opinions · reading life

So Many Books, So Little Time; Or, Why I Need Bad Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking about something Evelyn Goldman posted to her book blog weeks ago. In her post, “A Review of Reviews,” she writes that posting negative reviews about books makes her feel guilty. I can understand the feeling. Like Goldman, I too recognize the work that went into a book. Authors can labor for years and face countless rejections before their work is published. It seems like we book reviewers are taking potshots at their children from the safety of our position as readers. But…I like seeing negative reviews. I actually need them.

Beatrix Whistler

Being a librarian and a voracious reader besides, I need to know as much as possible about what’s being published. But because I don’t have an infinite budget (either at work or personally), I can’t afford to take a chance on duds or offensively bad books. I want books that will challenge readers (like Dream Country), entertain readers (like The Nutmeg Tree), or help them escape the mundane world (like The Night Circus).

So, I read negative book reviews. That said, I ignore reviews on Amazon, for two reasons. A lot of them are purchased, for one. For another, a lot of readers don’t know how to write a useful negative review. What I want most in a negative book review is a reader giving a clear reason why they didn’t like the book. Goldman, in her post, gave a clear reason why she didn’t like a book. The book in question triggered her. Other readers might take issue with racism, sexism, or homophobia in a book. Yet others might be bothered by poor writing, uneven pacing, lack of character development, or other writing problems. I completely ignore reviews that don’t explain why they didn’t a book—if they just say a book sucks. I also ignore negative reviews that were given purely to bully an author.

If a reviewer gives a clear reason for why they didn’t like a book, then I can make my own decision about whether or not to take up a book. I can compare the reviewers tastes to my own. As Ranganathan says, “Every book its reader.” Not every book is going to be a hit with every reader. So, if a reviewer says they are triggered by a book’s content, but I’m not, I might take a chance. I might also skip books with racism, sexism, or homophobia unless it serves a purpose in the book. If a reviewer points out multiple flaws with the writing, I want to know so that I can look for something better.

The point of all this is, I want to know if a book is not good before I waste my time. I’d much rather read books that I have a good chance of enjoying. There are too many books out there to waste my time on a bad one.

reading life

The No-Go List; Or, Titles I Love But Hardly Ever Recommend

Being a librarian, I tend to sort what I read into categories. There are the books I love and what to recommend to everyone. There the books I read that I will never re-read because they’re just kind of meh. There are, of course, the books I hated. The weirdest category is comprised of the books that I really liked but that I don’t recommend to readers because they’re too disturbing or too strange or that I worry would only appeal to a small niche of readers.

I would love for these books to be read more; they certainly deserve to be. I hope that by sharing them here, they’ll get a little bit more attention. So here it is, my no-go list:

7767021Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Because this story begins with a rape, I know that a lot of readers will have a hard time getting into it. Readers who can make it past the appalling violence of the first chapter or so will discover one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It helped launch the recent wave of Afrofuturist literature that is not only brilliantly original but also redresses the overwhelming whiteness and imbalance of the larger genre.

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond

Ruby is also very violent and, unlike Who Fears Death, it is violent throughout. There’s a reason for the violence. I read Ruby as an extended metaphor for the way black men and especially women are treated by the systemic racism of the United States. It’s an important book for what it shows readers about how racism not only literally and figuratively beats down people of color, but also gets inside their heads to make them think that they deserve it. At the risk of ruining the novel, I will say that readers will be rewarded with an ending in which Ruby Bell gloriously breaks free.

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

This book is disturbing, but only because it can be hard to follow. In this novel, a writer is confronted by his muse and taken to task for how he treats his female characters. The book dissolves into a series of stories told by either the author or the muse until I couldn’t tell which was which. I loved this book for what it had to say about the power of story. Unfortunately, I know that it will take a particular kind of reader, in a particular kind of mood, to actually enjoy the labyrinthine experience of reading Mr. Fox.

