Sunday, 28 September 2014

Seeing Stars - Why I'm Scrapping the Star Ratings

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that, in my last few book reviews, something has been missing.

That's right, I'm talking about star ratings!

Remember...? they looked like this!

Now, as I think I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for reviews, and I take other people's opinions on a book very seriously when I'm considering whether or not it's going to be worth my time. Whenever I want to buy a book on Amazon, for example, I spend forever trawling through the ratings and reviews to see if it's really something I want to invest in. More often than not, there is always someone (or many someones) who slate a book for reasons that wouldn't matter to me in the slightest.

Like this...

...or even this!

Not only can star ratings turn you off books that you might really enjoy, but they can also become the only thing you take away from a book review.

It's the same when I get my uni essays back. Most of the time, the class tutor has taken the time to write thoughtful and constructive feedback which will make me write something better next time. But, inevitably, my eye always skips to the mark they've given me. That one tiny box with a number in it is all I can see. After all, the grade's the only thing that really matters, right?

Well, actually, no. The grade itself, while admittedly it's what will actually count towards my final degree marks, is just a number, and doesn't tell me anything about what exactly my essay was like. And not only that, it is also ridiculously subjective. It's common knowledge that all lecturers have different opinions on what constitutes a good mark (not to mention what constitutes a good essay!), and some are much more generous than others. Not only is this rather irritating (though inevitable), it also somewhat devalues the whole concept of using numbers as qualifiers for the standard of our work.

This is even more the case for rating books. Some people might lavish a book with five stars because it ticked all their romance boxes, or they just love all books about werewolves, while others might be particularly fussy about the writing style (me, for example), or dislike a particular genre. The way people rate books is so personal that it is really necessary to know something about the reviewer before you can properly assess their opinion on a book, which is where the star rating system falls flat.

Another reason I started to doubt the usefulness of my star ratings stemmed from my own difficulties in doling them out. When trying to rate books I would find myself trying to compare books that were just not comparable.

For example, I gave Americanah 4 stars, which was the same as I gave As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and I Capture the Castle. But those books are all totally different and each merits a unique approach, rather than all being lumped together in the same category. Similarly, I gave The Road 4.5 stars, and it's true that I did really enjoy it. But I now can't remember what made it stand out to me as deserving a higher rating than those other books. Did something about it actually stand out to me as being superior to those other books? Or was it just the mood I was in at the time? Comparisons like this are just so difficult, and when it comes down to it they probably do more harm than good.

So basically I've decided to cut them out of my reviews, for the simple reason that I don't like putting them there. Though I'll admit I'm still swayed by the star ratings on Amazon (and everywhere else for that matter!), I hope I can be more intentional in future about taking these ratings for what they are, and not seeing them as an infallible way to judge a book.

What do you think of star ratings? Do you use ratings to help you choose books? If so, how has that worked for you? What do you think of my new plan to ditch the stars for good? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Never Let Me Go

Having heard this book mentioned and recommended again and again, I had been curious about it for a long time before finally getting my hands on a copy at a bookstall at my local village fair. I had some pretty high expectations for this book, and was looking forward to a thrilling and fascinating read.

Never Let Me Go


Kazuo Ishiguro


Contemporary, dystopian

One-sentence summary:

31-year-old Kathy H. reminisces about her life in an idyllic English boarding school with her childhood friends, all the while conscious of the school's more sinister undertones and what awaits them in the wider world.


As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, I had really expected to love this book, and I'd heard positive things about the film too. So I was sorry to find that I didn't actually love it. In fact, I struggled to find much special about it at all that would merit it to be singled out above other books of the genre.

Though the idea behind the story was really interesting, the writing style just really let this book down for me. I felt like it was excessively wordy and even a little clunky at times, especially when the narrator was introducing particular reminiscence. The language just felt too repetitive and explain-y for my tastes. I imagine someone who is less selective about writing style than me wouldn't be bothered by it, but I am especially picky and like the writing in my books to really add something to the story and teach me something new about writing.

I did find the character relationships pretty realistic and interesting, especially when they were all at school. Ruth rang particularly true for me, and the subtleties of Kathy's up-and-down friendship with her definitely resonated with my own experience. I thought the relationships between characters carried some interesting insights, but a lot of things, especially when the narrator was describing her adult life, seemed a bit basic and underdeveloped to me.

