Reacting to one-star reviews of books I love

Reacting to One-Star Reviews of Books I Love

I can’t remember where I first saw it (if you’re the creator, let me know!) but I love the idea of this book tag. Disclaimer that everyone is entitled to their own bookish thoughts and feelings and just because they’re wrong about these books, doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. 😉

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Okay, most of the scathing reviews of GWO took umbrage with the lack of punctuation. Which I get – I do! When I recommend this book to people, I always warn them about this particular style quirk. I know that it’s a personal preference thing (which I personally liked, once I got used to it).

But how can this reviewer call the characters uninteresting? We literally have socialist anarchist artists living in squats in London in the 80s, which may be many things, but it certainly isn’t boring. That’s just one example amidst a huge cast of characters that span genders, sexualities, backgrounds and time frames.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I confess I did laugh out loud at: ‘If chapter 14 is an example of how Brits flirt, I can’t believe their whole race isn’t already extinct.’ Then I went back and read chapter 14, and laughed again to see Rochester’s line ‘does my forehead not please you?’

I think this reviewer needs a bit of a history lesson, though. This is stuffy and staid Victorian times, and this chapter 14 dialogue is about as risqué as you’re going to get.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

– favourite line from Jane Eyre

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Did I read the same book as this reviewer? I am left scratching my head, wondering if I somehow missed a fifty shades esque romp couched in the language of a multi-generational family epic of love and loss in 20th century Korea.

The reviewer actually makes a fair point about getting attached to characters you then don’t see again, as the narrative jumps forward to the next generation. I don’t disagree that that was mildly dissatisfying at points. BUT – that is the only part of this review that is sensical to me.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This did elicit a wry chuckle, perhaps ELaIC is pretentious – honestly, that’s never something that’s bothered me very much in and of itself, so I am the right market for this book.

I enjoyed how the scathing takedown of the book in paragraph two actually describes what I loved about the book – the charming wistfulness, the innovative prose, the playing around with traditional form.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I just want to preface this by saying I am no Sally Rooney stan. I enjoyed Normal People, didn’t love Conversations with Friends, so was intrigued by the hype around BWWAY but didn’t go into it with any real expectations.

But I do think it’s fascinating that she invokes such strong emotions in people. There is some real vitriol in the negative reviews for BWWAY. But I picked this one as I don’t actually disagree with it being self-indulgent, essentially plotless, with pretentious characters. I guess this is just a matter of to what to degree you enjoy and/or tolerate such literary tropes.

(P.S. – finishing out of spite is funny, though.)

10 books with disembodied female faces on the cover

If you hadn’t noticed, the publishing industry has got a bit of a thing for this.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt is books with —– on the cover. I surveyed my Goodreads shelves and it was very obvious that there is a trend at play – disembodied female faces in various states of artiness.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Hysteria by Jessica Gross

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Real World by Natsuo Kirino

I could go on, but I’ll stop at 10. Are there any other covers in this category that spring to mind?

The other passenger - louise candlish - book review

Privilege, envy, twists & turns in The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish ★★★½

If you were able to commute by riverboat, wouldn’t you? Gliding along the Thames with the wind whipping your hair, instead of crammed onto an airless tube hundreds of feet underground? It certainly sounds like the appealing option for Jamie, whose panic attack on the underground was a viral sensation, for want of a better word.

He’s not alone in his riverboat commute. Kit, a twentysomething who works in insurance, joins him on the regular. Along with two others, they form a little group calling themselves the water rats.

Jamie and Kit begin an unlikely friendship. Jamie is in his late forties and lives with his partner, Clare. He left the corporate rat race after he could no longer face the suffocating enclaves of the tube, and now works at a café. Clare, a successful estate agent, laments his lack of ambition but remains with him, the long-suffering girlfriend.

Kit’s girlfriend, Melia, has just begun working with Clare. She’s extremely attractive, a fact that Jamie, predictably, can’t help but notice. But Kit and Melia, once aspiring actors, are up to their eyebrows in debt, and are green with envy at Jamie and Clare’s beautiful Georgian house (owned, of course, by Clare’s parents).

‘We were accustomed to the house being an object of envy, even among our peers. Prospect Square, a five-minute walk from the Thames, is an intact Georgian conservation area sometimes used in the filming of period dramas… We were fortunate by anyone’s standards and every so often the realization would take possession of me: I’ve got it made here. I’m #Blessed.’

