Book Lists & Links

Just some things I’ve been kicking around.

. . .

I really enjoy the Sunday Links posts at Like Fire. They tend to have a speculative fiction slant, but range far afield. Many, like the most recent, link to various award short and long lists and recommended books lists. Careful, you may find yourself in even more TBR trouble. The Commonwealth Book Prize list has a lot of harrowing- but (and?) intriguing-looking titles; I’ve been meaning to try more African writers . . . .

The Poetry Friday posts there are great too.

. . .

I can’t remember who tweeted a link to Matt Haig’s list of “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob.” I count myself a recovering book snob (like alcoholics, I think, we’re always “in recovery” and never “recovered”). I especially liked this point:

2. Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.

The amount of bad writing in genre fiction and bad (or non-existent) plotting in literary fiction is often over-stated, but I agree that writers aren’t let off certain hooks by virtue of the genre they’re writing in. (Aside: must we call any set of rules “fascist”?).

I had more trouble with these two:

13. The only people who fear people understanding what they are saying are people who have nothing really to say.

14. Books are not better for being misunderstood, any more than a building is better for having no door.

Maybe I’m misreading this, but it suggests to me the view that “difficulty” is always something to be condemned, and that strikes me as prejudiced and wrong. I don’t think most people who write “difficult” books are hoping the hoi polloi will misunderstand them; rather, they’re trying to achieve certain ends. (“Misunderstanding” isn’t the word I’d use here, in any case, since any book can be understood in multiple ways).

Boundary-stretching, avant garde art is often regarded as “difficult” and resistant to understanding or interpretation. But if people didn’t make such art, art would never change. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with writing for a niche audience (unless, you know, your goal is to make a living at it). I’m not really a fan of the avant garde, myself, but I don’t think it’s snobbish to support its existence. I’m happy to have Ulysses in the world, and glad I read it, even if I’ll probably never pick it up again. The problem comes in when people who read or write “difficult” books think they’re better than others because of it.

. . .

I think I need my own personal “Rules for Reading” just to remind me not to get sucked in to trying things I won’t really like and focus on things I will. I got started after my Lenten Book Fast, with lessons like “I don’t have to read every book by my favorite authors” and “I don’t have to read every book in a series.” My latest is “if a book has gif reviews at Goodreads, run the other way!” Huh. These are all negative. I need positive rules too. Prompted by discussion on my last post, the first might be “If people talk a lot about the heroine, check it out.”

. . .

I am happily reading mystery series right now, and embarking on the lengthy Vorkosigan Saga. But whenever I see a book at Goodreads or Amazon with a series title after the book title–you know what I mean? One Hot Bad Boy (Wounded Alphas #1)–I think blergh. Is this hypocrisy? I think it’s because I don’t know what a “series” in romance means anymore. It could be:

  1. A traditional loosely-connected series set in the same “world,” where one sibling/ducal fratpack member/spy after another gets his or her own book, and a reader can skip around without feeling lost.
  2. A series with an over-arching suspense or paranormal plot; even if there’s a separate romance in each book, the reader will be confused by the overall plot unless she reads them all in order.
  3. That hot new fad, a trilogy or serial featuring the same romantic couple.

In theory, I’d read any of those, but I want to know which one I’m committing myself to before I start so I can decide if I’m up for the demands it will make on me as a reader; it can be awfully hard to tell. I would love to see more stand-alone romances, but I’m not holding my breath.

. . .

Stuff I’ve read recently but not blogged about (links to Goodreads review if I was moved to leave one):

Mystery: Started a re-read of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books with Case Histories on audio); Malla Nunn (50s South Africa), Andrea Camilleri (Sicily), Jason Goodwin (19th-century Istanbul), and a classic, E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case.

Non-fiction, also on audio: Beryl Markham’s memoir, West With the Night (some beautiful writing and great story-telling but also colonialist attitudes galore); Ariel Saber’s Heart of the City (couples who met in New York public spaces; I assign readings on the value and design of public space in my composition class, so this book seemed made for me. I enjoyed the couples’ stories but the public space theory wasn’t really integrated).

Romance: Jessica Hart’s Promoted: To Wife and Mother (awful title, lovely romance with an older–40 and 47–couple whose real-life problems are somewhat like those in Ruthie Knox’s Big Boy. The best writers for the Harlequin Romance line remind us of something romance seems too often to forget: attraction and lust aren’t just a matter of abs, biceps and twitching cocks or curves and wet panties; they involve the line of a jaw, the set of a mouth, the sound of a laugh, the turn of another’s mind. Hart is one of the best).

What I’m reading now: Isobel Cooper’s No Proper Lady, on my wishlist for ages and snagged on sale (in this case, the blend of historical and paranormal romance is working for me); Zadie Smith’s NW (lacks the sheer exuberance of White Teeth but some interesting formal experiments; she’s great with London voices, I think). And I’m finally going to start reading Gaffney’s Wyckerley Trilogy, in order I think, so that the iconic and controversial To Have and to Hold is not my first experience of her. Jackie Horne’s post (spoilerish) on To Love and to Cherish and Sunita’s comment here provided the kick in the pants I needed. I’m still planning on a summer discussion of these books.

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13 Responses to Book Lists & Links

  1. Rosario says:

    I really like book prize lists, they’re great for discovering interesting stuff outside of romance. I tried to have a look at the Commonwealth one but I couldn’t cope with having so many books on a shortlist, so I ended up just skimming and not paying much attention to particular books. I much prefer 6-book shortlists, they make me want to try every book on them.

