Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Matter of Opinion...

So, I was chatting with Joanne Harris on Twitter the other day. You know, Joanne Harris? The best selling author of Chocolat and many other great novels. (See what I did there? A little name drop to start a blog post...well I was impressed!)

Anyway, the conversation was regarding book bloggers. For those of you who don't know, book bloggers review books and then post their opinions on either their own blog or on sites such as Goodreads/Amazon. Bloggers are generally unpaid enthusiasts who receive some of the books they review free through publishers, authors, marketing companies etc.

There are thousands of book bloggers out there and on the surface it appears to be a welcoming and friendly community of genuine enthusiasts. The relationship between author and blogger is reciprocal. An author provides a free book, the blogger posts an 'honest review'. Basically a form of free marketing with blog posts acting as the new 'word of mouth' endorsement of the digital era.

I became aware of a Twitter spat a few months ago where a book blogger freely admitted to posting only 5 star reviews so she would remain on the publishers 'good list'. In other words, she admitted to lying on her review posts simply to continue receiving free books and other goodies. 

As you can imagine this caused consternation in the book blogger community with plenty jumping in to denounce such behaviour.

But it got me wondering to what extent readers can rely on blogger reviews for a genuine opinion. So I asked the question.

Joanne Harris' view was that, 'Some people don't like giving negative reviews: that's their choice.'

I agree with this and it's important to keep the purpose of reviews in perspective. A review is simply a subjective opinion of one person and it's generally accepted by authors/publishers that the reviewer may decline to post a review if they don't like the book. 

But if all reviews by book bloggers are positive, (based on the assumption that negative reviews will go unwritten/unpublished) doesn't this dilute their value? Or is the value of the review determined on what the blogger likes about the book as opposed to whether they like it?

In chatting to a few book bloggers on Twitter the consensus seems to be that they would only post a review if they enjoyed the book, but also that they would only agree to accept a book for review if they thought they would like it in the first place. 

As a reader it's important to understand the value but also the potential failings of a review, whether this appears on a bloggers own site or on a commercial site such as Amazon. 

Anyone can post a review. The author's mum. The next door neighbour with a grievance. The point is that the motive behind the review might not be to provide an honest opinion, but more to boost or damage the author's reputation.  

I'd like to think that the vast majority of book bloggers out there do it for a genuine love of reading and a desire to engage with the author community. I'd also like to think that the reviews posted are genuine rather than an attempt to obtain more 'free stuff'. However, this may not always be the case.

Whether you're choosing a book based on the author, the blurb, the pretty picture on the cover or its appearance on an awards short-list, the only opinion that really matters is your own. 

How do you choose which books to read? Are reviews important to you?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Novel Intentions

I have a book. It's in my head. 

I have characters with names and backgrounds and motivation. I have a sketchy plot. I have a setting and themes. I know a little about what's it about and think I know what I want to say. 

I don't know the end or most of the middle bit but that's beside the point...

The thing is I've not actually started writing it yet.  

I've planned and plotted. I've filled out character questionnaires. I've even given some thought to research on the setting but I can't seem to bring myself to dedicating any 'real' writing to paper or screen.

I've written blog posts, short stories and flash fiction but admitting to writing an 'actual book' is another thing entirely. 

I'm about 2% sure it's a decent idea and 98% sure it's the worst idea to ever grace a human brain in the history of mankind...ever.

The idea of writing a full length novel terrifies me. 

Maybe it's the idea of committing so much time and energy to one project, which could (and most likely will) ultimately fail. Despite the thought, creativity and work that goes into writing short stories and flash fiction, I can knock them out in a relatively short period of time (compared to a novel that is) so it doesn't seem to matter as much if they aren't short-listed for a competition or snapped up for a magazine. I can just move onto the next piece. 

The chances of writing a successful first novel are like the chances of anything coming from Mars (a million to one they said...just in case you were wondering). In fact many authors' 'first' book is actually the 5th, 10th, 20th attempt. But does it matter if it's not snapped up by a publisher? Or if anyone reads it for that matter? 

Well, I've not quite worked that one out yet.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Reading For Pleasure, Not Politics

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really consider an author’s gender when I’m choosing a book. 

