On star ratings for books

I’ve been thinking recently about the way I rate books and how my expectations differ depending on the genre/mood/time. I recently read a YA Fantasy novel which I gave only 1 star too because it had far too much romance and very little plot for my liking. I then read a YA romance/comedy story the next day and gave it 3 stars, even though it also had a few issues with character development and plot. This made me wonder about the star rating system. I can say with confidence that all of the ratings I give are based on my feelings about a book at the time in which I read it- but I can’t say that it means anything more than that.

I think I judge funny or light-hearted stories much less harshly than I do literary fiction or fantasy novels. I suppose when we read different genres we are looking for different things, and for me, all a light-hearted book needs is to make me feel happy when I read it. A great fantasy novel has to have excellent world-building and believable characters- even if there are plot holes. A crime novel has to have a solid plot, and if it can surprise me with its twists and turns, it will be rated highly even if the characters weren’t too fleshed out. Comparing a 5-star fantasy story with a 5 star crime novel then, isn’t really possible for me. I sometimes think this makes the star rating system essentially meaningless.

Having said that, I think it’s useful for remembering how I felt about that particular book when I read it. 1 star means I really didn’t enjoy it, 5 stars means I would probably read it again/ will not forget about it in a hurry. The things I find most difficult to give ratings to are Poetry and Short story collections. Poetry is so difficult to rate as often I will completely not connect with a poem on one day, and then when I am in a different mood re-read it and think it is wonderful. I also tend to dip into collections every so often rather than reading them cover to cover, sometimes only reading one poem and then nothing else from the book for a few weeks. This means that quite often I won’t bother with rating a whole collection of poems at all! Similarly, when I read short story collections, I feel like I need to rate each story individually as some of them will really stay with me, and others are utterly forgettable. The other reason I sometimes won’t give a rating to a short story collection, is because I worry that my feelings about the last story in the collection, being freshest in my mind, will unduly influence how I rate the rest of the book.

At the end of the day, these things don’t particularly matter. I will continue to read as much of every genre as I can get my hands on, and looking for those 5 star in the moment highs. I think there is even a certain kind of enjoyment in thinking/ranting about a 1 star book!

How do you rate books? Do you think of the meanings of the number of stars as differing between genres? I would love to know!

On Podcasts

I used to watch YouTube videos or Netflix shows while cooking/washing dishes/getting ready, but wanted something that didn’t require looking at a screen. I started looking into podcasts and before I knew it I was listening to them every day. I thought I would share five of my favourites, and would love to hear about any you think particularly stand out or listen to regularly.

(I use the Castbox app on my android phone to listen to Podcasts, and like that I can control my subscriptions and choose which Podcasts I want to automatically download.)

Reasons to be cheerful: This is a podcast with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd. If I had to pick a favourite, this would be it- it’s one podcast where I listen to every episode that comes out almost immediately. I think the best way to describe it would be as a conversation about politics, but friendly. They choose different topics each week, such as the NHS, railways, Prisons and education, then speak to experts about their ideas to improve these things. The podcast always puts a positive spin on things, as they try to focus on how these areas could be made better, and what progress is currently being made. It feels like a conversation with friends and I always learn something new. I think it’s good to be able to talk about these often heavy issues in a positive way, and this podcast is always very enjoyable and cheering to listen to.

Penguin Podcast: This one is made by the publisher Penguin and has a similar feel to Desert Island discs by the BBC. They usually interview one author over the course of an episode, who brings in 5 objects significant to their current book. I find it really interesting to hear about the ideas that led to a book, and you get to know a bit more about the author and their writing process than you usually would. It feels more intimate than a written interview or article, and can sometimes lead you to different books. A standout episode for me was the one with Mohsin Hamid, author of Exit West, which I thought gave me a better understanding of the themes of the novel. He spoke a lot about borders and the way technology collapses the physical distance between people, which I found quite thought provoking.