Final thoughts:

Basically, I didn't hate this book. I even enjoyed a lot of it. But I think what ruined it for me was the expectation of something really spectacular, which it just didn't deliver. I guess that's probably not the book's fault, but as a more general criticism, I thought there was nothing particularly special about this book beyond the intrigue of the initial idea.

What did you think of Never Let Me Go? Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Top Ten Tuesdays: Fall (Autumn) TBR

So today's post is going to be something a little different. I've come across lots of these posts on my travels through the blogosphere, and it seems like such a fun way to add a bit of fun to your blog posts while interacting with other bloggers in a new way.

So I've decided to take part in the Top Ten Tuesdays meme, hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. (Excitement!)

I almost certainly won't be doing one of these every week, but some of the lists coming up look so much fun that I'll definitely be doing at least some!

Anyway, this week's topic is:

Top Ten Books On My Fall To-Be-Read list

(Though, of course, as I'm a Brit I would say 'autumn TBR list' instead, but hey!)

1. Wide Sargasso Sea - by Jean Rhys

2. The Catcher in the Rye - by J.D. Salinger

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being - by Milan Kundera

4. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - by Junot Diaz

5. The Joy Luck Club - by Amy Tan

6. Manalive - by G.K. Chesterton

7. The Color Purple - by Alice Walker

8. Brideshead Revisited - by Evelyn Waugh

9. Jonah's Gourd Vine - by Zora Neale Hurston

10. To Kill a Mockingbird - by Harper Lee

You can see some of those in this snap of my uni bookshelf.

Of course, I'll be insanely lucky to get anywhere near that many books before next summer since I'm also supposed to be a final year student with essays and stuff... But we'll see how we get on! I definitely want to read at least the first three, so that can be my more realistic, slightly less impossible TBR list for this 'fall' (it's autumn you guys!).

What do you think of the books I've chosen? What are the top ten books on your TBR list for this season? Do you participate in Top Ten Tuesdays? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Franny and Zooey

Having watched another brilliant clinbthestacks video about Salinger's writing, I felt it was high time I had a go at his books for myself. I intended to go for his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, first of all, but they didn't have it in my local library. In fact, they only had one of his books, which I quickly snapped up (though I had to get it out on my brother's card as being disorganised and abroad has caused me to lose mine...). The book is:

Franny and Zooey


J.D. Salinger


Literary fiction (I guess...)

One-sentence summary:

A two-part novella (it feels too short to be a full novel anyway) about a girl (Franny)'s sort of nervous breakdown and her brother (Zooey)'s interractions with her.


I'm not very happy with the summary above, because I really don't feel like it captures this book at all, but hey ho. The story is really not plot-driven, focussing almost entirely on the characters' interactions instead. I liked the way the speech was written with italics for emphasis on certain syllables, so I could practically hear the characters in my head. I thought that technique, along with the use of slang, really brought the characters' idiosyncrasies to the fore and made them feel real. I can sort of see how some people might find the characters irritating, but in the same way that some real people are annoying, and not because the characters are badly written.

The main impression I got from the writing was that it wasn't trying to be anything specific. I'm not sure how true that is, or if that's the impression everyone would get (or even if this makes any sense!). But to me it just felt like the story was not trying to fit into a specific mould or follow an existing pattern. 

Though I did enjoy the book, I still couldn't shake the feeling that there was something I didn't quite 'get' about it. This made it difficult to actually know what I thought of the book until a couple of days after I'd finished it. I suppose it just needed time to digest.

Final thoughts:

After spending the whole book feeling unsure of what I thought about it, I did end up liking the book. I was left feeling like I'd just dipped into a much bigger story, and I was glad to hear that Salinger wrote more about the Glass family. I couldn't help wanting to know more about them.

What did you think of Franny and Zooey? How did you find Salinger's writing style? Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

John Macnab

I just realised that I posted my review of One Hundred Years of Solitude with an unfinished sentence in the middle. Oops! Note to self: get better at proofreading...

This is the second and final book that I read on my family holiday to Norfolk. Unfortunately, I didn't read half as many books as I intended (though perhaps my enormous TBR pile was a tad ambitious...), and this next book actually put me in a bit of a reading slump, though at the time I was actually enjoying it. I got this book years ago as a gift (I think from my mum) but never got round to reading it at the time. Since then I've read the author's more famous work, The 39 Steps, and loved it, so I thought I'd finally give this one a go too.

