All Kinds of Everything Bookish

Mr Litlove quoted something mildly alarming to me the other day when reading Originals by Adam Grant, a non-fiction title about creativity. A Harvard psychologist, Teresa Amabile, asked people to gauge the intelligence and expertise of book reviewers by showing what was essentially the same review from the New York Times to a bunch of people. Only in one version the adjectives used made the review glowing, and in the other, different adjectives made it scathing. The result was that ‘people rated the critical reviewer as 14 percent more intelligent, and having 16 percent greater literary expertise, than the complimentary reviewer.’ I wondered what you all thought about that? My instant response was a negative one – if there’s one thing I can’t bear it’s a hatchet job undertaken by a reviewer who wants to look clever. What they gain in IQ points they lose in humanity points, although I understand the powerful emotions that can be aroused when you hate a book. I’ve only ever written one slamming review on this blog and I wince when I think about it still. Oh no, tell a lie, I’ve written two, if we include my post on Fifty Shades of Grey. Only a) that wasn’t a review and b) I don’t feel guilty about it.

Anyhow, having made this point, I now approach my thoughts on a few of the books I’ve listened to so far this year with trepidation, as I had mixed feelings about them.

I bought Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (well, J.K. Rowling) because it was one of the Xmas special offers on audible for 99p. I so nearly abandoned it halfway through the 15-hour slog. Now, what is it about this crime series that makes me feel so frustrated with J.K.? I suppose I feel she is an author with prodigious talents but a poor sense of what she can do with them. Essentially, I wish she would give up her fascination with all that is sordid and horrifying; I just don’t think she writes about it very well. Cherry-picking evil traits from myth and legend worked well for her monsters in Harry Potter. But in this novel, cherry-picking perversions from the catalogue of human evil makes for an incoherent psychopath. And we get an awful lot of chapters from his perspective, as he plots his crimes and thinks repulsively misogynistic thoughts and thrills over his murder trophies in the fridge (you don’t want to know). I didn’t feel these chapters added to my understanding of why a person should become a serial killer, or to my anticipation of the plot. I figured out he was a bad guy and I shouldn’t feel much sympathy for him when he sent a severed leg through the post in the opening pages. Instead they were just unpleasant interludes that I was forced to listen to because nothing screams leap in the dark like fast forwarding on my ipod nano. No, what kept me reading was the relationship between J.K.’s detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant, Robyn. That’s properly engaging and delightful and worth the 99p even if it isn’t sensational and dramatic. Sorry, J.K.

The other book I had decidedly mixed feelings about – or should say ‘have’ as I’ve only got about four chapters in and am in a state of suspended uncertainty over continuing – is The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. Again it was an audible special deal and I’d heard a lot of good things about it, notably that it was hilariously funny. In this instance I don’t blame Joanna Cannon as the fault is mine for not reading the blurb more carefully. I will come clean: I have a problem with precocious child narrators. I find them implausible the way I find the present tense implausible. The present tense can only ever be a fantasy of immediacy; no story can ever be written in the moment of its unfolding. And precocious child narrators are only ever a nostalgic fantasy on the author’s part for what childhood is like. Children can be very funny and perceptive, but only once in a blue moon, not in any sort of sustained way; most of the time they don’t understand the majority of what’s going on around them because that’s what growing up is for. Also, this novel is set in the 70s (much mention of Angel Delight) and our narrator and her little friend are visiting the neighbours hoping to glean clues about the disappearance of one of them. Now I was a child in the 70s and remember clearly that it was an era before human rights were extended to children. If I had turned up on a neighbour’s doorstep, I would have been kindly but firmly sent home. No neighbour would have dreamt of inviting me in and hosting me with snacks and information. But maybe I could overcome these quibbles and get into this novel. Has anyone read it? Should I give it another go?

Let’s turn to the great successes. I listened to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, a novel which I read many, many years ago and remembered loving, though happily I remembered little else about it. This was sheer class. It’s the story (taken from historical record) of servant girl, Grace Marks, who is imprisoned for life for her part in the brutal killings of her employer and his housekeeper. There was, however, much doubt and uncertainty about Grace’s actions as she claimed to have lost her memory of the crucial events. In Atwood’s novel, the ambitious doctor, Simon Jordan, turns up at the prison to make a study of Grace, hoping the fledgling tactics of psychoanalysis will help him get at the truth. Atwood has a lot of fun with the pretensions of male doctors and do-gooders alongside a complex, moving portrait of the young servant girl. I loved this novel. Just fantastic.