Feel Better, Live more: This is by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, who is an NHS GP and also presents some health shows on the BBC. I stumbled across this podcast randomly, and it surprised me to find that a podcast about health could keep me engaged just as much as one about politics or books. The general format is an interview between Dr Chatterjee and a health expert/consultant/scientist, discussing an area of health and wellbeing. I find it really motivating, and quite often will learn something that I can easily implement in my own life, or which sends me down the rabbit hole of finding out more. I think what makes this so interesting is that you never feel like they are coming from a place of judgment, and they never tell you that doing one thing will definitely change everything or cure you- they review the current evidence in a measured way and give tips on how you might incorporate the findings into different lifestyles. It’s quite a relaxed and informative podcast, and I find it can give me a boost when my own health issues are getting the better of me.

The Guilty Feminist: This is a comedy panel podcast that features mainly women. They talk about big issues affecting women but the tone is usually light and fun. I like that this podcast can challenge me or make me think, without coming across as too serious or judgemental. Often, I don’t agree with absolutely everything that a panellist might think, but they tend to have a good balance of different views represented and it makes for really insightful conversation. This for me is the podcast equivalent of ‘Have I got news for you’ except more fresh and diverse. It makes me smile, or sometimes even laugh when I’m listening, and highlights the progress women are making in different areas, which I think is important when the news seems to be mainly focused on negativity. It’s also nice to hear women speaking about feminism in a normal, balanced way. Too often it’s associated with extreme views and bitterness or anger, or with people completely dismissing it. This podcast in a way reclaims the word, and I think the best thing about it is how tolerant all the panellists and audience are of each other’s opinions and beliefs.

I’m not being funny but: This podcast is hosted by Youtuber Leena Norms. It’s all about getting to know people who hold different views or associate themselves as part of different groups. Her interviews centre around questions that people might have thought of, but would have been too shy to ask. For example she speaks to a Brexit voter about why they chose to vote leave, and a friend who had a mentally ill parent about what that was like growing up. It’s an extension of her video series, ‘Stupid questions with Leena’, and while there aren’t many episodes at the moment, I’m looking forward to hearing more. I think it’s important to step out of our comfort zones and listen to perspectives that are different to ours as much as possible, to prevent us from staying in a bubble or developing an ‘us vs them’ mentality. This is a thoughtful and sensitive podcast, and always leaves me with a sense that the world is bigger than it sometimes feels.What are your favourite podcasts? Do you listen to every episode of a series or just pick out the topics that interest you? I would love to discuss!

This podcast is hosted by Youtuber Leena Norms. It’s all about getting to know people who hold different views or associate themselves as part of different groups. Her interviews centre around questions that people might have thought of, but would have been too shy to ask. For example she speaks to a Brexit voter about why they chose to vote leave, and a friend who had a mentally ill parent about what that was like growing up. It’s an extension of her video series, ‘Stupid questions with Leena’, and while there aren’t many episodes at the moment, I’m looking forward to hearing more. I think it’s important to step out of our comfort zones and listen to perspectives that are different to ours as much as possible, to prevent us from staying in a bubble or developing an ‘us vs them’ mentality. This is a thoughtful and sensitive podcast, and always leaves me with a sense that the world is bigger than it sometimes feels.What are your favourite podcasts? Do you listen to every episode of a series or just pick out the topics that interest you? I would love to discuss!

What are your favourite podcasts? Do you listen to every episode of a series or just pick out the topics that interest you? I would love to discuss!

Book review: Stay with me by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay with me follows a couple in 80’s Nigeria who are under intense pressure from their extended family to have a child. Over time, they internalise this pressure and their desire for a child consumes them to the point where they consider no method to be too extreme. I’m from an Asian background, so some of the cultural elements, like the pressure Yejide and Akin are under, the comments that their family make and the judgements of their community, were not surprising to me. These are things I’ve seen in my own culture. What did enrage me was that the two of them never stood together in the face of these things, and the decisions they ultimately made. I guess the lesson in this story is to just talk to your partner, to be honest and not deceive each other- because in the end, as Yejide points out, the biggest lies you’ll end up telling are the ones you tell yourself.

