date: 6th November 2018

Brandon Sanderson has always been one of those authors that I’ve put into my mental “must read” category – and then never got round to. He’s one of my friend’s favourite authors so I’ve literally been meaning to read the Mistborn Trilogy for years – it sits there on my Kindle shelf looking at me accusingly – but for some reason I’ve always passed it by. So, I was super duper excited to be approved for his latest novel, Skyward, on NetGalley because I thought the addition on a deadline would FINALLY spur me on.

My initial reaction after reading the book is WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG??? Skyward is excellent. I mean really, really good. It made me laugh out loud, it made me cry (something I always say books never make me do, although I’ve written that three times in the past few months) and it made me feel like an idiot for not picking up Mistborn when my friend (and about thirty bloggers) told me to. Sorry guys!

Skyward is the story of Spensa who lives on the planet Detritus, which, as the name suggests, is a junk planet abandoned by it’s previous inhabitants. She was born there to a family who were crew members on a fleet of spacecraft that crash landed on Detritus following a battle with their enemies, the Krell aliens. The survivors created a subterranean world for themselves but faced aeriel attacks from the Krell. They began building spaceships to fight back and as the daughter of a previously disgraced pilot, all that Spensa wants is to sign up to fight. Those in charge, however, have other ideas.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was just the way that it was written. As someone who often takes a little while to settle in to a book (as you can tell from the number of dashes and brackets in my reviews, my internal monologue never shuts up) I read the first fifteen pages without even realising. The novel zooms along with it’s overburners on fire, excitement and adventure on every page. I loved how the answers to my questions were slowly revealed, without any boring info-dumps or obviously fortuitous events. The narrative flowed seamlessly, even through the technical details of how to fly a spaceship. I was hooked from the first sentence to the last.

I loved how all of the characters were depicted in the book, with complex personalities and hidden motivations. Each of them had good and bad traits that often led to errors of judgement or bad behaviour, especially as they were all acting in a highly pressurised environment. I really enjoyed seeing how the characters interacted with each other; arguing, vying for position and using petty insults to cover up the fact that they were all just scared. Psychologically, it was really interesting to see how they used their own quirks to figure each other out and how their diversity eventually became a strength *suppresses urge to spout boring group development theory*.

Unusually for a sci-fi novel (especially one written by a man) the book is pretty female centric and I loved that the female representation was just…there. There was no political point, no-one in the story told Spensa she couldn’t be a pilot because she was a girl – indeed, the head of the defensive federation is a woman and the pilots seemed to be a 50/50 mix of men and women. The book could do easily have gone down the Handmaid’s Tale route, forcing women to keep popping out babies in order to ensure the survival of a small population against a vast number of enemies but Sanderson clearly chose to make Spensa his rebellious MC for reasons other than her gender. I personally found this a refreshing change (and I say that as a feminist – I just think that trope has been done too many times).

I also really, really loved the fact that there was no bloody romance taking up space in the life of a girl who simply wanted to kill space aliens and avenge the death of her father. It was soooo great not to have to deal with cringey teenage attempts at flirting, although I suspect there might be some of that coming in the next instalment *sigh*. 

I loved how the ending to the novel was so difficult to guess and although I had some idea, it was still a surprise. I’ll try not to give too much away but a certain character reminded me very much of AIDAN from Illuminae so I was kept in my toes wondering if he was a reliable narrator or not – and what bearing that would have on the rest of the story. 

Overall, I loved Skyward from the first sentence to the last. Some parts should have been boring (protracted battle flights filled with technical detail, endless comments about mushrooms) yet somehow Sanderson absolutely chuffing nailed it. 

Rating: 🌟Five “no YOU’RE crying at a talking plane” out of five.🌟

A fearless main character, a seamless narrative and an unexpected ending made Skyward a fantastic read from start to finish.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

Review: Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay

“Dispatches from rape culture”

Genre: Non-fiction, Anthology

Similar to: Nasty Women, Misogynation by Laura Bates

Could be enjoyed by: Enjoy is not the right word AT ALL but this book is so so important it should be read by everyone.

Publication date: 1st November 2018

Wow. This book is like a gut-punch to your emotions. It’s incredibly powerful, often difficult to read but ultimately incredibly important.

Not That Bad is an anthology of #ownvoices stories about rape, assault and harassment. It’s intersectional, featuring people from many different backgrounds (including men and some “household names” that I’d never heard of, but whatever. Not important. The stories are universal). It features a really broad spectrum of experiences (often in quite graphic detail) but also mixes in everyday harassment stories and casual misogyny -and it’s that that makes the book so relatable. It really illustrates how behaviour that we think of as being low-level (or even acceptable) is really the thin end of a wedge that goes from wolf whistles to rape. 