If I’m actively seeking out books by a particular author because I’ve enjoyed their previous work, then their gender may already be apparent. I know for example that Kate Atkinson is a woman. I enjoyed her book, ‘Life After Life’ so I bought ‘A God in Ruins’ shortly after. I know that Patrick Ness is a man and I have recently learnt that he is gay, but I read his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy because I loved ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’. In neither of these cases did I actively seek out a book written by a woman or by a gay man. In fact when I read ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by S J Watson a few years ago, I was surprised to find that the author was a man. Surprised but not shocked. He wrote a fictional account from a female perspective. Unusual perhaps, but not unheard of.

When I hear about people declaring that this year they will only read books written by women, for example, I find it a little difficult to understand. Why would you want to limit your reading experience to such constraints? So, I was pleased to read in this article that I’m not the only person who finds ‘special treatment’ of certain groups a little un-nerving.

Lionel Shriver argues that making female authors subject to special help and rules can only backfire. In fact she goes on to say that winning the Orange prize (the female only book prize now called the Bailey’s prize) was not as meaningful to her as it would have been to win the Booker prize as ‘you have eliminated half the human race from applying’.

The colour of a person’s skin, their sexual preference, their gender, their political beliefs, can all influence an author’s writing but that does not mean that the subject matter will always be drawn from the author’s real life experience. So, the real intention of reading books written purely by people from a certain demographic can only be to make a political point? 

And then to publicly declare that you're making a political point.

Would a year of publishing/reading only female authors actually make a difference to gender inequality or would it further entrench the idea that women need to be singled out for special treatment?

‘Let them have their year, then we can get back to normal.’

Equality and diversity are important issues and probably better explored in a thesis than a blog post! But I’m not convinced that equality can be gained by boosting the rights of one group at the expense of another. What about the incredibly talented young white male who is told on submission of his book, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s the women’s turn this year’, or the European who is told, ‘I’m sorry, we’re giving the Africans a chance?’

It sounds flippant and I’ve clearly not carried out thorough research (as I said: blog post, not thesis) but from a reader’s perspective I can see no logical explanation why a book would be turned down by a publisher based purely on the author’s gender, sexuality, skin colour, political persuasion, or where they stand on the ‘marmite’ debate. In fact, authors have pen-names often to overcome such preconceptions, whether intended or sub-conscious.

I’d say restricting your choice of book to authors from a certain sub-section of the population does nothing to address social injustice. A book should be judged on its merits and the losers in this particular battle are the readers who choose to play along.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Toddler Tantrum Troubles Trafford

I’m sure most people have heard about the John Lewis toddler tantrum story by now. If not, where have you been? 

Media outlets are going crazy over the story that a Mum was asked to leave (or not) the John Lewis store in the Trafford Centre as a customer complained about her 16-month old having a temper tantrum.

The first problem is how the story reached the press in the first place. If this had happened to me I’m not sure my first response would be to take it to the local paper.

The second problem with the story is that there are varying accounts of the facts. John Lewis have issued a statement saying that the employee did not escort the lady from the store but did ask her to leave, whereas the mum in question is insistent she was escorted from the store. In either case, John Lewis have apologised and said that the incident was not handled properly.

The third problem is that stories like these invite the most idiotic comments from some of the most annoying people you are likely to come across: the Perfect Parent Police. These people (the PPP as they shall now be known) may or may not have children of their own but are apparently fully qualified to dish out advice to complete strangers both on-line and in person.

In my experience, toddlers (particularly 2nd, 3rd, 4th children) are incredibly wilful beings who fully believe they are masters of their own destiny as well as the destiny of everyone around them. They are strange beasts who can go from delighted laughter to full on throw-yourself-on-the-floor tantrums at a speed Usain Bolt would be proud of.

I know this because I am currently in possession of a particularly delightful 3 year old who up until recently thought public temper tantrums were some kind of competitive sport. In fact I think the Department for Education are missing a trick in not assessing this as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Our nursery class would probably top some kind of league table.

I have carried on a conversation in the playground whilst he has rolled around on the floor. I have asked someone else to pick up the 7 year old from school whilst the 3 year old rolls around on the floor outside the park (having a park on the school run route is not ideal). I have waited outside the car whilst he kicks and screams about having to get out of the car and I have spent 20 minutes with a friend trying to strap him into his car seat because he quite fancied walking. (3 year old’s are remarkably strong!)