I really can’t decide on how to rate this book. The writing is very absorbing, the way Adebayo sets up the characters and the scenes makes it very easy to become invested in the story and it had me hooked from beginning to end. But. It’s so intense! The characters are complex but also kind of terrible, and a lot of the horrible things that happen could have been avoided if they were all just honest with each other. So it’s quite frustrating to read.

I think the best way I can describe it would be as a horror story about a marriage, there’s really nothing in it that’s hopeful so you end up feeling quite melancholy when it ends. It’s certainly not what I expected when I picked it up, as I had the impression it was going to be a love story initially.

When I finished this book my first thought was that it suffered from ‘A little life’ syndrome, in that by the end you feel like everything that could possibly have gone wrong, had gone wrong, and it became a little unbelievable. Unlike ‘A little life’ however, this book is not too long, and the story is paced in a way that it never feels too slow. (The writing style redeems the crazy plot!)

I really want to see what else this author comes up with, this was a brilliant debut. Even though I found the characters and some of the plot too intense, the writing itself was really great. I’m crossing my fingers that whatever Adebayo writes next is a bit more hopeful! I would still recommend this book to people, but maybe with caution. It is certainly an engaging and thought-provoking story, but it’s definitely not a happy one.

Flowers for Algernon: A Book Review

When I picked this book up, I was thinking that this year I wanted to read more classic sci-fi/fantasy. The genre has always been my favourite, the one I go to when I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for. Reading this book only made me more determined to pursue that vague goal I gave myself at the beginning of the year.

Flowers for Algernon is about Charlie, a man who has grown up with a very low IQ. He can’t read or write very well, and he has a very simple view of the world, like a child. He undergoes an operation as part of an experiment which promises to make him smarter. The experiment has previously proven successful on Algernon, a lab mouse. Charlie’s intelligence increases in leaps and bounds, to the point he becomes something of a genius. Then Algernon starts to fade, and Charlie realises the effects of the experiment are only temporary.

The story is told as a series of progress reports which Charlie is writing for the experimenters. At the start, his spelling is all over the place, and he narrates things which happen to him in a simplistic manner. You really feel for Charlie, his narration has a kind of innocence to it and he often doesn’t realise the motives of other people are not as good as he thinks. As the book progresses, his intelligence increases, and his character changes.

This was a very emotive, thought-provoking story. I think the most interesting part for me was how as Charlie’s intelligence grew, his impressions of the people around him changed- he realised the professors carrying out the experiment were human and flawed, his colleagues at work were not laughing with him but at him. It was sad, but also kind of hopeful. Even though the realisations made him angry or upset at first, he kept trying to understand and make excuses for everyone.

I think at its heart this book is about how we treat each other, and how intelligence and emotional maturity/empathy don’t always go hand in hand. We can learn a lot from Charlie’s attitude to his life and his experience, from the way that he refused to lay the blame for his situation at anybody else’s feet, even after all the heart-breaking things he finds out about his past. Despite this, you never feel like you’re being preached at when reading this book, and it makes for a quiet, thoughtful reading experience.

21

At 21 we were invincible.

Clutching degrees hard won

by dreary work on moonlit nights

Pens poised to take notes on

pages held tightly

Convinced that debate and protest could win all the many battles of our time.

Propped awake by caffeine adrenaline and ambition

A cocktail of bright ideas and unwavering dreams we

Marched out into the world confident

we were ready.

We return from work now weary and unimaginative

The mundane tasks of everyday

chipping away at the remnants of creativity we used to use as fuel

Hopes and dreams drain away with the soapy scum of dishes we let pile too high

The spark of an idea suffocates under a growing pile of unpaid bills

Never to be found again.

At 21 we were invincible.

Book Review: The beginning of the world in the middle of the night by Jen Campbell

Every time I read a good short story collection, I wonder why I don’t read them more often. It can be difficult to find collections where the stories stand out on their own and don’t meld together in my mind, and I’ve found that in general, I am drawn more towards fairy tales or magical realism when it comes to the collections I pick up. This collection, by Jen Campbell, ticks all the boxes for the kind of short stories I enjoy.

