Sunday Post #1: Resolutions

Sunday PostI’m very excited to have found a new-to-me book meme in the Sunday Post.

I discovered the that house that may have inspired Mr. Darcy’s estate is for sale, and I was curious, so I did a quick Google search, and I thought I must have seen that house in a Jane Austen movie, but IMDb doesn’t list the house as a shooting location for any of them. However, two of my favorite books, which I didn’t know had been adapted for film, did appear as shooting locations: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Thirteenth Tale. What gives? Why are we not hearing about these movies/series in the US? Anyone know? If nothing else, the success of shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who must have proven we have fairly sizable appetite for British television over here in the States. I haven’t heard a thing about either production. A quick Amazon search reveals you can purchase the The Thirteenth Tale as a DVD import, but it’s pricey and most likely won’t work with US DVD players. I really want to see it. It looks like maybe Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will be on BBC America some time this year.

This week, I started reading Kathleen Kent’s second novel, The Wolves of Andover, which appears to have been reissued and retitled The Traitor’s Wife. Kathleen Kent’s website doesn’t explain the change in title. I had the opportunity to meet Kathleen Kent at an English teachers’ conference some years ago, which is when I originally purchased this book—actually, now that I’m thinking, I can’t remember if I did purchase it or if it was provided for free. In any case, I would had purchased it even if I hadn’t gone to conference and met Kent because I enjoyed her first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter. I suppose the change in title was meant to echo the title of that first novel, as both are about the Carrier family in Massachusetts. The first novel is mainly the story of Thomas and Martha Carrier’s daughter, Sarah. Martha Carrier was one the accused in the Salem Witch Trials, and her children were made to testify against her. The Wolves of Andover or The Traitor’s Wife is the story of how Thomas and Martha Carrier met and married. Here’s the trailer:

I have had the book for a long time. I was able to get it signed, and it’s dated, so you can see how long it was on my shelf before I picked it up:

The Wolves of AndoverKind of ridiculous, given I really do and did want to read it. I have had sort of a mediocre couple of reading years in 2013 and 2014, so I’m hoping 2015 will be better. So far, so good. I was able to complete three books and reviews during the first week of January:

I especially loved the first and third, which are new favorites.

I made a resolution, of sorts, to do more with this blog. I do review all the books I read, but aside from that, there isn’t as much discussion of books and reading as I would like, so I hope that participating in a few weekly memes and sharing news, questions, and other reflections might help me. Every year, it seems, I rediscover some time in December, when I’m on winter break (which can’t be a coincidence), how much I love writing on this blog. Then I get busy, and I don’t read as much as I want to, and weeks go by with no updates. It doesn’t have be all about reviews, and I often say that we make time for the things we value. If I truly value blogging here, I should make the time for it. I also need to give myself permission to make it whatever I like. It’s a reading blog, yes, but it’s also my blog, and if I want to write about other things, that should be okay. I second guess myself about writing on other topics a lot, however.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Summer Reading: Greek and Roman Myth

ancient greece photo

I have been taking an online course in Greek and Roman Mythology offered by Penn State through Coursera. I have just two weeks left, and most of my reading this summer has been for this course. I have fallen a bit behind in documenting my reading as well, which is something I hope to fix. I thought, however, that I would share the texts we have read, along with my brief reviews.

First, we read Fagles’ translation of [amazon_link id=”0140268863″ target=”_blank” ]The Odyssey[/amazon_link]. As I had so recently listened to Ian McKellen read Fagles’ translation, I opted not to re-read it, and I seemed to do just fine with the coursework.

The next text was Hesiod’s [amazon_link id=”019953831X” target=”_blank” ]Theogony[/amazon_link]. I had never read the Theogony before, and I admit I found parts of it quite interesting, at least in terms of origins for some of the popular myths with which I was familiar, including the displacement of Cronus by Zeus. This particular translation renders Uranus and Gaia as Heaven and Earth, respectively, and I admit because of unfamiliarity with the myths, I had to look that up. I think I would have liked it had their names not been translated. I found it interesting to learn, through the lectures, that the translation of “Chaos,” rendered in this translation “Chasm,” is not disorder so much as a void, which seems much more in line with the concept of the Big Bang and a move increasing toward entropy rather than away from it. In all, however, Theogony reads a little more like the “begats” in the Bible, and is not nearly as interesting as the other texts we read, though I can see why we read it.

Next we read two [amazon_link id=”0872207250″ target=”_blank” ]Homeric Hymns[/amazon_link]: the Hymn to Demeter and the Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn to Demeter recounts the story of Hades and Persephone, and the Hymn to Apollo recounts both Apollo’s birth and establishment of his Oracle at Delphi. For some reason, I didn’t get the requested translation, and I think the translations I used were a bit flowery and probably not as good. I don’t remember finding them to be all that gripping. To be honest, I can’t remember what I read much at all, which is probably not a good sign.

