Is it worth analysing and reviewing non-fiction?

You know how sometimes real life and the blogosphere collide? Well recently someone told me that they didn’t think I should review non-fiction books. Now my first reaction was something like this…

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But then when I cooled down a bit, I actually came up with an argument as to why it’s just as important to review non-fiction as fiction…

To answer the question I posed- the short answer is YES! I mean, I started my blog to tell the truth- to be honest about my feelings regarding books in a way I often couldn’t be in real life. Part of that might be to recommend books and part of that is to discuss the way a book touched me- and for so many books what can really strike me is the ideas it holds inside. So what would be the point if we could not talk about the ideas in non-fiction? Why limit myself?

Well, for a lot of people, it is the fear of being called arrogant if we happen to disagree with greater thinkers than ourselves. BUT- and I shouldn’t really have to point this out- just because someone disagrees with another person doesn’t mean they think they’re better than them- just that, in the words of John Mill, “mankind are not infallible”. Moreover- how limiting would it be to the progress of human thought if you could never disagree? Disagreement is the very essence of finding truth and having a healthy debate (Also “how dare you disagree with my favourite philosopher you arrogant prick” is not an argument or a refutation, just sayin’ 😉 ).

Non-fiction creates a discussion and encourages the spread of ideas. So much of it is crying out to be shared, discussed and argued with. A lot of these thinkers did not want people blindly listening to them or obeying them like lemmings running off a cliff…

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Of course, there are different ways of looking at and writing about non-fiction. I’ve personally found the more philosophical a book, the more room for thought there is in my post about it. And that is so exciting to me! It keeps me on my toes and makes for more diverse types of reviews.

For me, and for many of you, book blogging is a part of our journey as readers. We evolve with the things we read with the things we read and if we can’t or don’t feel comfortable arguing back or discussing ideas then we may as well pack the whole thing in.

Quite simply, when I talk about ideas I learn about them. As fun as it is to be a passive reader, it is very rewarding to actually have to think while I read from time to time. And knowing that I have to write about it afterwards really helps me stay focused. I learn so much when I decide to read and review something non-fiction. I won’t be stopping any time soon.

So what do *you* think? Should we discuss and review non-fiction just as much as fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Prattling on about the way books are marketed

So there’s something really strange going on in the world today. People do not like to be told that things really aren’t as bad as they think- especially when it comes to issues that they care about. But sometimes things really aren’t as bad as some people think. Especially when it comes to the way books are marketed.

Over the years, I’ve seen *a lot* of different complaints and claims made about publishers that to my mind are misguided, nonsensical and really inaccurate. The two main grumblings I’ve heard are book cover designs being deliberately aimed at one gender or another and using initials for female author’s names.

Straight off the bat I could say that these are really storm in a teacup complaints. But I thought it would be worthwhile to break down some of this and provide a counter-argument for a change.

The first and most obvious issue with the objection that book covers are marketed in a certain way is that capitalism doesn’t work the way these people think. Commercialism is quite simply about supply and demand. It’s about the freedom to choose. As fun as it no doubt is to cook up some half-baked conspiracy theory about how publishers have some sinister agenda to hide female writers from us, or deliberately discourage men from reading certain genres, just from a business perspective I can say this would be a really foolish thing to do. To be blunt, if a commercial operation can take your money, it will! If these marketing techniques didn’t work at all, no one would use them.

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No prizes for guessing the book genre here…

But why then are books marketed this way? And why is it important? Well, we as book bloggers will all admit that we *love* judging books by their covers. Book covers are often designed in a way to give us some indication of what to expect. When I see a half-naked man on a cover I know what I’m getting in for. I like to have my expectations met and don’t like being misled about what’s actually between the covers. In all honesty, I wouldn’t buy a book that didn’t show me anything about what’s inside and I’d be peeved if the cover was, say, an innocuous picture of a boat and it turned out to be hard-core erotica.

Now we are all old enough here to be able to make these decisions for ourselves, but I would like to point out that there doesn’t seem to be a major issue of bias in the way children’s books are chosen. Given that 78% of people in the publishing industry are women, I’d be interested to hear people trying to make that argument. Anecdotally I can add that as a child I had no problem picking up masculine books, like Alex Rider, which FYI were stocked in my all girls’ school library. And I have male friends whose shelves are stuffed with Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson or Enid Blyton books.