John Macnab


John Buchan


Classic, sporting adventure 

One-sentence summary:

Three bored men of high social standing hatch a plan to challenge three estates in the Scottish highlands to a battle of wits, each planning to try and poach from the estates' land without getting caught, all under the name of John Macnab.


Despite what I said in the intro about this book putting me into a reading slump, I actually quite enjoyed it. It had plenty of romance, action, and Scots slang to make for an interesting read.

I liked the characters, especially Janet, who I thought was particularly intriguing (but also fun!). I found the author's portrayal of a female character in this way a little unexpected, since she clearly had elegance and beauty but also felt at home in the countryside and was more than a match for the men when it came to defending her land and her family's honour against the would-be poachers. I guess I was pleasantly surprised by such a nuanced and favourably portrayed female character in a story that could have become a simplistic boys' adventure.

Another thing that was great about the book was its use of Scots words (along with helpful endnotes explaining what they meant) which seemed to fit so perfectly with the beautiful descriptions of the highland landscapes. The author's writing style was understated but effective, and his affection for Scotland was constantly shining through. (The only drawback with my edition was that it was missing its final few pages, so most of the endnotes were lost! Lucky my mum has a Scots-English dictionary...)

Though, as I've mentioned before, there were many things I enjoyed about this book, I never found myself particularly compelled to pick it up. I would get through a few pages and get distracted or lose interest and go and do something else. Although I can't pinpoint what exactly about this book wasn't doing it for me, I can't deny that the special something that normally pushes me to keep reading just wasn't quite there this time.

Final thoughts:

All that said, I did really enjoy the story and thought it was a fun idea. I also found the characters interesting and loved the setting. However, it did feel, to me, as though it was lacking a certain something. Definitely not as good as The 39 Steps, but still worth a read.

What did you think of John Macnab? Do you agree with my review? What do you do to escape the dreaded reading slump??? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Having seen this book on a buzzfeed list of the 25 most difficult books, I had formed a certain impression of it in my head, so that when my sister recommended it to me I was a little reluctant. But she insisted that it was a wonderful book, and even lent me a copy, so I really had no excuse. I read this one while on holiday in Norfolk, and the picture below is from the North Norfolk railway.

One Hundred Years of Solitude


Gabriel Garcia Márquez


Epic, magical realism, er... Apart from that I'm not really sure. Work it out for yourself!

One-sentence summary:

The story follows many generations of the Buendía family as they encounter life and face the trials of human existence in a world that seamlessly blends magic and reality.


Let me start off by saying that I absolutely adored this book! It was quite strange and unsettling in places, and I often found myself feeling a little shaken while reading it, but all that just added to the book's power.

Throughout, the story is a strange mix of magic and reality, from the gypsies' flying carpets to the insomnia plague and the mysterious yellow butterflies. Each fragment of story is so intricately woven together and the novel is on such a large scale that it's sometimes hard to keep track of events, let alone relationships between people (the family tree in the front came in extremely handy!). But, for me, the fairly simple writing style (occasionally punctuated with flashes of an idea or insight) and the fact that the story was very event-driven rather than overly introverted and reflective meant it kept momentum and was quite easy to keep reading despite the complexity. 

Each character had their own twists and downfalls, and none were inherently likeable. That isn't a criticism though. While part of me felt like it was kind of a shame that all the characters were so flawed - they all started out with so much promise and just got more and more tarnished and broken as they got older -, this portrayal of imperfect people felt thoroughly realistic (though often the imperfections themselves were completely surreal). I loved how each character's flaws and foibles were unique, but also fell into a pattern of repetition.

In the end, the story is much bigger than the characters and their personal journeys. It explores the nature of death, time, memory, and the human existence. (Nothing too ambitious then!)

I mentioned earlier that I found some parts quite unsettling, and I think the key catalyst for those feelings was the theme of time passing. That is something that none of us can change or control, and being confronted with a story spanning six (buzzfeed says seven, but I count six...) generations really lays bare the fragility and brevity of human life in the face of time.

Final thoughts:

Basically, I just really loved this book. For me, it struck a perfect balance between the everyday and the extraordinary, the epic and the mundane. It's the kind of book that I don't know if I would recommend it to people just because I would worry that they wouldn't like it as much as I did and that would make me sad! I'm really really looking forward to reading more from this author.

What did you think of One Hundred Years of Solitude? Do you agree with my review? Have you read any other books my Marquez that you would recommend for me next? Let me know in the comments.
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