Despite Jamie being hashtag blessed, he can’t help but jeopardise everything for himself. He’s a pretty deficient in the charisma department right from the start – a compulsive liar who laments ‘woke’ culture and clearly doesn’t know a good thing when it’s staring him in the face. We have some sympathy for him – his claustrophobia is undoubtedly life-limiting and serious – but those reserves quickly run out when he gets himself in a very sticky situation indeed. Because the book begins with him disembarking the boat one December morning with two detectives waiting for him, wanting to question him over the disappearance of Kit. The last time they were seen together, they’d been fighting.

This was a smartly-written and plotted thriller – Louise Candlish’s voice is sharp and distinctive – a pleasure to get lost in. I had some ideas about where the plot was going, but the twists and turns still kept me hooked. I enjoy a dollop of social commentary with my thrillers, and Louise Candlish delivered, as she interrogates the generational divide and how privilege and financial freedom – or otherwise – shape our lives. I’ve knocked off some stars for the pacing – a solid start and punchy end were hampered by a dragging plot in the middle when we don’t know what’s happened to Kit and things meander slightly. But it’s still a deliciously absorbing read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Other books by Louise Candlish…

The No-Show by Beth O'Leary - published today

Happy Publication Day | The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Happy publication day to The No-Show by Beth O’Leary!

I’m a big Beth O’Leary fan, and her latest book is no exception. Three women are all stood up by the same enigmtic Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day – and over the course of the novel, we begin to understand why. The characters are a fully fleshed-out and authentic cast, and although there are some darker turns that the story takes, it’s told with O’Leary’s trademark warmth and compassion.

how high we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Book review: ‘How High We Go In The Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu – dazzling, devastating stories from a plague-ridden world ★★★★

I had to take a break from plague books in early 2020. But here I am again.

Scientists studying the melting arctic tundra unwittingly release a deadly plague, buried in the ancient remains of a young girl. Soon, the world is ensconced in a new, deadly virus – a world that we learn about through fragmented (but interconnected) narratives that take us up from that fateful year of 2030 to hundreds of years into the future.

‘It’s hard to ignore the Earth when it slowly destabilizes beneath you as you sleep, when it unlocks secrets you never asked for or wanted.’

It sounds relentlessly bleak, and even more so when I tell you that the primary victims of the ‘first wave’ of this virus are children. In response to the mounting, unimaginable death toll, cities build ‘euthanasia parks’, designed as ways of enabling dying children to have one last day of fun before slowly being put to sleep mid-air on a rollercoaster. It’s a harrowing image, but a compassionate one: in the face of global tragedy, we find new ways to grieve and process death. It’s told with bucket loads of empathy, forging human connections between the reader and the characters even as we only know them in short vignettes.

The novel explores how we are changed by loss and also the grimly inevitable industry of death that springs up around it, a late capitalist enterprise for the plague age. In this universe, you can store memories of loved ones inside the plastic carcass of a robot dog; book a room in an ‘elegy hotel’ where you can spend time with the corpse of your friend or family member; pay to have your remains liquefied into a sculpture and set out on the ocean to dissolve. Melancholy is everywhere you turn in this book.

‘… something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye. Cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a “natural” getaway with your recently departed. I remember Mr. Fang reminding us upon hire to always exude customer service, to never upset the guests, to remember that we were a hotel first and foremost, a funeral home second.’

It’s literary/science/speculative fiction, but transcends parameters of genre in many ways. I found it to be deeply imaginative, illuminating and original, and particularly liked the fresh perspective that came from almost all the characters being Japanese or Japanese-American.

Although it is a novel, the short story structure means it inevitably falls into short story pitfalls – some are much better than others. I preferred the human, grounded stories to the high-concept science-fiction takes, but that might just be personal preference. Even when things do get high-concept, Nagamatsu retains the human element – parents and children, siblings, lovers, friends – these intimate relationships are at the heart of the stories. There’s an attempt at the end to circle back in a cosmic origin story, that I didn’t find altogether successful – but can see that it was included in an attempt to bring some world order and connection to the narrative.

Finally, I think it’s important to talk about hope. There is hope in this novel – it may be bittersweet, or fleeting, but it is there – there are ways to rebuild in the wake of tragedy. Human connection remains the glue that holds together a fractured world.