One final point that I’d like to make is that there is a logical reason behind the decision to use non-gendered names. JRR Tolkein started the trend over fifty years ago, anonymising his name to give his fantasy works an air of mystery. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I see initials being used. To this day, it’s still a trend for both male and female authors of fantasy to give their books the allure of the unknown. An author like V E Schwab would certainly be playing into that tradition- and I would argue that given she was already published under Victoria Schwab, it kind of negates the argument that she needed to do this in order to be successful. And let’s be honest, it’s never been a secret that J K Rowling is a woman- but even if this was a decision that was made because she was woman, I feel like this was a kick in the teeth for aforementioned authors like Dianna Wynne Jones, who had conquered this market twenty years prior. Anyway there is no comparison with using initials to authors like Austen having “a novel by a lady” written on the cover of her books or Charlotte Bronte going by Currer Bell. Personally, I think it’s a shame to make a mountain out of a molehill over an issue like this given the stark comparison.

Forgive me for this random, rambly piece- this is just something that has been on my mind a while and thought I’d share.

So what do you think? How do you feel about the way books are marketed? Let me know in the comments!

Most Pretentious Novel Plan Imaginable

Well hello again- as you can probably tell from my post the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about pretentious books lately, and wondering what exactly drives a person to write one of these “I really, really want a Pulitzer” atrocities. And since it’s been a while since I made one of my novel plans, I figured I would get in the mindset of these literary crooks and write the Most Pretentious Novel Plan Imaginable!

*The Sitting Room*

(This doubles up as a wanky title and the place where all the non-action is about to go down)

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A group of middle class twats are all sitting around a sitting room waiting on the results of the trial of the century. Everyone is fidgety and on edge in such a way that gives away their chief characteristic:

The hostess, Ms Peters, is hovering around with the teapot, pressuring people into taking refills and sending silent messages with her eyes that they better not try to leave before she kicks them out- or so help her she will gossip about them all next time she goes to church!

The Vicar (who apparently lost all right to a name since becoming a member of the cloth) is leaning against the piano clearly trying to say “I can play more than just an organ!! For god sake, cheer me on as if it’s X Factor!!”

Mr Vanderwall is pretending to write something down, whilst itching the side of his nose and wondering if he can get away with a quick, sneaky pick- a look from his wife tells him he can’t.

Aforementioned Mrs Vanderwall (nee Lily Gatherer) is rolling a cigarette with one hand and lifting her skirt up with the other, in a way that says both how devil may care she is and how long it has been since she last had sex.

Mr Smarves is staring up said skirt.

Bill McBlanderson is just staring at the walls.

First plot point: a circular argument has just ensued between Mrs Vanderwall and Mr Smarves.

“But war is bad!”

“Yes, war is bad”

“But it’s bad”

“Yes, it is.”

“I said it’s bad!”

pg-tips-monkey-sustainability-v1Ok- this seems like enough plot for now- I think it’s time for a diversion: insert digression on tea for about ten pages (no, this post is not sponsored by PG tips, I swear). Mr Vanderwall- the writer character and therefore the hero- is drinking all the refills Mrs Jones offers because it makes him feel important and British. It also reminds him of the Cambodian Civil war, partly as he associates all tea with Asia (in a way that is inspired by post-colonial guilt, not racism) and partly because he’d just read the Killing Fields in the hope it would make good small talk, but realised now that this was not a good fashionable choice of book, because it was popular 30 years ago. He really should have gone into an indie book store and asked “what’s popular now and will make me sound smart if I read it”- that would teach him to go into second-hand…

*News broadcast cuts in* (fortunately interrupting this monologue)

Everyone gets nervous and excited- because finally something is happening in this damn plot:

Gloucester City Council finds Tony Blair guilty of littering… Dum dum dum!!

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*Chaos erupts!* Well, I say chaos- more like Bill McBlanderson falling off his chair, because Mrs Vanderwall batted Mr Smarves away as he went for a quick grope up her skirt, with a hiss of “not in public!”.

Annnd that’s it. The book ends in that nice anti-climactic fashion. Maybe with a random obtuse ending moralising that we are all “everything and nothing all at once”- ooh- sounds profound…

So will Tony Blair have to do community service for his crimes? Who know? I guess it’s just one of life’s unanswerable questions- since this is fiction and, like all pretentious books, there won’t be a sequel! Hope you enjoyed that!

What is wrong with pretentious books?