A more surprise hit has been The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Wilkie and I have fallen out in the past over his verbosity. Why say something in a sentence when you could take a good ten pages over it? Well, I was braced for more of the same, but somehow something feels different about this novel. Maybe it’s partly due to the excellent narrating skills of Peter Jeffrey who is making it very compelling listening. But it also feels well-paced with enough incident and suspense to be truly gripping. It’s the story of an ancient Indian diamond, stolen in the confusion of war and brought back to England as a young woman’s inheritance. It has the superstition attached to it of causing trouble, and when it is stolen the same night she receives it, the crime throws her harmonious family into discord and disarray. Enter a delightfully lugubrious policeman, Inspector Cuff, lovesick servants with troubled pasts, thwarted lovers, ambitious politicians and the amusingly dreadful Miss Clack, whose determination to sow the seeds of Christian thought have made her capable of rising above all insult. It’s a treat.

Well I have written over a thousand words and I’ve barely scraped the surface of the past three months’ reading. Clearly, there will have to be a part 2 involving Willa Cather, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan Unleashed, Malcolm Gladwell, Hannah Rothschild and more. I will be back.

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44 thoughts on “All Kinds of Everything Bookish

  1. I had the same trouble with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I gave it to a friend a Christmas ago, she confessed she couldn’t get beyond about three chapters. She gave it back to me and I gave it a go (I should never give a book as a present based only on a review!) and had the same troubles you had, litlove. And I must be one of the few people in the universe who hasn’t read a word of JK’s … but I do know that the HP novels got more boys reading so that must be a good thing. And as for reviews, I review what I’ve read on goodreads and (much less often) in my blog column. But I’ve decided not to review anything I couldn’t get on with. So TTwGaS isn’t listed among my goodreads books even though it’s sitting on a shelf, abandoned, in my house. Cowardly, perhaps. But knowing, as you do, how much blood, sweat, tears and time it takes to write a novel I just couldn’t write a bad review, only something like ‘I could have done with fewer war scenes’ (in my review of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End). In many cases it’s the fault of the editors more than the writers, I feel. Although TTwGaS’s young protagonist would have been difficult to alter without altering the whole book … .

    • This is it, exactly – there’s a thousand human hours of love and toil in every book and it’s too easy for the person in the armchair to say, nah not for me so it was rubbish. Plus, just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. We are all so highly sensitive to the reading experience and bring so much to it that we’re unaware of feeling. I also agree that JK Rowling revolutionized a stagnating children’s book market and really doesn’t owe the world another word if she doesn’t want to write one. All that being said, I’m extremely relieved to know that I’m not alone when it comes to TTwGaS! Shame, but there it is.

  2. You may recall that I gave up on a previous Galbraith/Rowling – The Silkworm – when I was supposed to be reading it for SNB. I found it not only gratuitously grim at times, but plain boring the rest of the time.

    As for precocious child narrators – as the antithesis, can I recommend Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler, if you haven’t read it? I think it’s third person, but the dialogue is spot on – for being a combination of idioms they’ve overheard, misunderstandings, and the like.

    Finally – I’ve added Originals to my Amazon wishlist; sounds fascinating.

    • I do indeed remember you not getting on with The Silkworm. ‘Gratuitously grim’ really made me laugh – that’s a perfect description. I would love to try the James Schuyler. Nothing makes me happier than redemption of previously forsaken book categories! 🙂 And I’d love to hear what you think of Originals. Mr Litlove and I are still enjoying it very much.

  3. It makes me happy that you enjoyed The Moonstone! I just love it. I have taught it probably 20 times and I have great fun every time – especially with the hilariously repulsive Miss Clack. I think it’s such a smart book, too, about class and race and gender and how hard it is to solve crimes when your assumptions are rooted in systemic biases and inequalities.

    • Yay! Both were fab and the Atwood was outstanding in so many ways. I read The Robber Bride back when I was 24 and I’m thinking that it’s ripe for a reread (or re-listen) as well. I remember that being excellent. Have you read Lady Oracle, Karen? It’s one I am often tempted by but then feel uncertain about. I could use a personal recommendation!

  4. Amazingly I have read all these books and agree with all you say except that I really enjoy the Robert Galbraith books. Perhaps I have a thicker skin or am less perceptive than you and Simon. But I’m always glad to find that I’m not alone in disliking TTwGaS – I think I sort of skipped myself through towards the end to see what happened, but just couldn’t in any way warm to or believe in the narrator.

    • Maybe we’re just being picky! And I might have got on better with Career of Evil if I’d been reading the book and able to skip the psychopath sections. I certainly felt it more because I was listening (which I find really alters the character of a novel). I am amazed – and also relieved – to find other people not liking the narrator of TTwGaS. I sort of had this impression that it had been received in a chorus of praise! So thank you for the solidarity. 🙂

  5. Great post. Saves me wasting time on books I don’t need to read now! I only ever read the first JK Rowling Cormoran Strike book, and I did like the relationship between the detective and Robyn. Now I feel I don’t need to read any more. I hate gratuitous violence. Must try Wilkie Collins. Thanks for sharing!