The book focuses on a lot of the issues that rarely gets discussed – coercion, manipulation and abuses of power all feature. It totally breaks down the myth that rape solely consists of a man dragging you into the bushes when you’re walking home at night and the idea that if you didn’t categorically and loudly say the word no then how could anyone reasonably think that you weren’t gagging for it? I really appreciated how the more grey areas of sexual assault were explored and the bravery of the contributors who said “this is what happened and I don’t know if it was rape but I know it was bad”. 

At many times I felt like throwing this book at a wall (if it had been a paperback I would have – you don’t get that excitement with e-ARCs). Weirdly, what got to me the most wasn’t the experiences of the victims but the responses of the people that they told. The title of the book itself refers to how experiences of sexual assault are downplayed – at least you weren’t killed, at least it happened when you were old enough to deal with it, at least he didn’t hurt you, at least you’re ok now. It’s not that bad. That sentiment seemed to be echoed over and over again. Urgh.

What amazed me was the stories about the perpetrators who didn’t feel like they’d done anything wrong. Obviously all of the stories are shocking but the very idea that someone could rape/assault a woman and genuinely not know was mind blowing. The guy who wrote the “sweet” story of hooking up with his girlfriend by carrying her semi-conscious body to the beach to have sex with her was so wrong on so many levels and genuinely made me feel sick. How did we get to a point where young people could think that situation could be construed as romantic?

I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to read this book but I’d highly recommend doing it in small bites. There’s just…a lot. A lot to process. A lot to get mad about. A lot to make you cry. Also, please think carefully about whether the book is going to be triggering for you. It’s pretty graphic and covers a wide range of experiences so do be careful with your mental health. 

Rating: Four and a half “at least you weren’t killed” out of five .

Powerful, upsetting but so, so important. Huge love and respect for everyone that contributed. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #22 Read an essay anthology.

 

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!

Review: The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed

Genre: Memoir, Adult Non-Fiction

Similar to: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (minus the humour)

Could be enjoyed by: People interested in a personal experience of immigration, racism and “Britishness”

Publication date: 18th October 2018

You might recognise the name of the author – Kamal Ahmed is the BBC’s Chief Economics Editor. From what I’ve seen of him on TV, he appears to be a nice, polite, slightly nerdy guy who talks a lot about facts and figures…and that’s kind of my problem with his book, The Life and Times of a Very British Man. It’s a well researched, coherent discussion of race, culture and immigration in the 20th and 21st Century but it’s all a bit, well, nice. Everything is written about in a very fair and balanced way (even if some of the statements are pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking) and whilst that makes for some interesting soundbites or perhaps a good newspaper article, reading an entire book which seems to be centred around the idea that racism=bad (and here’s some facts to back it up) can be a tiny bit dull. Like, we know that already. Give me more personal interest.

To be fair, Ahmed does interweave his personal experiences of growing up in 1970’s Britain as the mixed race child of a white British mother and a black Sudanese father but I struggled to connect to his annecdotes. I have a real issue with writers who describe their lives in a very matter of fact way because I find it hard to empathise with them and I personally found the slightly detached writing style didn’t engage me. It didn’t help that facts and figures were so freely sprinkled throughout the text, like a final year student trying to shoehorn in a load of references to their dissertation. I found that the overall effect was one of polite discomfort – a dispassionate cry of “something should be done about this!” but what was lacking was any kind of passion. I wanted more anger, more drama, more discussion of real world implications. Not another statistic from an ONS survey.

There were however some parts of the book that were really gripping. There was a dissection of the Enoch Powell “Rivers of Blood” speech that was very well written and super informative. I’d never even considered the content of the speech before (I literally knew those three words) and it was fascinating to look at the wider political climate at the time it was written and the implications on the rhetoric of politicians today surrounding the issue of immigration. I was also fascinated to read about Ahmed’s trip to Sudan and his feelings about the idea of “going home” to a country that was as alien to him as any tourist. Naively, I expected him to feel some kind of connection to the land, then I realised what a ridiculous notion this is -and started wondering what had informed that view…

Overall, The Life and Times of a Very British Man simply wasn’t for me. It’s well written, well researched and forms a cohesive argument but I struggled to engage with the author. Ironically, if he’d been a bit less British-stiff-upper-lip about the whole thing I perhaps would have enjoyed it more. 

Rating: Two and a half “is that the bloke off the telly?” out of five.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley!