Why read?

why read and an empty chair

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The last book I finished was Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. From the reviews, it appears Shannon’s first novel has split readers straight down the middle. You either like it or you don’t. I’m in the camp that liked it.

This post is not, however, about the book itself. It is about some of the reviews that appear on Goodreads.

One reviewer has reacted to The Bone Season so negatively and with such vehemence, I couldn’t not look at what else this person is reading. What I found has left me completely stunned. The average star rating for the last ten books read is 2.3. and there are nearly 250 books with one star ratings before you find a book with two stars. My reaction to this is disbelief and sadness.

It is clear from the titles and the genres they fit into that I would probably give them the same rating. The difference though, is that I wouldn’t keep reading them. It would seem a logical conclusion that if books of this ilk make your “skin crawl” or you “hate” the main character for their misogyny and abuse of women, or if a book is racist (here referencing the second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die) you would cease to read them. Assign them to the ‘life’s to short’ pile and go in search of something better.

This same reviewer also goes into great detail about what the author has done wrong but offers no constructive criticism about what the improvements could be. Having already noticed the pattern of negative reviews and the cheap, trashy novels with only beautiful people or strange space creatures on the cover, combined with comments about the legitimacy of whether they should be published I can only wonder why this reviewer bothers reading anything.

It also makes me wonder how much time the reader has that they are able to spend so much time reading what, clearly, makes a pleasurable past time so awful. There really is so much good writing, published and unpublished, I feel quite sad they fill their hours with what makes them miserable.

If you’re reading books that make you miserable and the only emotion you experience is anger or disgust, surely it defeats the purpose.

Now I know not every book is going to be a master piece. You only have to look at the books I have reviewed here on this blog to see examples of that but there have been moments where I have laughed out loud on the tube – moments where I have shed a tear, again on the tube and most recently, in the privacy of my own home, turned into a mascara streaked, snotty mess because of the power of Richard Flanagan’s prose. For me, these are the reactions I seek. Not the angry, throw the book in the bin over and over and over again.

Each to their own I guess.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North [Review]

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Vintage
Date of Publication: 23 September 2013
Number of Pages: 448

Rating: 5 stars

Summary:  A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

What would you do if you saw the love of your life, whom you thought dead for the last quarter of a century, walking towards you?

Richard Flanagan’s story — of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife — journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Taking its title from 17th-century haiku poet Basho’s travel journal, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is about the impossibility of love. At its heart is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds.

Review: This is the one time when you should believe the praise that streams over the cover of a book. I often ignore these quotes, confident in the knowledge that I can work out the worth and merit of a book without assistance. The Sunday Times calls The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “devastatingly beautiful” while A.C Grayling, Man Booker Prize Judge 2014 states “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize but this year a masterpiece has won it.”

Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.

[Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing, nd, 154.]

There are two magical sentence in the space of less than three pages.

Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” (1)

“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else” (3).

The imagery is brutal.

“The mortars the French had used in their attack had transformed the Australian defenders into things not human, drying dark-red meat and fly-blown viscera, streaked, smashed bone and the faces clenched back on exposed teeth, those exposed, terrible teeth Dorrigo Evans began to see in every smile” (33).

“…this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful would that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end” (63).

“The God way. Talking about God this and Got that. Fuck God, he had actually wanted to say. Fuck God for having made this world, fucked be His name, now and for fucking ever, fuck God for our lives, fuck God for not saving us, fuck God for not fucking being here and for not fucking saving the men burning on the fucking bamboo” (249).

Hellfire Pass

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden] Image available from http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/australian-prisoners-in-the-asia-pacific/thailand.php

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has given me an increased appreciation for the literature of my homeland. It has left me feeling grounded and re-connected to the country I will forever call home even though I haven’t been back for a while. The Narrow Road to the Deep North made me think of the TV series Changi and it made me think of my two great-uncles and the hell they experienced in New Guinea. The Narrow Road to the Deep North made me consider the way we learn history and how much of it is about other cultures and other wars, sometimes to the detriment of our own. Taking in a small sample of tv shows available via Sky here in the UK, one becomes aware very quickly how much research and time and money goes into producing programs about Hitler, and mega-machinary, and conspiracy theories and the role of Europe during the Great War. There is little about the Australians (and other Colonial outposts at the time) and the hell they experienced fighting for an Empire that many of us feel no allegiance to either then or now.

