Book Buying #2

One of my very first posts on this blog was a mini book haul, which I named ‘Book Buying #1’. That suggests that there would be more than one, so I’m finally giving it a sequel. I don’t tend to buy multiple books in one go (largely to save my bank account from a huge hit), but I think it’s nice to update when I do.

This book haul definitely has a gothic theme to it, which is particularly fitting considering October is the designated spooky month. The three books I bought are:

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and really enjoyed it, so I definitely wanted to give another one of her novels a go. I chose this one because I think it could also have some relevance to my dissertation, so it’s killing two birds with one stone. I’m excited to read this, and it’s the shortest book in my tbr so I’ll definitely be getting to it this month.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book I need to read for one of my modules, and to be perfectly honest I don’t know much about it. I’ve really enjoyed the other books I’ve read for this module, so I am quite optimistic, but this book is around 600 pages long and I definitely should have read it over summer. I’m very nervous about being able to read it in time, but clearly not enough to make a start on it yet. I’m sure my fellow literature students will be able to relate.

Finally, The Mysteries of Udolpho is another way for me to get some gothic literature into my October reading, whilst helping my dissertation research. Ann Radcliffe is one of the big names of the Gothic in the 18/19th century, so it feels only right that I should finally read it. I have read A Sicilian Romance before and I liked that, so I think I’ll enjoy this. Much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin though, I didn’t realise how long this book is- 600 pages too! I seriously need to consider how I’m going to coordinate this reading soon.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my recent book purchases. If you have read any of these books and want to let me know your thoughts, leave them in the comments!

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Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night

The Night CIrcus

Spoiler-Free Thoughts

Let me start off by saying, I do not read a lot of fantasy. At some point during my transition from YA into adult literature the genre got left behind, and now it’s very rare I get to pick up a fantasy book.

For me, though, this book just has such an alluring premise. I’ve included the quote above because I think it perfectly captures the mystery that surrounds this book. The idea of a circus that magically appears and opens only at night, with a name as beautiful as ‘the Circus of Dreams’, is almost irresistible. If you’re reading this as an adult, Morgenstein really captures the feeling of being a child, and staring in wonder at all the things that are beyond understanding and therefore must be magic.

It’s set in an ahistorical Victorian England, and I think Morgenstein really uses the mystery that we perceive the past to be cloaked in to enhance her story. As you travel across countries with the circus and its characters, she creates a world that is slightly unfamiliar to you, never allowing you to fully decide whether the difference is because it is a past version, or because of magic. The same can be said for time in the novel, as Morgenstein manipulates the passing of time so that everything feels a little bit distorted.

Her descriptions of the circus itself and the wonders within the tents is where the true literary magic of this book lies, and it really does alight a childish curiosity in you. I thought the characters were well-written and complex, and their relationships to one another felt very genuine and real. If you get into this book because of the concept, you will very quickly become invested in the characters and their various fates.

If you don’t want to see any spoilers, scroll to the bottom of the review to see my concluding thoughts and my rating!

In-Depth Thoughts (Spoilers!)

We start the book with a very enchanting description of the circus, and I actually did like the POV sections that intermittently interrupted the narrative. Sometimes it felt a bit disjointed, but I think in a fantasy book that’s so set on fully emerging you in the world you can get away with it.

At first I found the initial stages before the circus was established a bit confusing. I kept getting confused about whether Celia was with Prospero or Mr A.H. and vice verse with Marco, but once I had my characters straight I really enjoyed it. I liked having an insight into the two different teaching styles because it really cemented the point of the competition beyond it just making for an interesting plot.

Now, I have seen a lot of people say that they were disappointed because it wasn’t a typical duel per se, but I didn’t have that expectation and therefore wasn’t disappointed. I thought the drawn out, passive duel was actually really unique and fit the novel far better. It was very cool to see how their tents reflected their personality and also their relationship with each other, both as competitors and later romantically.

I don’t normally like romance inserted into books that don’t really need it, but here I think it really worked. It was a bit of a basic and predicable star-crossed lover situation, but I fell for it.