Afterward, we moved into Greek tragedy and read Aeschylus’s [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Agamemnon[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]Eumenides[/amazon_link]. When I was in high school, I got my hands on a list—I think I found it in a book—of texts all high school students should read in order to prepare for college. I knew my high school reading was sorely lacking, partly because I had moved so much that I went to three different high schools, and partly because we just didn’t read much. I read a lot of the books you probably remember reading in high school on my own. At any rate, Agamemnon was on that list, and I tried to read it back then and gave up. Reading it now, I think I can see why. For a play in which some interesting stuff happens, we sure don’t get to see any of it. It’s mostly some back-and-forth between Clytemnestra and the Chorus. I liked Eumenides better, mainly because it was an interesting look at jurisprudence, which was also how the course’s professor approached the play in his lectures. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Orestes must avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing, he must kill his mother, invoking the wrath of the Furies.

After this point in the course, I fell behind. I was supposed to read [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Oedipus Rex[/amazon_link] (which I have actually already read and taught before) and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]The Bacchae[/amazon_link], but I haven’t finished either one yet. Reviews to come once I do. I has been a long time since I read Oedipus Rex, but I am enjoying it great deal more than I liked either of the Aeschylus plays. However, I have had to put these readings aside in order to try, as much as possible, to catch up because this week, I was supposed to have read Books 1-5 of [amazon_link id=”0679729526″ target=”_blank” ]The Aeneid[/amazon_link] translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have to read Book 6 for next week as well as Books 3, 12, and 13 of Ovid’s [amazon_link id=”014044789X” target=”_blank” ]Metamorphoses[/amazon_link].

I think the texts were well chosen in terms of a good introduction to Greek and Roman myth, and I have to say I have learned a great deal from the lectures. I do happen to think that the pace of the course is too fast and the demands are too high for a Coursera course. I think a lot of people take Coursera courses to dip in a learn a little bit, and honestly, this one is as demanding as a normal college course in terms of time. However, it is a great course, and no one is twisting your arm making you take the quizzes or write the essays—you only do that if you want a certificate. But you know me. I have to be Hermione Granger about it. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to really savor what I’m learning. In fact, I can’t keep up.

Photo by uzi yachin

The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës[/amazon_link]. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rob Inglis

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1)I have been listening to Rob Inglis’s audio recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring while making soap. He’s a fantastic reader, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him read Tolkien. In particular, Inglis does a fabulous job with all the songs in Tolkien. Case in point, I have never much cared for the Tom Bombadil section of The Fellowship of the Ring, though I did enjoy the part where he rescued the hobbits from the barrow wights; however, this time, I quite enjoyed the magical old fellow. Same with Galadriel’s songs. His voice characterizations are quite good. I think Aragorn comes off as sounding a bit too old, but I have no other complaints. Inglis’s characterization of the hobbits is particularly good.

I decided to re-read these stories some time ago, but I find I often become bogged down in the middle of [amazon_link id=”0547928203″ target=”_blank” ]The Two Towers[/amazon_link] somewhere. I decided perhaps listening to the books might work better for me, but the books have only recently become available on Audible. If you haven’t heard them before, give Rob Inglis’s reading a chance. He’s one of the best readers I have heard, and I can’t imagine that Tolkien himself wouldn’t approve heartily of Inglis’s rendition of his work.

Rating: ★★★★★

Booking Through Thursday: Reviews

Witch Trials Book Display in Salem, MA

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question asks, “Do you read book reviews? Whose do you trust? Do they affect your reading habits? Your buying habits?”

I do read book reviews, but not necessarily in newspapers (although sometimes I do). My main source for good reviews is Goodreads. I do read Amazon reviews, but I find Goodreads reviewers are more critical, and if I am at all on the fence about a book, I check out Goodreads before I buy it. There is no one particular reviewer I follow more than others, but I do find some reviewers seem to like the same books I do. If several reviews note some fairly serious issues with a book, I am likely not to bother with it, so the reviews do affect my reading and buying habits. I can be a notorious fence sitter. I sometimes think about whether I will like something or not for a long time. Sometimes I just know I will. What’s funny about those items I think on for a long time is that they often wind up being my favorites. Still, I think that mulling over reading selections and purchases is hardly a bad idea.

What about you?

2010: A Reading Year in Review

More old books...

This year has been a good reading year for me. Some reading stats for completed books:

  • Total number of books read: 40.
  • Fiction books: 33.
  • Nonfiction: 7.
  • Audio books: 4.
  • Kindle books: 16.
  • DailyLit books: 2.
  • Books re-read: 5.

My favorite books of the year in no particular order were

The books I liked least:

I completed several reading challenges. For the Everything Austen Challenge, I read/viewed the following:

Of these books, I enjoyed Persuasion the most, but truthfully, this challenge was one of the most enjoyable for me because I liked all of the books I read and the movie I watched.

I completed Carl’s R.I.P. Challenge for the first time. I read the following books:

I always enjoy this challenge, and I enjoyed all the books I completed for this challenge, especially Dracula, My Love.