So I’ve spoken at length before about things I hate in books- being badly written or moralising are definitely up there as the two most obvious things to put me off a book, but I have never spoken at length about one of my *biggest* pet peeves. And since I seem to have reviewed the quintessential pretentious book the other day, I figured now was a good time to discuss this.

Trouble is it’s hard to define, even if you know it when you see it. There are some clues that give a pretentious book away: they never have a plot, a fair number of the characters will be mouthpieces for the author,  and there will be lots and lots of authorial intrusion. Not that these taken individually are always bad things, yet if you find them all in the same place, you can often guess what kind of book it will be.

What creates a gulf between “deep” books and pretentious ones in my mind is that it is marked by “philosophising gone wrong”. Of course, it doesn’t need to be said that a book isn’t pretentious just because a book is discussing heavy issues or making complex conclusions (but obviously I’m saying it anyway, for clarification). I will hit a person over the head with my copy of Crime and Punishment if they dare say books should never be profound! BUT there are times when a nice philosophical debate nosedives into “what the hell” territory. The most obvious being when the author thinks it’s a good idea to start moralising- and while not all books that moralise are pretentious, you can bet that all pretentious books include moralising.

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As many of you know by now, I *hate*moralising- when the author puts on a sanctimonious tone and starts imposing their irrelevant views on the story, I’m a goner. But pretentious books *always* take moralising to a new level. Because in pretentious books the author is always trying to bamboozle the reader with their (*ahem*) brilliant observations that obviously no one has ever heard before (sorry to disappoint, there are no new ideas, get over it). And one of their favourite ways to do this is to use deliberately obtuse language.

Now, obviously I’m not referring to beautiful language (I officially give you permission to get all dewy eyed over Fitzgerald or Keats etc). No, I’m talking about when you read a sentence and go “ye wot?” There is a huge difference between beauty and obscurity. I mean, in the words of Keats “Truth is beauty”- deceptive language is actually harmful to the soul rather than nourishing.

Really, what pretentious authors fail to note is that the smartest people disseminate their ideas in as clear ways as possible. Nietzsche, for instance, said incredibly complex things in the simplest of sentences. While his words, like “God is dead” give the illusion of simplicity of thought, they deliver a hammer blow to the psyche. A pretentious fool would use innumerable, over-complicated ways to deliver their message- often something that doesn’t even make sense anyway (*cough* As I Lay Dying *cough cough*).

Nor do intelligent people talk in circles. They get right to the point and do not waste time on the surface level details. A fool is bogged down by issues such as whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy or a comedy- which I can tell you from experience is not a subject that warrants an hour long discussion (it’s a tragedy with subversive comic elements at the start to temporarily mislead the viewer- see, nice and simple). At best you’ve wasted an hour of your time, at worst you’ve convinced yourself of a lie and reached some pretty daft conclusions (yes, I’ve met people that think Romeo and Juliet is a comedy now).

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All of this serves a single purpose. By making the meaning obscure, talking nonsense and distancing the reader from the truth, the reader is unable to relate on an emotional level. And this “unrelatability” is the biggest tell-tale sign of pretentious literature. Somewhere along the way, the author forgot that the book was supposed to make you feel more than just confusion. Art is not supposed to be an author rummaging round for a few lost brain cells- it is a quest for the reader’s heart and soul. Evidently, this is a test that pretentious writers fail every time. They are the kind of authors that never leave the Shire, let alone make it back home again.

(Yes I just finished with a Lord of the Rings analogy)

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So what about you? How do you feel about pretentious books? And what books do you think are an epic failure? Let me know in the comments!

The Great Thing About Hogwarts Houses… And Sorting British Politicians!

If there’s one thing I really like about Hogwarts, it’s the Houses system. What makes it different from, say, Divergent is that it is not just measuring your qualities, nor does it completely define you, but takes into account who you want to be most- it’s what makes it the perfect system. It’s how people perceive themselves, rather than what they are. And it’s why it makes sense to me that Peter Pettigrew was in Gryffindor and that Snape would identify himself with Slytherin. (It’s also why Dumbledore is right about sorting them to early- cos let’s face it, eleven year olds don’t always have a huge amount of self-awareness)

As you can see it’s an area that is ripe for discussion. Now since writing my review of Boris Johnson’s Churchill biography– partly looking into BoJo’s own character- I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with my friend a while ago where we started “sorting” British politicians into houses. I’d like to share some of my theories with you:

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I’d put Theresa May in Ravenclaw- she’s certainly a very capable woman

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I had a massive disagreement with my friend on where to put BoJo- but I chose Gryffindor- because I bet he’d ask the hat to put him there for sure. It’s not that I think he deserves to be, but that he wants to be.