It might be clear from what I have written here that I was 110% invested in this book. The world outside its pages faded away I was happy to feel consumed by Flanagan’s words. This is the kind of book that makes you want to divorce every other book on your “to be read” list because it doesn’t matter how good they are, they will never be in the slightest way comparable to what you have just experienced.

There have been few books before this one where, as I read the last page, I burst into tears. I am also jealous of people who will come to read The Narrow Road to the Deep North for the first time because I cannot read it again with virginal eyes.

Issa

Sure, some people haven’t liked it and some will think it the worst thing they’ve ever read. You can’t please everyone. For me, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read.

Thank you Richard Flanagan, thank you!


[Review] The Returning Tide written by Julia Sokota

The Returning Tide - Julia Sokota

Title: The Returning Tide
Author: Julia Sokota
Publisher: Troubador Publishing Ltd, Matador
Date of Publication: 28 September 2014
Number of Pages:
Genre: Mystery & Thrillers – Literature/Fiction (adult)

Rating: 1 star

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: We all build our lives on some form of deception known only to ourselves; it is how we survive and our secrets are rarely exposed.

Claire Bentley, a wealthy and successful business woman has concealed her secrets for thirty years. Now, recently widowed, she is persuaded, against her better judgement, to join her daughter, Krystina, on a holiday in Cornwall. Soon, unforeseen events bring back the memories and terror of her last holiday in Cornwall and she is forced to confront her past.

Again, Claire flees from ‘that cursed land full of promise and desolation’. Once home, she feels compelled to write her story, while clinging to the hope that no one will ever need to read it.

Why has she hidden the truth for thirty years? And how much does Krystina know about her mother?

Review: *headdesk*

I’m sorry but this book was terrible and is a contender for most disliked book of 2015.

There is also very little I can say without spoiling it for anyone else (though I do wonder if I should). Suffice to say the dialogue is slow, old fashioned and cumbersome. Claire, the main character is an unlikeable, mean, narcissistic woman, who it seems we are supposed to like and feel sympathy for but we are given nothing to work with.

For the first part of this novel, it reads like a series of partially fleshed out dot points that don’t really give any substantial or interesting back story. The Returning Tide suffers from a case of the “nothing happens” for 80% of the text and by the time things pick up, I was no longer interested.

This book, from the blurb, sounds like it is going to be an expose of a woman’s psyche and that we will learn what it is to keep a secret for thirty years. Perhaps Sokota wanted to play this trope differently to other writers and kudos for that. However, the failure of her interpretation is almost immediately obvious. An editor should have been more forward when reviewing the early drafts and force Sokota to reconsider.

As something different, this book is certainly that. Did it work? Nope. No way. Not at all. Sorry.

August in Review

Esther Freud, Kate Morton, Jen Campbell, Laline Paull, Rachel Urquhart

August picked up the reading tally and for the most part, all five were highly enjoyable. Kate Morton and Laline Paull are two authors I will be returning to in the future.

Mr Mac and Me written by Esther Freud – 3 stars
The Forgotten Garden written by Kate Morton – 5 stars – a lot of the online reviews I’ve found for this book are quite negative. While some of the flaws they point out are accurate, for me, however, I could overlook all of these because I know Paddington, Maryborough and London. Two of these three I have lived in and the other I have visited. Morton’s descriptions made me homesick quite a few times.
The Bookshop Book written by Jen Campbell – 3 stars
The Bees written by Laline Paull – 5 stars
The Visionist written by Rachel Urquhart – 2 stars

August Average = 3.6 stars