The peripheral characters were also really interesting, and I liked the Morgenstein didn’t use the ‘circus freak’ stereotype as a cheap way to make them interesting. They each had their own complexities and depth, and were integral to the narrative even in a minor way. I really enjoyed the Poppet, Widget and Bailey subplot which turned out to be the solution to the competition, and these characters also helped to really activate my childish curiosity by seeing the circus through their eyes.

The ending was quite intense, and I was really rooting for them to find a solution that kept everyone safe. I thought Bailey was a really good choice to continue on the circus, and it emphasised the idea that it is a welcoming and inclusive space for those who feel like they belong. I liked that Prospero’s death wasn’t just a convenient way to make both sponsors abandon their competitors, but rather gave the idea so that Celia and Marco could stay together and escape the bounds of the competition.

Concluding Thoughts and Rating

Overall, this is a great fantasy novel that will make you feel like a child again. It’s a really well-written magical atmosphere, and the characters are easy to invest in. If you love magic and the circus is a setting that intrigues you, you’ll like this book.

I’m rating The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein four stars.

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Top 5 Surprising Books I’ve Studied at University

When a lot of people think about studying literature at university, they usually think of a very classics-dominated syllabus. Chaucer, Eliot and Dickens are probably among the names that spring to mind. I know this is partially what I was expecting, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Of course, these books are on the syllabus somewhere, however I’ve been lucky enough to go to a uni that allows a lot of flexibility in terms of modules you can take. As a result, there have been times when I’ve been genuinely surprised by the books on my reading list for a multitude of reasons.

I think it would be really interesting to talk about five books that I’ve had to study on my literature course, and I also think it would help to reduce the misconception that all literature courses are narrow and restrictive. I’m sure I have been lucky with my university’s willingness to give us lots of freedom to choose modules that suit our research goals and personal taste, but it might be interesting for you to see the variety of books it’s possible to study at university.

Intellectual snobbery is something I’m very passionate about reducing, so I hope this helps to show that literature is worth reading even if it isn’t a classic!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

We studied this on a module called ‘Law and Literature’, and we focused on the theme of surveillance and control for this novel. Anyone who has read The Hunger Games will know that this book perfectly exemplifies these themes, but for some reason I didn’t think YA would be included on a reading list unless we were specifically looking at YA literature.

I know a couple of my friends on other courses were very surprised when I told them I was reading this in my final year of university, but I honestly think that just shows how far spread intellectual snobbery has gotten. Some of these people barely read themselves, yet they felt comfortable enough to judge the value of a book based on its target audience.

Honestly, as well as the fact I already owned and had read this book, I really liked studying this. It was really interesting to see how the serious messages that Collins included were tailored for a YA audience, and how scarily accurate its take on surveillance and state control compared to things in the real world. It showed how the dystopian genre can be used to highlight problems in our society without directly criticising current governments, and I think that really valuable research could arise from analysing this novel in this area of study.

This is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans

In a similar vein to the last book, this was surprising to me because it’s written for children. At a masters level, you wouldn’t necessarily expect an academic to choose this for one of the main weekly readings, but it is!

I read this for a module called ‘Evolutions of Popular Literature’ which looks at how popular themes and myths are passed down through the literature of different eras. When you think about that specific research goal, using a children’s book that focuses on a werewolf makes complete sense, and is really valuable in its own right. We are comparing this to stories about werewolves from centuries earlier and looking at how certain elements are dropped or adapted to create a story that is engaging for a modern reader.

Considering children’s literature is a really important part of popular literature, it seems silly that some people would overlook it just because it’s not considered ‘high’ academic work. If you really like figures from myths and legends, looking at children’s literature and its presentations of those figures is a really interesting perspective that not many people have probably taken!

Cloud Nine by Carol Churchill

Okay, so not technically a book, but I studied this play in one of my first year core modules. I’ve included it because, firstly, it shows the different types of literature I got to study, even when I didn’t have the chance to pick my modules.

I also think the content of this play is different to what I’d expect from a literature degree. It’s split into two acts, with the first focusing on racist violence and power in colonial times, and the second on homophobia and familial power in modern times.