    Did you see the one for the Women’s Prize for Fiction? That seems particularly strong this year. There’s the Hilary Mantel, of course, but also the new Kate Atkinson, which I’m listening to at the moment and is fantastic. I also really like the sound of Where D’You Go, Bernadette, and I think I’ll read it, too. I’m really not sure about NW, though. I read a few pages from the beginning at the library, and I didn’t feel she did the different voices that well. I do like the idea; it worked wonderfully in Sebastian Faulks’ One Week In December, which I loved, but he handled the diversity of the voices better than Smith was doing, at least in those early pages.

    I’ve got only two reading rules: I’m allowed to give up on books I’m not enjoying, and (new one this year) I shouldn’t feel I have to start series at the beginning.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The rule about not having to start a series at the beginning is perfect for me (although it rules out some series).

      Yes, the Commonwealth list is awfully long. I need to browse it a few more times. I’d only heard of one or two of the books. Where D’You Go, Bernadette is on my list too.

  2. I need to read TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH, definitely…in that trilogy, I’ve only read THATH. If I have until summer, awesome! I can move it up the list!

    I’m currently re-reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. I originally read it when it was fairly new – you could still buy copies on the shelf in the bookstore – but a LOT of science fiction water has gone under the bridge since then. For me at least. So it’s amazing how topical it still is.

  3. I used to read buckets of SF&F but the rise of the series drove me out of the genre entirely. I just want a nice evening, book. You’re too needy with this cliffhanger / unresolved plot / series stuff. Let’s just enjoy the now.

  4. willaful says:

    I try to leave series info on GoodReads and will make an effort to do more. Though I tend not to read the arcing trilogy books. But I can suggest that other librarians also do so.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think authors and publishers need to do a better job of conveying this clearly. Why should it be on readers to sort it out? Of course, their goal is to suck us in for more . . . .

  5. Wendy says:

    I thought I was the only one annoyed by GIF reviews on GoodReads. I’m fine with them when they’re on a blog (hey, it’s your blog – do what you want with it I say) – but their presence on GR annoys the crap out of me. They congest the page and it just….offends my anal-retentive sensibilities 😉

    Reading Rules are good. I have one very similar to your heroine one – which is if all the reviewer talks about is how HOTTTT!!1!1! the hero is? Run. Run in the other direction. Also, just because it seems like everybody and their dead grandmother is reading a book? Doesn’t mean you have to. Especially if you don’t WANT to read that book. Life is too short to waste on books you’re only reading because “well, gee – everybody else is.”

  6. Liz Mc2 says:

    I find gif reviews at Goodreads annoying for just that reason, although obviously some people really enjoy them. But for me it’s more that the readers who leave them seldom share my taste, so it’s a reliable “keep off” guide.

    Your hero rule is just the flip side of my heroine rule. (Also, gif reviews tend to feature sexy hero-casting). When I first started reading romance I figured anything “everyone” was reading and talking about must be good/worth reading, but the more I developed my sense of my own taste, the more I saw that just as best-seller lists are not a reliable guide for what *I* will like, neither are the books people are buzzing about. Not that I don’t sometimes like those books, but the mere fact that “everyone’s reading it” doesn’t mean I’ll like it; not sure why it took me so long to figure that out.

  7. Rohan says:

    I feel the same way you do about the book snob post: it risks a kind of faux populism that equates challenge with elitism. That said, I felt less annoyed at it after I read the NYTBR interview with Jonathan Franzen, who is such a snob he can’t even be bothered to finish reading most of the books he starts because they just aren’t good enough. Hoity-toity.

  8. lawless says:

    I didn’t look at the link, but the two book snob points you find objectionable could also be framed as exhortations to clarity of communication and intent. I agree that “misunderstood” is not a felicitous word choice, but it can also be interpreted as meaning “not putting one’s point across or not committing fully to one’s overall objective” instead of an exhortation to get rid a work of any ambiguity. If a work or a point is meant to be ambiguous, writers should commit to it and make their ambiguity clear. Otherwise, they are likely to cause a different kind of confusion than they intended.

    (As an aside, there’s nothing I hate more than a sentence or two here and there whose meaning and purpose I don’t understand. That happened to me (and some other readers) when reading Captive Prince, which I otherwise liked.

    [A]ttraction and lust aren’t just a matter of abs, biceps and twitching cocks or curves and wet panties; they involve the line of a jaw, the set of a mouth, the sound of a laugh, the turn of another’s mind.

    Amen. This is one of my biggest gripes with modern (as in recently written, not just contemporary, although contemporary romance has this problem to a greater degree) het romance. Maybe it’s sexist of me, but the erotic content and sex leading to love doesn’t tick me off as much in m/m romance, mainly because the sex first, romance later progression of male/male relationships seems pretty plausible (and it isn’t always depicted that way, just most of the time).

    In het romance, not only is it cliched — I get it, we can leave the bedroom door open now and unashamedly read about sex acts between consenting adults — repetitive, and, in anything I’ve read other than erotica or erotic romance, not all that hot, it runs the risk of privileging sex and physical attraction over everything else in a relationship. That’s not what I’ve lived or what the vast majority of other women I’ve known have lived, and it’s implausible and not what I want to read. Personality, humor, the set of a jaw, shared interests and endeavors are far more important. Not only are we not so shallow as to hinge everything on tight abs or classically handsome looks, to imply that we do implies that anyone who’s not conventionally attractive isn’t capable of finding love.

    I feel like virtually flinging the next book whose blurb mentions the beauty, attractiveness, or hotness of both main characters against the wall. (“Virtually” because unless borrowed from the library, my romance reading is consists of ebooks.)

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