I also participated in Carl’s earlier Once Upon a Time Challenge with a read of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I read a lot of fiction about the Brontës this year and completed the All About the Brontës Challenge:

The Bibliophilic Books Challenge was a fun way to read books about authors or reading. I read the following:

The Typically British Challenge was a snap for me; as an anglophile, most of the books I read were British, but I counted the following for the challenge:

Last year I read 29 books and didn’t finish any challenges. Look for my reading goals for 2011 in a post tomorrow.

photo credit: guldfisken

Reading Year in Review

Mr. FezLast year, I reflected on my year in reading, and I felt it appropriate to do so this year as well. If I were feeling really ambitious, I would reflect on the decade, but I’m frankly not feeling that ambitious—well, other than to say my favorite reads of the decade are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

This year I read or listened to 29 books (six more than last year), the first of which was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, my favorite new author discovery of the year. I read the following books (my reviews are linked if I wrote one; if not, the link will take you to the Amazon page for the book):

Not that plowing through books in order to increase your book count is the most important thing about reading, but I have discovered three new ways to pack more reading in: 1) audio books in the car (I may be the last person on earth to figure this out); 2) reading two or three books at at time, which is weird, but does help me read more than I would if I did one at a time (must be the way my reading habits work); and 3) books on the iPhone (Stanza, Classics, Kindle, or the like). When the lights have to go out at night or when I’m stuck somewhere, I have my phone with me (my iPhone has an alarm clock on it, and I set it to wake me up—works even if the power goes off, so yes, I guess I’m paranoid), so I can get some reading done. The iPhone book reader apps are backlit, which means I can read even in the dark without disturbing my husband.

Some thoughts:

  • Jim Dale is an excellent reader of J.K. Rowling’s books. I haven’t listened to too many audio books. As I said, they’re a new discovery, but he is excellent.
  • Possibly my favorite book in this bunch (that I read for the first time) is The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was an exceptionally good biography and the best nonfiction I read this year.
  • I read five classics this year (and one book that is becoming a classic—Grendel). Not too bad as getting through some of the classics is a goal of mine.
  • Six Jasper Fforde books and seven J.K. Rowling audio books make series fantasy the dominant genre this year.
  • Best villain: Count Fosco in The Woman in White. Much more likable and well-developed than Voldemort, not as heinous and over-the-top as Black Jack Randall.
  • Best protagonist: Thursday Next in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.
  • I didn’t finish any book challenges this year. Let’s hope I do better next year. 😉

photo credit: quinn.anya

Alice Hoffman Goes Nuts on Twitter

Social networking can be a great vehicle for artists to get closer to their fans. The glimpse into the lives of artists as people and to possibly even interact with those artists are important reasons why I think so many people follow celebrities on Twitter (full disclosure, I follow Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Wil Wheaton, Michael Ian Black, John Hodgman, Joe Hill, and Neil Gaiman on Twitter). Of course, I this sort of transparency is probably not a good thing if those glimpses into the lives of artists reveal them to be, well, jerks.

Gawker posted a story about writer Alice Hoffman, who was enraged by a lukewarm review of her work by Roberta Silman in The Boston Globe. It was reminicent of when Anne Rice freaked out on Amazon reviewers. Listen, as a writer myself, I know it doesn’t feel good for someone to criticize your work, but it’s going to happen. Not everyone is going to like everything you write. They just won’t. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Amazon reviewers rated Alice Hoffman’s book Blackbird House so highly. I really didn’t like it. To be honest, in terms of a more critical and accurate rating, I think the Goodreads rating is probably closer. I gave the novel three stars on Goodreads. The current ratings for the book at Amazon and Goodreads vary by approximately one star. File that information away for next time you get a book based on good Amazon reviews and find yourself disappointed (check Goodreads!).

What’s ridiculous about Hoffman’s infantile tirade is that she’s been writing for long enough that she should know criticism comes with the territory, which also means that not every review is going to be glowing. In fact, some might even be bad. The sad thing for Hoffman is seeing her public reaction will likely turn some readers off her works. I already didn’t like the one book I read, but I wouldn’t have ruled out reading another book. You know what though? I have now. She showed absolutely no class. If, as she claims, she was truly just disappointed that the reviewer gave away too much of the plot, then why not take the high road and say something like “Disappointed that Roberta Silman spoiled too much the plot in her review” and leave it at that? And cloaking her bad behavior under the guise of defending herself or feminism was just sad. I have no desire to support someone who acts like that with my purchases or even my patronage of her books in the library. She learned a tough lesson: anything that goes on the Web can’t really be deleted.

Update: Alice Hoffman issued what is, in my opinion, a weak apology for her Twitter rant. Anytime someone starts out by saying “I feel this whole situation has been completely blown out of proportion,” well, anything that follows just sounds insincere.

Second Update: If you want to see Alice Hoffman’s entire “Twitter meltdown,” download this PDF (Thanks, Steve!).

New York Times Review of The Lace Reader

The New York Times posted a review of Brunonia Barry’s novel, The Lace Reader.  I thought the review was very fair and quite accurate, particularly about Towner’s creative writing stopping the forward motion of the plot, which was something I couldn’t articulate when I wrote my own review.  Still, I think the book is well worth a read.  Check it out!

When I have an opportunity, I’ll post my review of Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which I finished reading last night.  I am embarking on a re-read of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before I turn back to new literature.