17118721HhHH, by Laurent Binet

This novel is a strange blend of creative nonfiction and autobiography, in which our narrator, Binet, agonizes about how to tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. Binet dives deep into the research rabbit hole and claws his way back out (mostly) to write this book. In every other nonfiction book I’ve read, the authors present what they found in a way they believe makes sense. Binet freely admits that he doesn’t know what that way is. He shares what he found, along with commentary about how historical information is flawed. Authors always have to leave something out—or risk writing endless tomes forever.


reading life

Gimme, Gimme; Or, I Will Read Everything This Author Publishes

Every issue of Library Journal includes pages of prepub alerts that cover dozens of authors that are wildly popular at public libraries. These and the short book reviews that follow often include notes to clue librarians in to the titles that will attract author fans. Seeing these alerts set me to thinking about how few authors I follow these days. I’m more likely to jump to read a book because it will take me somewhere I’ve never been before or because it has my literary kryptonite…with a few exceptions. There are some authors I will absolutely read, and probably buy:

Felice Casorati

Barbara Kingsolver

Even though I haven’t read everything she’s written, I get really excited whenever I see that she has a new novel coming out. I’ve been with her since The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees. I think what I love most about her books is the way she creates immersive natural settings. When I read her books, I can feel the heat and humidity, smell the trees and soil, and hear the wind in the leaves. Her writing is so lush that I sink into her books like a warm bath.

Anthony Marra

Marra has only published two novels, but I already know that I love what he does. Marra writes the kind of books about Russia that hit my sweet spot: plenty of history, deep pathos, ethical dilemmas, and sacrifice. Aside from the setting (and it is very hard to find good books set in Russia that have real emotional depth), Marra’s novels scratch my itch to read about characters who transform from ordinary people into heroes.

N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin is one of the most creative fantasy writers I’ve ever encountered. Whenever she starts a new series, I know that I’m going see a fully formed world and well-rounded, conflicted characters that have no hint of any annoying fantasy tropes. I also know that I will be challenged by innovative plots and writing. Jemisin’s books demand that I pay attention.

Christopher Moore

…because he makes me laugh really, really hard. This one is a simple choice.

Some writers used to be on my absolutely-read-and-probably-buy list—Margaret Atwood, Diana Gabaldon—until they wrote a book that made me wonder if they’ve lost their magic. I hold out hope and will keep an eye out for their names on Library Journal‘s lists and any other publication alerts, but I don’t get nearly as excited as I used to. Either they fall off the list because they’re not as original as they used to be (Gabaldon) or they write a book that I hate so much that I feel gun shy (Atwood).

There are some authors that are getting closed to absolutely-read-and-probably-buy: Kate Atkinson, Wiley Cash, Patrick deWitt, Mark Dunn, Lyndsay Faye, Jane Harris, Daryl Gregory, and Catherynne Valente. If I read another book of theirs of two and love them, they’re going on the list. It’s hard to say how many books I have to read before I make the call; I have no set number. But I do have other criteria, like originality, writerly crafts-person-ship, consistent excellence, and soul. Soul is hard to define, but I think of books with soul as books that feel alive when I read them. They have to have something true in them.

reading life · The List

Books for Bookish People: Books that Feature Authors with Secrets

Last night, I finished reading In the Distance with You, by Carla Guelfenbein (review pending) and it set me to thinking about books in which the protagonists dig up the buried secrets of authors they love. The more I think about it, the fact that I really enjoy books about people diving into authors’ lives to understand this books is odd. When I read, I deliberately try not to learn about authors’ lives or processes because I feel like a book needs to stand on its own. But that’s literary criticism and this is reading books with layers of bookishness.

If you’re looking for booky books about people who write books, here are my favorites:

40440The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This one was really popular when it came out and, every time I talk to someone who’s read it, readers gush about this disturbing Gothic tale. I’ve read this book several times and I still get sucked into the twists and turns. In this book, a biographer is summoned to the remote home of an enigmatic author. This author has told a bunch of different stories about her past as a smoke screen, but now that she’s gotten very old, she’s finally going to tell the truth.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

This thriller gets more sinister by the chapter. It blows the cover off a bunch of authors’ secrets by following a group of Finnish writers as their circle disintegrates after their mentor disappears. The plot revolves around the question of where authors get their ideas and turns it into a deliciously brutal tale.

1232The Shadow of the Windby Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This is another classic pick. It’s the first literary novel that I can remember reading that was as engrossing as genre fiction. Within chapters, I felt like I was racing around Barcelona with the protagonist as he tried to find more books by an author who seemed to vanish into thin air. The best part of this book, which is the first in a loose series, is the Cemetery of Lost books—a place so magical and full of gravitas that I wish I could be buried there when I shuffle off*.

Bonus book! 

Crossing the Lines, by Sulari Gentil

This one isn’t exactly a book about authors with secrets, but it is one of my favorite books about writers. It’s hard to tell who is the real author in this book because the two protagonists appear to be writing each other into existence. Crossing the Lines is beautifully creative and original. I wish it got more attention.

* Here’s a bad joke: old librarians don’t die, they’re just deaccessioned.

reading life

The Happily Unhappy Reader; Or, Why Don’t I Read Happy Books?