It’s quite an explicit play, that shows people getting shot, having gay sex and one particularly crude moment where a man receives oral sex on the London Underground. Although talking about this was awkward at first in seminars, it was really great to tackle serious and adult topics after being at school where everything seems a little bit watered down and sheltered.

If you think that classics are the main texts studied on a literature course, it might shock you to hear that a play so explicit and modern would be included!

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

This book surprised me less because of its content as it’s context. This is a book that was originally written in French by Comoran author Zamir, and was subsequently translated and published in English.

Before I came to university, I had heard that you really had to seek out modules that contained books written by non-White non-British authors. The module I chose wasn’t specifically aimed at this, but instead looked at ‘Literature at Sea’.

We did read the classic Moby Dick, but we also looked at several writings by other authors less well-known. What made me even more surprised about this book was that it was translated, adding even more interesting areas of analysis. We were considering the role of a translator and how important their choices were in terms of shaping the narrative and making comment about certain themes, as well as the original author’s choices.

I think this is probably an area that my university is quite good as, as there are often multiple books on the reading list by authors outside Britain and America.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

This is a little bit of a cheat because I technically didn’t study this, but my housemate did so I think it can just about count towards this list.

In final year, there was an optional module that looked at regency and modern romances, and the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the readings for it. Now, I don’t think it was necessarily picked because of the quality of the book, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to contribute to research in the field!

I think this surprised me for a lot of reasons. Firstly, reading something very sexually explicit with a seminar tutor sounds like an awkward experience, but also that the novel wasn’t just dismissed as smut and cast aside. There are academics who look at modern hits like Fifty Shades to see how a range of trends and conventions have adapted in today’s world.

What I learnt from this is just because the book you’re reading might be about something that doesn’t seem very academic, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading or it can’t have academic value.

I would love to hear from any fellow literature students about your experience of the range of literature you’ve gotten to study! I hope everyone has been as lucky as me, but I know that isn’t always the case, so I’d love to start a discussion about it in the comments!

I’m thinking of making a little university series of blog posts where I talk about other aspects of my degree, so if you’d like that let me know in the comments and give me suggestions for what you’d like to hear!

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October Hopeful Reads

In the spirit of the new month, it’s time to set myself some goals for my reading this month. Last month I did technically manage this, but I had quite a bad month for reading overall, so hopefully I can change that in October.

I’m still going to be keeping my goals fairly vague and not identifying a set tbr, largely because my course reading makes this really difficult. My academic reading has to take priority, which means my tbr can change dramatically week-to-week.

My first goal for the month is, of course, to do all my reading for university. I don’t really have much room to not achieve this one, so it’s a pretty safe bet. I also have quite a lot of poetry to read in the next few weeks, so whilst these won’t count towards my total books read, it’ll give me some nice variety.

My second goal is to keep reading for pleasure at least once a week. I’ve really enjoyed this over the last couple months, and I’m pretty determined to find time in my week to continue. I think I’m going to focus on the gothic genre (as it is spooky season), reading both older and contemporary works. I’ll also be continuing to re-read the Percy Jackson series, which hopefully I can finish by the end of the month.

My aim for total books read in October is 8. I think 2 books a week will be a realistic yet challenging aim, and if I can make half of those reading for pleasure I’ll feel really accomplished.

I’d also really like to listen to at least 1 audiobook this month. My first experience of audiobooks last month was a really nice change in my reading habits, and I think audiobooks will be a really great way to read for pleasure that’s compatible with my studies. If anyone has a good audiobook suggestion please let me know in the comments!

Finally, I just really want to try and read consistently this month. I had quite a few times in September where I just didn’t pick up a book for a range of reasons. If I can try to minimise this, I’ll be really happy.

So there we are, that’s my hopes for reading in October. I hope you all have a great month, and that you’re looking forward to more reading!

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September Wrap-up

This has been a really strange month for me, in terms of reading and just in general. Still I thought it would be nice to look back over the books that I’ve read this month, and see whether I stuck to the goals I set for myself at the start.

It’ll only be a short post, but I think it’s nice to have these monthly wrap-ups to look back on.

The books I’ve read this month are:

  • The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
  • Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe
  • This is not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I’m happy with the number of books I read considering this month has been a bit all over the place. I moved back to university, I went away for a week and I’ve struggled with mental health, so seven books in one month is good considering the days I spent actually reading.