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Nick Clegg would definitely get put in Hufflepuff- not that he’s especially loyal- but he’d probably like to think he is. Plus there’s no way he’s smart or cunning or bold enough for the other houses.

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No hesitation- Osborne would be sorted into Slytherin faster than you could say “by George!”- I think he’d actually beat Draco Malfoy’s record for how long it took the Sorting Hat to decide.

Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, a muggle 😉

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Sorry, sorry, I forgot, he prefers “Supreme Leader”…

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So what do you think? Do you agree with me? And- dare I ask- where would you place your politicians? 

(Meanwhile I’m looking forward to all the love I’m gonna get from Corbynistas 😉 )

When is something too much?

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So I’ve always thought of myself as having a strong constitution when it comes to violence of all colours and creeds in TV and literature. I mean, my favourite TV show is Game of Thrones, I enjoy a good Tarantino movie and have watched legs get sawn off in House (ok the last one did make me wince). And when it comes to books- I’m a diehard Hardy fan and can recognise that Lolita is a great work of fiction (even if I did throw that book at the wall multiple times while reading it). Yet as you may have seen in my post yesterday, even I have my limits. Sometimes there are stories and portrayals of things that just make me goddamn livid.

After watching the rape episode in Outlander, pretty much all I could think was “what the actual fuck”. And that’s a somewhat toned down version of my thoughts. I was seriously pissed off by it- which is even more surprising as I am not the kind of person to criticise a show for raping and torturing a character (hello- GOT fangirl here…)

So it got me to thinking- are there limits to what is acceptable? Can fiction ever be too much?

JJ Azar did a great piece a while back on the subject, which I highly recommend you read, but I wanted to give my reasons why violence is both good and necessary in literature:

  • “Life is suffering”– even if it’s gratuitous (sometimes even because it’s gratuitous) it’s cathartic and gives some alleviation from very real suffering
  • Furthermore, it’s often contextually relevant and realistic
  • It serves a purpose in the plot– not just for the catharsis, but sometimes it can be integral for a characters journey- which leads me onto…
  • Pain creates heroes and villains– without it these are just ordinary people- and we need extraordinary people in our fiction in order for it to deliver its message and make us feel the impossible
  • In this way it often serves a mythological and symbolic purpose in the story– images of suffering, such as those of Christ on the cross, serve as an immutable force in fiction. They carry all the weight of stories that have been remembered from the dawn of human consciousness. There is a power in that which cannot be explained by mere words.

So even though Outlander missed the mark for me- and I can see that it didn’t come close to hitting a lot of these targets- I cannot argue that there is a time when fiction ever goes “too far”. We may very well have our individual limits,  but ultimately nothing is too much if it is done well and for a purpose.

What do you think? Can fiction ever cross a line of what is and is not acceptable? I know this is definitely a more contentious issue- but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Outlander vs Outlander

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Hello all! I’m doing something a little different today with this review, because I pretty much read the book and watched the show alongside each other. So I thought I would share my experiences by comparing them. Though to be honest, my biggest impression of it is a massive spoiler for the end of the story… That said- let’s get to some of the other comparisons first.

Characters

TV Show: I preferred the main character in the TV show for sure- she had more of an edge to her and the actress breathed life into the narrative. All in all, I think the TV show does a really great job of bringing the characters in the book to life.

Book: Despite the words being the same, for the most part, this can come across a little flat in the book.  One of the main criticisms I had was that the rapey Randall came across as a moustache twirling villain– which I promise we’ll get to, in excruciating detail…

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Atmosphere

TV Show: easily has the better atmosphere– not just because of the amazing shots of Scotland, but because of the wonderful soundtrack:

Book: The prose is slightly clunky, so this can get in the way of the atmosphere, but it’s still enjoyable enough

Plot

TV Show: For the most part it’s fast paced and interesting.