Recently, a reader said to me that she wanted to read something happy. She had just read a heavy book and wanted something lighter. I completely understand the impulse. Sometimes I need to read Terry Pratchett as a palette cleanser. But when she asked me for something happy, I blanked. I looked over all of the books that were currently on the shelves in my library’s browsing collection*, and all I could see were sad books, frightening books, and angry books. They’re all good reads…they’re just not light fare.

Victor-Gabriel Gilbert

I’ve read a lot of the books in that collection and I really liked a lot of them. After the reader asked her question, I started to question why I read so many sad, frightening, and angry books. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me. I’ve always gravitated away from books with guaranteed happy endings for some reason. Perhaps it’s because happy endings, to me, so rarely seem deserved in fiction. Maybe it’s that I’m a pessimist and find unhappy books more believable.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that it’s more than just that I find unhappy endings more plausible. I think it’s really because I feel content most of the time—content shading into happy. I hope I will never have to feel the emotions that characters feel, but I’m curious what it might be like to experience emotions on the other side of the spectrum. If a book is well written, I can feel a bit of the terror of a woman on the run from killers, like I did in Riley Sager’s Final Girls, or taste a bit of the tragedy and pride in an act of sacrifice, like at the end of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Happy books just don’t compare to the range of the sad, frightening, and angry books. The closest I can get are funny books. The problem there is that I have a really weird sense of humor…but that’s another post.

* I work at an academic library, so most of our books are for academic use and not for fun reading.

reading life

Reading Registers; Or, Bouncing Between Genres*

For several years now, my reading choices have been driven by publication dates. Most of my books come as advanced reader copies via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Consequently, I end up bopping from genre to genre, from thriller to literary fiction to oddball science fiction to historical fiction, etc., etc. The jumps mean that I am always having to recalibrate my brain not unlike I have to when I adjust my register so that I can speak like a professional after hanging around with friends.

Agnes Goodsir

It wouldn’t be fair to use the same yardstick to measure different books, even if it were possible. Apples and oranges and spaceships, after all. But swapping one yardstick for another (or switching registers) can be tough. It means changing your expectations about characterization, pacing, and themes in fairly radical ways.

When I read thrillers, science fiction, and mysteries, I can expect fast pacing and not-so-thorough character development. In these genres, the plot is the most important thing. If I read a couple of literary or historical fiction novels, I can wallow in leisurely plots and dive deeply into psychology. Jumping to one of the faster genres can seem like someone suddenly pressed the fast forward button on my reading. Then, when I switch back, I have to deliberately slow down so that I can think more about subtext or I will miss what the book is all about.

If nothing else, I get a good mental workout when I switch genres. The change up means that I have to purposefully think about what I’m reading in a way that I don’t when I get into a groove. Jumping genres means that I don’t take things for granted, even if, at times, it feels like I have mentally run over a speed bump and tripped. I’ve come to love these little moments when I pick my brain up, dust it off, and have a good look around**. I end up thinking about how genre works and how authors play around with expectations as much as I think about what happens, how the characters grow, and whether I liked the ending.

This kind of reading also means that I am less likely to fall into a rut. If I ever got bored of reading, I don’t know what I would do with myself.

* I tried so hard to think of an alliterative word, but failed.
** I have lost count of the number of similes/metaphors I’ve stuffed into this post to keep from using the same words too many times.

reading life

A Weird Fiction Thing I Like: Stories About Buildings Full of Strangers

One of my weird, bookish thrills is finding new genre-lets that delight me. My most recent discovery is that I love reading books about buildings full of people: hotels, apartment buildings, boarding schools. Something about buildings where strangers live in close proximity and their stories weave together fascinates me, especially when there’s a mystery involved. I suspect my joy in this kind of story springs from my love of serendipity and coincidence, and how such events can often make it seem like fate is taking a hand in peoples’ lives.

Sara Hayden

Here are some of my favorites in this sub-genre:

Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum

This is the first novel I can recall of this type. It tells the stories of several guests in a Berlin hotel who bump into each other and then carom off into their own adventures or tragedies. It’s like getting several novels all for the price of one.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

This bizarre mystery takes place in a remote hotel. Detective Glebsky was just looking for a place to take a holiday, but lands smack in the middle of a lot of weirdness.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

This strange novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read lately. It all takes place in the K Apartments for Ladies, where several different crimes and conspiracies get all tangled up in one another.

If any of you out there have any ideas about similar books, please let me know in the comments.