In terms of what I read, I’m really happy too. There’s a good mix between reading for pleasure and preparatory reading for university in there, which were my two main goals for September. Whilst my ratings weren’t as consistently high as they were in August, I did enjoy what I read, and I got round to reading some long-term tbr pile books. I also discovered a new love for audiobooks, which I’m really happy about.

Speaking of audiobooks, my favourite book of this month was definitely The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Please check out my review, and if you haven’t read it definitely pick it up soon!

I’ll publish a post talking about my hopeful reads for October soon! Let me know in the comments what your September reading looked like!

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The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

I knew this book was going to be beautiful and moving, and to be honest that’s the very thing that put me off for so long. I wanted my mind to be in the perfect place to appreciate it.

I’m so glad I waited.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Spoiler-Free Review

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I firstly just have to say if you like listening to books in that format you need to do so for this book. It really enhanced my reading experience, and it was very compatible with the story itself. The narrative is told very much like someone is telling the story of Nuri and Afra’s journey (although it is 3rd person), so the audiobook just enhanced this.

The plot is very engaging, and it really maintains the suspense right until the end of the book. There is some time jumping which occasionally confused me, but that could be because I listened to it rather than read it. Even though it isn’t fast-paced, I was completely hooked from the offset, and just wanted to know how the story was going to unfold. There are definitely twists and turns, which makes the story feel very unique and yet realistic.

The characters are really complex, and Lefteri avoids writing any two dimensional characters. If you want a book where you really connect to the characters, this is the one for you. I think this is what makes the book so great, because you get the sense that these could be real people who are going through very real problems. Lefteri never shies away from a difficult topic, but rather handles them beautifully.

The best thing about this book though is just the beautiful descriptions that Lefteri gives. You can picture the scenes perfectly because they are crafted so eloquently throughout. Every setting is presented as having good and bad aspects, which really helps to create a sophisticated portrayal of the places she writes about.

If you don’t want to see any spoilers for this book, scroll to the bottom of the review to see my concluding thoughts and rating!

In-Depth Review (Spoilers!)

I love the way that the plot always keep you in suspense for what’s coming next by splitting their journey into stages. With each new place or country they reach, there’s another difficulty that brings doubt to their successful arrival in England. Not only does this make the book feel like a very realistic portrayal of the struggle to seek asylum across the world, it also makes for a very engaging read. Never did I feel bored or less invested, because I was constantly worried about what was going to happen next.

I also found it interesting to see the different types of places they had to stay in. Their house in Aleppo, the refugee camp, the safe house in the school and the second camp never felt repetitive, and it allowed Lefteri to show the flaws with each setting. If anyone was ever unsympathetic to refugees or needed reminding of the poor condition in camps, then this would be the book to give them.

I really loved how Nuri and Afra’s relationship was written, because it felt so real. They were never painted as ‘perfect despite hardship’ like a lot of books do; their relationship was flawed and complicated. I really felt for both of them, and the emotional investment that Lefteri invites with her characters is on another level. I really felt for both of them, especially during the flashbacks when you learn what happened to their son. Learning about Nuri’s PTSD and Afra’s trauma-induced blindness was heartbreaking, especially because you then have to watch all of the hurdles they face in their journey make it worse.

I really didn’t expect Mohammed to be a trauma-driven replacement for their son, so that was a really nice yet devastating twist in the story. I had to rewind my audiobook and re-listen to make sure I’d heard right, but it was the perfect way to bring the story to a close. After the emotional experience of reading the book, having a more uplifting ending was definitely a good choice, and infuses the book with an irresistible bittersweet feeling.

The tertiary characters were just as well-written as the main ones. The Moroccan man, the man with the ‘wings’ and Mustafa all had their individual characteristics and development despite not being central to the story, which really enhanced the book’s realism. Everyone in this story has some experienced some kind of tragedy, even the ‘villains’, adds to the beautiful complexity that Lefteri creates.