    • I think if you are sensitive to misogyny then this latest Cormoran Strike might well be upsetting (although the relationship remains the very best part!). So probably a good call. The Wilkie Collins has been a delight – I’d love to know how you get on with it!

  6. I really didn’t get on with The Trouble with Sheep and Goats. Lots of love for it on social media but I’m afraid I thought it was a mediocre, rather cliched piece of fiction, not a criticism to be made of Alias Grace. How is the experience of listening to audiobooks comparing to reading for you?

    • I clearly need to pass my audio book choices past my blog friends in future! You would have saved me some time (thankfully audible is very happy to refund). I find listening VERY different to reading. Having to pay the same amount of attention to every single word of a book really alters the balance of the reading experience. You can’t skip through duller parts or reread bits that you like, and if I’ve forgotten who a character is, well, I’ll have to live with the confusion until all becomes clear again. I’m finding it quite the test of a book’s quality. But when Alias Grace sails over every hurdle, I’m beginning to think it’s quite an effective test, too!

    • For years I’d read much more Trollope than Collins, but I think that’s evening up now. Trollope really can go on and on at times, so I know exactly what you mean. Being essentially a 20th century gal myself, I do like concision. But you can have a good holiday in wordy prose, I find, letting it all wash over you. However! Alias Grace and The Moonstone were long books with good reasons and I very much appreciated that.

  7. I don’t like negative reviews which seem to be trying to be deliberately provocative. Honesty is necessary of course, but spite is not. I too dislike the idea that wholly positive reviews are somehow less intelligent.
    I enjoyed The Trouble with Goats and Sheep though I take your point about children in the 70s – you are right but I liked it as an easy feel good read and enjoyed the nostalgia. However the child narrator while engaging is not the most successful I have read, probably because as you say – the children depicted understand too much, real children wouldn’t. I have not read the Robert Galbraith books but can’t say they appeal. I loved Alias Grace too several years ago, and The Moonstone is an old favourite.

    • I completely agree with you that while honesty is necessary, spite is not – that’s it in a nutshell. And for my money it’s even harder to say why you’ve liked something than why you haven’t! I’d started on TTwGaS with just that hope of a feel-good read in mind, so I’m glad to know that aspect of the book is successful. And I’m so glad to have discovered The Moonstone. I think it’s very likely I’ll listen to it again one of these days!

  8. Ah, The Moonstone is such a corker innit. Such a lot in there, as Rohan says, about class and race and gender—the whole jewel plot is almost just a framework for those discussions! Glad you enjoyed.

    I think I’m becoming far more hard-hearted in terms of writing negative reviews, but I say this because as far as I’m concerned a purely negative review is quite rare; what reviewers shouldn’t be afraid to do is criticise. Of course hard work goes into a book, but sometimes an artistic project is poorly conceived in the first place, or sometimes there are problems with its execution, or sometimes the underlying message is either offensive or self-contradictory… There are all sorts of reasons why I might give something a write-up that isn’t wholly positive. As long as no one is saying things like “THIS BOOK IS DUMB AND THE AUTHOR SUCKS” without backing it up, I think criticism is quite healthy. (The problem, obviously, is that many people who review books online aren’t critically trained, and so they do end up saying things like “THIS BOOK IS DUMB AND THE AUTHOR SUCKS” because they lack either the vocabulary or the will to be more specific and insightful. Which isn’t to say that you *have* to have critical training to review a book; but you do have to have some level of critical training to actually *criticise* it, e.g. take it apart into its component pieces and figure out what works and what doesn’t and why. Either training, or a LOT of practice and a certain level of intuition.)

    • Loved The Moonstone. Bring me more like that! I’m in agreement with you that criticism is fine (and even necessary at times) so long as it never descends into an ad hominem attack, or simply equates disliking a book with the book’s objective value. That’s a very interesting point you make about thoughtful criticism being something that you have to learn. After eleven years in the blog world, I’ve come across writers who seem able to do it without obvious training, but I imagine that instead they’ve read a lot of other reviews and got a good sense of what works. I think you’re right that some sort of familiarity with a range of criticism has to be in place. Or a lot of self-awareness. Hmm, that’s all very intriguing, though. One of these days I’ll have to canvas blog friends’ opinion on the matter!

  9. Wilkie Collins can have his off days I’ve discovered. Woman in White is outstanding and I love The Moonstone but then I found the Dead Secret and was bitterly disappointed https://bookertalk.com/2016/01/07/the-dead-secret-by-wilkie-collins/.

    On the question of negative reviews my stance is that I don’t set out to trash a book but I shouldn’t hold back from saying so if I didn’t enjoy something. I do however make sure to explain why and to balance it with what I think did work.