‘We need a party to break the silence, to begin to heal. Had she lived, I know there would have been one every week—parties to forget, parties to remember, parties to dance the night away. She would have declared that the postapocalypse doesn’t mean we stop dancing.’

Books similar to How High We Go In The Dark

The Heights by Louise Candlish book review

Happy Publication Day | The Heights by Louise Candlish

Happy publication day to The Heights by Louise Candlish!

If you’re in the mood for a slow-burn thriller, get this on your TBR. Ellen Saint isn’t thrilled about her golden boy Lucas’s new friend, Kieran. Convinced he’s leading him astray, her worst suspicions are confirmed, and her hatred of Kieran turns into a full-blown, and dangerous, obsession. It’s gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

reputation by sarah vaughan - book review

Book review: In ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan, a female politician risks losing everything ★★★★

Emma Webster is an MP – a politician who has risen through the ranks and worked bloody hard to get there. She’s no stranger to violent misogynistic attacks, particularly given her work in campaigning for so-called “women’s issues”, most recently the sentencing for revenge porn. But because she’s a woman in the public eye, she’s considered ‘fair game.’ Hateful tirades can be sent via Twitter, text, or post – but as long as there is no explicit threat, there’s nothing the police can do.

In her life, the constant threat of (male) violence is normalized. She keeps bottles of water on the desk at meetings with constituents – not in case of a bout of thirst, but to save her life in case of an acid attack. It’s a high price to pay to be a politician with a rising star, and Vaughan conveys the very real terror as part of the necessary fabric of her life.

‘A conviction politician, that’s what she was, and all the more refreshing for it. There were too few of them around these days.’

So there’s the threat of the insidious trolls hiding behind Twitter handles like @englandrules and @suckmyc*ck, never quite knowing whether one of them might step out from behind their keyboard and put a bomb through her letterbox. And then there’s the tabloid media, always looking for the next story that’s going to sell them papers (side note: anyone interested in the savagery of the British tabloids should listen to The Murdoch Phone Hacking miniseries on the British Scandal podcast).

Over the years, Emma has befriended journalist Mike Stokes, political editor of tabloid The Chronicle (his colleagues call her an ‘MPILF’). She knows how it works: the little dance that politicians do with the media, trying to keep them on side. Of course, he has a job to do: to sell papers and rise through the ranks himself.

‘I’d underestimated him, not wanting to consider the extent of his ruthlessness. And later? Well, then his ability to turn on me became painfully, fatally clear.’

It’s a smart, tightly plotted read – somewhere between a courtroom drama, political thriller and domestic noir. The second half of the novel is set in a courtroom where Emma is on trial, and it’s truly mesmerizing to watch the whip-smart wordplay between the prosecution and the defence, to see how the truth can be bent and shaped to different ends.

I enjoyed Anatomy of a Scandal (soon to be a Netflix show), and equally enjoyed Reputation for its multi-layered plot that never lets up. Qualms: I wished the secondary characters were better fleshed out, as when the narration slipped into their POV it felt more like a device to move the plot along, and one of the secondary plots about mental health support for returning servicemen also failed to be wrapped up in a satisfying way. However, I enjoyed this thought-provoking and pacy read a lot, and it’s very much in-keeping with the cultural conversation about misogyny, online abuse, and being a woman in the public eye.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. Reputation will be published in the UK on 2nd March, in the US on 5th July.

Other books you might enjoy…

5 books that exceeded my expectations (& 5 that didn’t…)

5 books that exceeded my expectations (& 5 that didn’t…)

My reading fortune comes in waves. Sometimes I feel that everything I pick up that I’d been really looking forward to turns out to be a flop. But then – there are those gems that totally take you by surprise, and end up becoming firm favourites. This post is for the books that I went into without preconceptions or expectations of brilliance and ended up loving, and those that I was so looking forward to but ended up being a disappointment.

5 books that exceeded my expectations

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I’m wary of judging books by their titles. This is such a good title I wasn’t sure if the book would live up to it – but boy is this a stunning, intense debut about heritage, addiction and love that took me by surprise in the best way possible.

Thin Girls by Diana Clarke

Finding this was a stroke of luck – I’d never heard of the book or Diana Clarke, but one day I was browsing on Edelweiss and it caught my eye. And I’m so glad it did – this ended up being in my top 10 of 2020.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

It’s no secret that I love a good psychological thriller, and this is Ruth Ware at her best. I wasn’t sure what to expect after enjoying, but being underwhelmed by, her previous two novels – but The Lying Game really hit the spot for me.