My only qualm with the book was at time it was hard to keep track of who all the characters were and where they fit in with the chronological journey from Aleppo to England. This might have been purely down to me listening to it rather than reading it, but at times I felt a bit lost in the story.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I would encourage everyone to read this book. It is very serious and emotional, but what Lefteri writes about is so important, especially in today’s world. Her writing is beautiful, and I can almost guarantee you will get absorbed by her rich plot and characters.

I’m giving The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri 4.5 stars.

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How I Rate my Books

I’ve been writing this blog for around two months now, and I thought it would be interesting to give a break down of how I rate the books I read! Obviously you can tell from the reviews I give individual books, but there is a rough overarching scale that I use to assign ratings to books.

I think it’s really interesting to read how other people rate the books they read, and what elements they prioritise when deciding this! We all have very different qualities that we look for in books, and I think it helps you get to know the reviewer when you can see their thought processes.

So without further ado, let’s get started! I will only be looking at full star ratings, but I do sometimes give half star ratings, so if it would be helpful for me to do a blog post about how I make that decision let me know in the comments.

One Star

This is a rating I really don’t ever give, because I don’t tend to read many books that I really dislike anymore. I think I’ve fine tuned what I like to read in my head at this point in my life, so I tend to pick out books that are at least a two star read.

However, a one star read for me is a book that was very disappointing. Maybe it was a genre that I was interested in trying for the first time and it didn’t end up appealing to me, or maybe it’s a book in a genre I love that just fell flat.

I’d say that one star and DNF’ing a book almost go hand in hand, but I rarely find a book so bad that I can’t find any redeeming qualities in it. There’s usually at least one section or element of the writing that helps me to carry on and gets it a higher rating.

Maybe I’m too generous with my reviews, but I do think looking at books from an academic standpoint also helps you to see the better aspects as well as the bad. Even if the plot was dry and the characters were awful, there was probably a choice of writing style or narrative voice that I really liked.

I would just like to say that if I DNF a book, or I find it offensive and don’t want to read anymore, I would give it zero stars. For me, even a one star book has to have at least one small redeeming feature, even if that’s just me being able to read until the end.

I can’t give an example of a book that I’ve given one star too yet. I’ll update this post if I ever do, but hopefully that will never happen

Two Stars

Much like my one star rating, two star reads tend to be books that were disappointing. They were probably very hyped up online, and I just didn’t share everyone else’s enthusiasm for them.

This tends to be books that were from a genre that I like and fell short of the other books I’ve read. Not the worse book I’ve ever read, and I can appreciate some aspects of the book, but overall I wouldn’t really recommend it unless someone loves the author or the genre and is really interested in it.

Sometimes I think two star books are sometimes worse than one star books because I always have more hope for them. There’s nothing worse than getting a book with a really interesting premise that just doesn’t amount to much.

I also think that two stars reviews are often more because of personal preference than the book being objectively bad. If I’ve given something a two stars, I definitely don’t think it’s a bad book, it just wasn’t for me.

An example of a book I’ve given a two star review is The Watsons by Jane Austen.

Three Stars

We’ve finally broken into the more positive reviews! Three stars is, of course, a book that was middle of the road. It was an enjoyable read, but not something I’d necessarily rush to re-read or recommend to everyone unless it met their personal tastes.

For me, a three star book perhaps is one from a genre I don’t normally like and that surprised me by being enjoyable, or a book that I thought I’d quite like and it met those expectations.

I always feel boring when I give three star reviews because it’s such a neutral standpoint in my opinion, but quite often that’s what fits the book! I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I enjoyed it for what it was but it didn’t change my life. I probably give out the more three star ratings than any other rating, maybe because I’m trying to make sure I’m not being too generous when reviewing.

The writing and characters are usually good in three star books, and it was interesting enough to keep my attention throughout the whole thing.

An example of a book that I’ve given three stars to is Pine by Francine Toon.

Four Stars

This is another rating that I rarely give out, and I think it’s because I struggle to differentiate between books that I really love, and books that I like a lot. Nevertheless, four star books are ones that I really enjoyed, but just had an element missing to stop it from being one of my favourite reads.

This usually tends to be a book that is from one of my favourite genres, or really surprised me in enjoying it so much. The plot and characters were really interesting to me, and I never felt bored or like I was struggling during the reading process. There might have just been one small problem with the premise or the ending that made me wish something was slightly different.