I have spent an incredibly painful 30 minutes waiting for the 7 year old to finish his swimming lesson whilst the 3 year old (then 2) kicked and screamed because I put him in his pushchair to prevent him from drowning. He managed to flip the pushchair over and kicked me so hard I had a bruise on my shin for a week after. On this particular occasion a fellow mum offered me chocolate, whether it was for the toddler or me I wasn’t clear but the 2 year old threw it in her face anyway!

One of the hardest lessons I learnt is that sometimes you have to let the tantrum happen. As embarrassing, as annoying, as painful as it may seem at the time, it’s a phase that toddlers need to get through. As long as they’re safe (not about to roll into the middle of the road), and it’s not too inconvenient to other people (I’m thinking libraries, public offices, theatres etc. Not shops though, regardless of how posh those shops think they are) then just let it ride out. Eventually you can give them a hug, tell them they’re OK and move on.

The PPP however, do not agree and will go to great lengths to explain this to you.

I love reading the comments which state that temper tantrums are simply evidence of bad parenting and kids shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house if they can’t behave.

I love how parents are lazy if their child is in a buggy but also if they are in reins.

I love how children should automatically know how to behave in public but they shouldn’t be allowed in restaurants, cafes etc. to test such behaviour.

I love how toddlers should be out of nappies but can’t have accidents in public.

I love how parents have to stay at home to look after their children, but also need to be out at work earning their keep.

But my personal favourite is where some sagely woman in a supermarket declares at the till that she had 2 or 3 or 4 or a dozen children thirty years ago, and none of them have ever thrown a tantrum, been naughty, answered back, asked for anything, refused to eat dinner or peed on the equipment in a soft play area.

Sagely woman, on behalf of all parents out there, I salute you. Because, quite frankly you’re talking the biggest load of BS I have ever heard.  Have a good day!

Friday, 4 March 2016

World Book Day - Love or Hate?

Yesterday was World Book Day. The only day when it’s normal to pass kids on the street (and sometimes adults) dressed as Harry Potter, Wally and a whole bunch of other characters from books and comics.

The day is intended to be a celebration of reading and children’s books in particular. All children are entitled to a £1 book token to redeem against a variety of specially commissioned titles or against the total cost of another book.

Sounds good, right? Well, not necessarily, and the day is not without its critics.

Some authors suggest that reading for pleasure should be celebrated throughout the year and having a ‘special day’ simply highlights the lack of importance placed on reading for pleasure as part of normal school and family life.

Some parents dread the thought of yet another school dress up day and the pressure this can place on families to invest time and/or money on the perfect outfit.

Some kids simply hate dressing up.

The one group of people who seem to love World Book Day are supermarket bosses. The number of special dressing up costumes available in store in the lead up to World Book Day has exploded over the last few years and is almost on a par with Halloween in terms of the number of outfits available.

The problem with lots of these outfits are that they can be relatively expensive, cheaply produced, un-washable (seriously, kids’ clothes that you can’t throw in the washing machine!!) and have little to do with books.

I have to admit to being one of those parents who walked into Tesco and bought two outfits straight off the rack. A Peter Pan outfit for the 3 year old (he’d never heard of Peter Pan up to this point) and a Poe Dameron outfit for the 7 year old (a character from the new Star Wars film - technically not book related.) They were both happy enough and I didn’t have to spend hours and cash on crafty items that would probably fall apart by first playtime. Especially as neither particularly enjoy crafts and it would have been up to me to make it!

Personally, I love the idea of World Book Day. A day spent reading, discussing books and taking part in book-ish activities. The 7 year old took part in a performance poetry assembly at school and it was fantastic! Approximately 120 year 3 and 4 kids writing and performing poetry and, based on the looks on the majority of faces, loving every minute of it.

I’m not convinced, however, by the need for kids to dress up at every available opportunity. When you add up the number of non uniform days our school (like many others) has, the financial costs start to mount up. Not only that, but there will always be that one child whose parents forgot and are then forced to be the only child at school in uniform for the whole day.

One of the reasons for school uniform is to create a level playing field. By giving kids a free reign to dress as anything it will always highlight those that have spent a lot of money or had a lot of help. If kids were given the chance to create an outfit in school it would create a level playing field for all involved, take the pressure away from parents and encourage creativity and co-operation within the school environment.

Sadly, given the limit on school time and resources to do anything beyond the currently strict curriculum, this seems unlikely.