Followers by Megan Angelo

Contrary to what this chick-lit-ified cover would suggest, this is a darkly funny and clever book about the commodificiation of our online selves. A random Netgalley pick that ended up being utterly engrossing.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

I had the excellent fortune of finding this in a Little Free Library in our neighbourhood. The reviews were mixed so I wasn’t sure what to expect – but I owned a shiny, like-new hardback copy so had nothing to lose. I loved the incisive, precise writing style and the insights into the nature of interpretation.

…and 5 books that left me disappointed

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

I loved Three Women and was psyched when I got an advanced copy of Animal – but after several failed attempts to get into the detached, caustic and pretty depraved narration, I relegated it to the DNF pile.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Sad times that this book wasn’t all it could have been, after the utter brilliance of All The Light We Cannot See. I finished it because I didn’t want to do it a disservice by not giving it a proper chance, but whilst it definitely had its merits, it fell short for me.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

There’s a mythology around some classics that makes you feel that they’re untouchable. And this is by no means a bad book. It just wasn’t the masterpiece I was expecting.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to join the pile-on for this book (I actually rated it 3*s, ever-so-slightly higher than the Goodreads average). I loved it at the start, the irreverent voice and sharp social commentary – until it became rambling and incoherent. But I’d still give Lauren Oyler another chance.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Having been in a non-fiction slump for a while, I decided to try one of the most revered modern thinkers. The problem I had with this book was that I was unconvinced by his central premise, and many of the anecdotes he includes to support his theory feel shoe-horned in. It was pretty forgettable for me.

Opinions my own, and I appreciate and respect that many readers may feel differently!

Have you read any of these? What’s been your biggest reading surprise?

Brown Girls A Novel By Daphne Palasi Andreades

Book review: A kaleidoscopic portrait of growing up the daughters of immigrants in ‘Brown Girls’ by Daphne Palasi Andreades ★★★★

Welcome to the ‘dregs of queens’, a place where the ‘brown girls’ of the title are born to immigrant families from all over the world, who landed in New York in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. From young girlhood to teenagehood to adulthood and motherhood and beyond, this short, lyrical and impactful novel charts the phases of their lives as they navigate the world as daughters of immigrants.

As girls, they share beds with their younger siblings while their parents are out working 12- and 14-hour shifts. They grow up in a cacophonous, joyful blur of ‘screeching Mariah at the top of their lungs, cackling in the school courtyard, playing handball, talking smack’, even as teachers call them the wrong names and their brothers are penalised by the school system. These particular girls are academically gifted – they win places at the best schools, go on to university, build accomplished careers, get out of Queens for good.

As they reach adulthood, they contend with their histories, return to the places their parents left, grapple with their identities. They are stereotyped as the ‘good immigrant daughters, the oh-so-hard-working ones, the paragons of the American Dream, aren’t we? (But for what? For whom?)’ Set against the backdrop of the fractious political landscape under the leadership of Donald Trump, their identities are politicised; they are asked to speak as the authority on behalf of their race, and yet are mistaken for the wait staff at work soirees.

‘Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.’

Queens is a place the girls ‘so desperately dreamt of leaving’, and yet find themselves longing to return to the streets they grew up, haring across the ‘boulevard of death’, inhaling the smells from the street food vendors, hearing the hallways echo with 100 different languages.

It eschews a traditional narrative structure or format; told in the collective first person ‘we’, the voice speaks for the group of brown girls whose families hail from the Philippines, from Haiti, from Jamaica, and many other corners of the world. It’s ambitious to create a choral voice that interweaves these experiences as if interchangeable. I’m not a WOC and can’t speak to whether or not this approach is oversimplifying or inclusive, but from a literary perspective, the novel succeeds in painting in broad brush strokes universal societal pressures and entrenched racist structures that many of these women face.

There’s an accomplished confidence to the stylistically bold writing, and I loved the rich descriptions and kaleidoscopic vignettes that paint the story. I began to wonder how the author would bring it all to a close, where the natural end would fall. It turns out that she took these characters all the way to beyond the grave – the only part of the novel I felt was faltering and off-kilter.

‘Why did we ever believe home could only be one place? When existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us.’

It’s an accomplished debut, with a lot to say and not quite enough space to say it in. I’ll look forward to seeing what Daphne Palasi Andreades does next.

Rating: 4 out of 5.