I think there’s a really big drive to not give all books you enjoy a five star review and to think critically to identify which books were really amazing and which fell slightly short. I’m definitely going to try and give more four star reads in the future.

An example of a book I gave four stars to is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

Five Stars

And finally we reach the pinnacle: the five star rating. These are the best of the best, the books that you finish and just want to start over again straight away. I try not to give too many five stars out, so when I just can’t resist I know it’s worth it.

For me, five star books are almost always from my favourite genre, and probably my new favourite book within it. I would recommend this to anyone, regardless of their taste in books, because I’m sure it’s that good.

They’re the type of books that you can’t think of a way to make them better, which is so rare but so great when you find them.

I really think that people shouldn’t shy away from rating books five stars. I get why you shouldn’t give every book you like five stars, but honestly I think it just encourages others to give those books a try, which in my opinion is the whole point of book reviewing! I definitely am not scared to give books five stars, as much as I try to keep things critical and not be too generous!

An example if a book I gave five stars to was Mythos by Stephen Fry.

Thank you for reading! Let me know what you use to choose how to rate the books you read in the comments!

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The Watsons by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of the most famous English authors of all time. Everyone is bound to have read one of her books at some point, whether it be at school or out of personal choice. However, The Watsons is one of her less well-known works.

It is an unfinished story that focuses on Emma Watson, who is cast out of her rich Aunt’s house and has to return to the family home. Upon doing so, she becomes entangled with her sisters’ search for a suitor, and begins to negotiate her place in polite society.

I’m not going to split my review into spoiler-free and spoiler sections, because I don’t think there’s enough to say without addressing specific details, and as the book is unfinished there’s not really anything to spoil in terms of plot. Like this story, my review will be short. If you don’t want to know specific details, feel free to exit this review now!

Review

I think what’s most interesting about The Watsons is the fact it’s unfinished. Thinking about why Austen abandoned this novel, and how the plot may have developed had she not abandoned it, adds a dimension of intrigue to the novel. I actually think it helps to remove the barriers that are seen to surround the giants of classics because it shows that they were humans too. If you’re an aspiring author, surely that’s a far more inspiring perspective to take of Jane Austen than simply looking at her most successful novels.

Unfortunately, however, this story isn’t the most interesting in terms of its actual content. It doesn’t really have any elements that are unique from the other Austen novels- even the main characters’ name is the same as the more popular Emma. If you never read The Watsons, you won’t have missed out on much.

All the problems with this book do ultimately come down to the fact it is unfinished. The plot never really goes anywhere, and all the set up never pays off because of this. It’s hard to invest much in the characters, or form a personal opinion on them, because we don’t have enough time around them or see how the consequences of their actions and attitudes.

The writing, of course, is great, and Austen captures polite society and its inner workings perfectly. But for me, this book has little of the charm that other Austen novels do, and good writing unfortunately isn’t enough to make this an engaging read.

Concluding Thoughts

If you’re a big Austen fan, then definitely give this a read. It’s very short, and it’ll give you a much more grounded view of her development as an author and her story writing process. It is interesting to consider why she abandoned this story, and I do think if she hadn’t have done it would’ve made for a very engaging read.

However, if you don’t like classics or you aren’t that interested in Austen beyond her popular works, I would say give this a miss. It’s nothing different from any other work, and reading Emma would be a more interesting alternative to this story with a similar plot.

Overall, I would give The Watsons by Jane Austen 2 stars

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Reading Formats

The debate that often gets talked about, and has proven very controversial as technology advances, is physical book versus e-book. However, this binary is too simplistic nowadays, as more ways of reading emerge, and our own habits no longer tie us solely to one camp or the other.

I thought it would be interesting to speak about my thoughts on the different reading formats, and talk how this has changed in recent years.

Physical Books

We have to start with the tradition method of reading: the physical book. I think there’s a really interesting purity complex that surrounds the glorification of the physical book that’s quite unique to the reading community, in that it diverts from society’s common valuing of the new and technologically advanced.