Book: Sometimes feels slower in the book due to the aforementioned clunky prose, but not much difference, apart from some parts being drawn out in the book as opposed to the show. Plus I have to give the book credit for the unique concept, if not to the way rape is so integral to the plot…

*Okay time for the very long spoilery bit*

The Rape

TV Show:

So like I said, there’s a lot of rape in the book and I didn’t have a problem with it for the most part because it’s set in the 18th century and contextually accurate. Plus for the most part I personally have a pretty strong constitution. But when it comes to summing up my emotions for the episode when Jamie is raped I’m really struggling not to just let out a stream of swear words– cos let’s be honest, there was *a lot* of swearing in my notes. It was over the line for me- for many, many reasons- but mostly because it was fucking ridiculous (yeah, sometimes only swearing will do…). It wasn’t even REMOTELY realistic.

It wasn’t just that the setup was strange (I mean we could start with the fact that Randall attempts to rape everyone but only “succeeds” once) but that the progression of emotions is really weird. Now it’s not that the emotions don’t make sense- or that the writers’ intentions to show the varied psychological affects is a bad idea- but that it skips through all of these emotions far too quickly. At the same time, rather than jumbling the emotions to show how mixed up Jaime feels, it goes through each feeling on its own, which makes for a super weird viewing experience.

In fact a lot of what was wrong with the pacing. I could deal with how jarring it was to go from his recovery to the rape- yet calling this “flashbacks” would imply speed. Instead we’re “treated” to long, drawn out sequences that I can only describe as torture porn. Now that’s totally fine if that’s your jam, but it was really not what I signed up for. For some reason the show makers took the artsy route. Everything is taken slowly and shot in such a way that it actually comes across as ridiculously romanticised. Not to mention the fact that they hammer you over the head with messages and imagery- not that, say, a subtle hint of the sacrificial Christ imagery would have been a bad thing, they just felt the need to point this out to the audience, in case we hadn’t already got the allusion. The writers become so caught up with trying to *say something profound* that they actually get it all wrong.

Book: It’s a little strange to say this, but I thought this was portrayed better in the book.

There are so many reasons for this- starting with the attitudes to rape in book being more matter of fact. In a way that took away some of the stigma that becomes impossible to get over in the show. They’re all tiptoeing round and speaking in hushed tones in the show, which makes me wonder how Jamie is supposed to recover in the course of an episode. Which- to be fair- is one of the biggest differences- because what takes up 10% of the book is only 1/16 of the series. It’s a slight difference- but to be honest it felt a lot less jarring because it was given more space. Even little things, like the confession scene, feel less out of the blue.

By comparison, the book doesn’t show nearly as much detail of the rape, paying far closer attention to Jamie’s emotions and recovery. This makes the psychological drama that’s playing out in Jaime’s head work so so much better. I got the sense of him surviving, yet not being able to live with it. His speech in the book is perfectly done:

“Now it’s like … like my own fortress has been blown up with gunpowder—there’s nothing left of it but the ashes and a smoking rooftree, and the little naked thing that lived there once is out in the open, squeaking and whimpering in fear, trying to hide itself under a blade of grass or a bit o’ leaf, but not … but not … making m-much of a job of it.”

And without all those long drawn out scenes, there’s a little bit more ambiguity which works better for creating a horrifying atmosphere- imagination is a powerful tool after all. Yet even with this ambiguity, some careful distinctions are drawn- such as between arousal and enjoyment, and between participation and coercion. It is a shame then that the show dance right over these lines into some pretty murky territory.

Finally, the cleansing ritual in the book, where Claire and Jamie re-enact bits of the rape and come to terms with it, is left out. Now I get why they didn’t put it in. The logic behind the scene is almost like saying “I’ll help you get over physical abuse by punching you in the face”- which is why I’m surprised that I’m saying I think it worked in the book. As illogical as it is, it actually symbolically deals with some of the psychological scarring, making Freudian links to the Oedipal desire to return to the safety of a mother’s care, allowing him to conquer his demons and find a safe space inside his own skull. Yes, yes, I know that still sounds weird- I for one am not normally a fan of Freudian psychology- still this actually gave a small sense of closure that is completely lacking in the show.

Verdict

Ultimately, neither the show nor the book (which I rated 2.5 bananas) were good enough to continue. Everything I liked about one, I didn’t like about the other. I find it very hard to give up on things- but when it came to this, I have no hesitation saying I won’t be continuing. I guess if I want to know how it ends I’ll read spoilers online.

And if you got to the end of through this very long (and very ranty piece) I salute you!

So have you seen/read this? Did you prefer one or the other? And what did you think of that infamous rape? Let me know in the comments!