It’s a mix of dark and whimsical, and every story stands out. If I had to pick favourites I would say that ‘Jacob’, ‘The beginning of the world in the middle of the night’ and ‘Little deaths’ would be my top three. It’s difficult to describe the collection in terms of one overarching theme or style, as of my top three, one if written as a letter, one as a play, and one in first person! They all have little twists and magical elements, for example, in ‘Little deaths’ people collect spirits in jam jars.

The stories in this collection really capture the imagination and sit with you for a while after you finish them. Unusually for me, I was content to read one story at a time, rather than rushing through the entire collection cover to cover. It almost feels like you need a little break in between each one, just to savour them properly. The stories are shorter than a lot of what I’ve read previously, but they feel complete. You don’t have the sense of thinking that anything has been left out or cut off abruptly, and none of the stories get to the point of rambling or start to lose focus. I’ve always admired writers who are able to strike this balance, as I think it takes a lot of skill to know where to stop and where to give more detail.

I think what makes the collection particularly captivating is the writing style. Jen writes in a way that makes the stories feel personal, often as though the narrator is just having a chat with you. This casual, effortless way of writing has the effect of feeling as though the story has gotten comfortably under your skin before you’ve really had a chance to think about it.

I really enjoyed this collection, and I think I will find myself coming back to some of these stories again and again.


On writing something everyday


I have a terrible track record with New Year’s resolutions. Like most people, they tend to last about a week and then are forgotten until the end of the year when I’m trying to think of what I should resolve to achieve the following year. They also tend to be the same few things- I don’t think my resolutions have changed much in the last fifteen years, if I’m honest.

One resolution I always make is to do more creative writing. I don’t know when I started to consciously resolve to do this- I used to write almost impulsively when I was in school, poems and introspections and short stories pouring out without me having to stop and think about them. Somewhere along the way, if I had to guess I would say halfway through my degree, this well of creative writing dried up, and I stopped entirely (or almost entirely). So for the last few years, I have made resolutions to cultivate that creative side once again. Inevitably, my resolve never lasts.

This year, I have kind of tricked myself by starting my resolution before January. A few weeks ago, I started carrying around a notebook. I have a habit of putting down any ideas, thoughts or words that capture my interest in the notes app of my phone. I’ve always done this, but looking back at some random words weeks later tends not to be very helpful or stimulating- usually I can’t work out what I was thinking of as it’s been so long since I had the thought. For the last few weeks, I’ve used downtime like my lunch breaks at work or the half hour before getting to sleep, to write. If I get stuck for ideas or can’t get myself started on writing, I look through the notes on my phone and pick one as a prompt to get my writing going. As I’m doing this every day, I can usually remember what I was thinking of when I wrote the note in my phone.

I’ve realised that most of what I’ve written these last few weeks is utterly terrible, but the act of having written anything at all makes me incredibly happy. I’ve gone from writing prolifically, to not writing at all, to writing badly but regularly. Getting my thoughts onto the page regularly is satisfying in a way I had forgotten it could be, and hopefully, if I keep it up, one day it will feel as natural as it did when I was a teenager.

One of the reasons I probably wrote more when I was younger, was that I was less inhibited. I think as we get older we become more self-conscious, more likely to want to fit in and not stand out, and more secretive with our thoughts. As a teenager my writing was often self-absorbed. It was often emotional or tackled things head on, and I never really thought about who might read it. Now I find that the thought of what someone would think of me or of what my writing might say about me, can sometimes get in the way, and I have to push those thoughts to the back of my mind. I know that the stories I’m telling aren’t a reflection of me, that my characters often have personality traits or things which happen to them that in reality I cannot relate to at all- but that’s why I’m interested in them. That’s often the reason I’m writing-to explore something different to myself. And if I let myself be held back by what someone else might think about what I think (it’s convoluted I know!) then I’ll never get to explore these things that I’m interested in.

I suppose my resolution, then, is not as vague as ‘to write more’. It’s also ‘to write without holding myself back.’