    • I’m all for balance in reviews. In a weird way, I often wonder if rave reviews are harmful, because they set up expectations that can never be met. And thwarted expectation is often at the heart of the most savage reviews! So I think good explanations and a range of response make for some of the most persuasive and accurate reviews. As for Wilkie, I am astonished by how much the man wrote! OUP seem to be digging his old works out of the libraries and publishing them at a steady pace. I am sure you are quite right that the quality varies.

  10. Might I barge right in? Thanks for enlightening me on why I enjoy the Galbraith novels though I deplore the gore: it’s the Robyn-Cormoran interaction, of course. I’ve downloaded Trouble with Goats and Sheep and love the localisms — dustbin men, Hillman Hunter autos, and so forth (all I know of England is from PBS and Masterpiece Theater). Nice post, thank you.

    • Oh please do, and welcome! I feel very torn about whether or not to read the next Galbraith and basically it boils down to what happens between Cormoran and Robyn in it! And if you enjoyed those delightful localisms, you may also enjoy David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which is set in the early 80s and features an adolescent (a similar book but a better one, I think).

  11. Hard cosign on the Career of Evil thing. I didn’t need the lovingly detailed chapters that put the reader inside the serial killer’s mind — it’s just the same misogynistic crap I’ve seen in like a zillion other books/TV shows/movies before.

    I love The Moonstone, also. Wasn’t there a BBC miniseries adaptation of it recently? I feel like I heard about that and was excited for it to show up on streaming or DVD so I could check it out. It’s my favorite Wilkie Collins book of the three I’ve read — Miss Clack is a treasure.

    • You know, I thought of you while I was listening to Career of Evil. I shook my head and thought, my friend Jenny would NOT approve. And I agreed wholeheartedly with you. There’s enough of it in the world already without more indulgence. And you are so right about The Moonstone. It was indeed a BBC version made (I think) with schools studying the book in mind. Apparently, Gabriel Betteridge is cast as a black man in this version, which caused some controversy. I’m toying with the idea of buying the DVD (if a cheap one comes up). As for Miss Clack, she is in my rogue’s gallery of favourite characters ever. I don’t know how Wilkie did it, but she is indeed a gem.

  12. I haven’t read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep Yet, but have it on my ereader, so I will just have to make up my own mind. Maybe the nostalgia for my childhood will make it enjoyable… I have to agree with you about the Cormoran Strike novels, I read one but felt no great urge to continue. They are average at best. Of course, my older son was a real Harry Potter fan, and I quite enjoyed them too, although I found my enthusiasm waning the more of them I read…

    • I quite like reading books where there’s some divergence of critical opinion. I feel it leaves me quite free to figure out my own mind and I wish I hadn’t read just positive reviews before beginning it. I would have had more patience, I feel sure. Like you, I read most of the Harry Potter books to my son, but by the time six and seven came out he was able to read them to himself – and I felt a little relieved. There was always such a lot of padding!

  13. Oh, and I don’t think it’s clever to be cruel – it’s far easier to criticise (especially destructively rather than constructively). I always try to find something both good and bad in each book.

  14. I hope the Atwood and Collins have washed away the bad taste in your mouth (sound in your ears?) from the other two. Alias Grace is a fabulous book, as you say, classy. I have not read The Moonstone but now I will make it a point to!

    • Do you know, I was convinced you had read The Moonstone? In fact, one of the reasons I felt I really ought to read it was this belief I had that I’d read your rave review….! Do you think it was a premonition????

  15. It’s interesting to see how the research was undertaken in a country that is currently known for its polarised politics. Surely an intelligent reader knows that a complete trashing or gushing is suspect? Or is it that simple? I haven’t read Kahneman yet on cognitive biases. One-sidedness has a seduction all of its own, don’t you think?

    • Ha! Jeff, I like that very much: ‘One-sidedness has a seduction all of it’s own’. I think that may almost explain 2016 by itself…. I’m with you on extremes, although there have been books over the years that I have loved without reservation. The hatchet job, however, is almost always undertaken for reasons of ego, and the uglier for it.

  16. Hello and sorry I haven’t been commenting recently. I enjoyed all your reviews and am pleased that you like The Moonstone.

    As for child narrators and the present tense, I have four words for you – Clarice Bean: Utterly Me. OK, there is nothing precocious about Clarice, and yes it’s a children’s book, but there are worse ways to spend an hour. We love her here.

    • Dear Helen, your credit is always good with me. I’ve been conspicuously absent from the blogworld myself lately! But I do miss you and all my blog friends. I actually think I have Clarice Bean somewhere… and I don’t even know why. Maybe it was for a moment like this?! I will hunt her down. I still love Paddington, so….

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