Personally, I prefer reading physical books. It’s nice to hold the book in your hand, it feels more like an active process of reading than a passive one, and you get to keep it on your bookshelf as a physical memento. It’s also nice to cut down screen time, especially after a year of online learning that I’m sure has done permanent damage to my eyesight. I do have to admit, reading a physical book does feed into my ‘I’m a reader’ superiority complex, because it signals to everyone what you read, and that you read a lot.

However, there are definite downsides to reading physical books. They’re hard to transport, they’re breakable, and they tend to be more expensive. And yet, we seem to cling to them despite these disadvantages and form an emotional connection with the books themselves. I have books that I would never want to throw away because of the nostalgia they hold, or because someone special to me bought it as a gift for me. I think it’s this hook that brings us back to physical books, and brings horror to us when we hear about more and more libraries being closed in favour of providing the books online.

E-Books

Kindles have been popular for a good few years now, and I can definitely see why. Being able to transport that many books with you at once definitely would prevent the feeling of not being in the mood for any of the books you chose to take with you, and offers the chance to have instant access rather than waiting for delivery or going to a book shop. Aside from buying the actual device to read it on, a lot of e-books can be found for cheap or for free on online book resources, which makes reading a lot more accessible. I think accessibility also comes from e-books being more adaptable for those who struggle with reading in terms of changing text size and colour and background colour.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of e-books. I think this might partially arise from studying because our secondary reading is always online, so after spending all day reading on a computer I like to switch to a physical book. I just also find that I’m less engaged when I read online for some reason, and I don’t know if my brain still associates reading online only with things like news articles or blog posts that don’t require quite the same mental processes. You also lose the physical show of your progress a little when you’re online, because although a lot of devices show you the percentage that you’ve read, the physical movement of pages from one side to another motivates me a lot more.

I would just like to say that I think reading on a kindle or another online reading device is a lot more appealing to me than reading on my phone. For me, the key thing is making reading a separate activity, and staying on my phone doesn’t really give me that. The main thing holding me back from e-books is that I don’t think I’d use a kindle enough to warrant spending the money on it.

Audio-books

For a long time, I swore I hated audio-books. I didn’t get them and they just weren’t for me. However, I recently tried to use an audio-book to get me out of a reading slump, and it worked. I really enjoy listening to podcasts, so why not audio-books? There’s not that much difference between the two. So I’ve decided to give them another try, but only in specific contexts.

My problem was always that my attention drifts very easily, and I felt like I was missing half the story. It’s a very passive form of reading, and I found it frustrating that it took twice as long to listen to them (even on 2x speed) as I could read the book myself. I’m not the type of person that would listen to audio-books whilst doing something- I definitely need to be sat still. I think that’s really important with choosing reading formats; you can have different preferences depending on what you’re doing. Like I said at the start of this post, you don’t have to be in one camp or the other.

I listened to an audio-book on a long train journey I took recently and I really enjoyed it. I don’t get travel sick, but I don’t really like reading physical books on trains, so it was the perfect compromise. I also think the book I was listening to (The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri) was really well-suited to the audio-book format (I’ll talk more about this in the review I post for this book). So, maybe my thoughts are changing regarding audio-books, but I don’t think they’ll become the main reading format I reach for.

Overall, I think that my loyalty still lies to the physical book, but I am starting to diversify a little. Honestly, I don’t think any format can categorically be labelled as the best for everyone, because we are all so different and want different things from our reading experience. Instead of viewing the different formats of reading as competitors, we need to start seeing them as a way to find what best works for you, and solve a problem that arises in specific areas and contexts of your reading.

I still personally have a long way to go with figuring this out, but I’m glad I’ve started to diversify my reading!

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The Dinner Guest by B.P. Walter

Four people walked into the dining room that night. One would never leave.

Matthew: the perfect husband

Titus: the perfect son

Charlie: the perfect illusion

Rachel: the perfect stranger

Charlie didn’t want her at the book club. Matthew wouldn’t listen.

And that’s how Charlie finds himself slumped beside his husband’s body, their son sitting silently at the dinner table, while Rachel calls 999, the bloody knife still gripped in her hand.

Spoiler-Free Review

Crime and murder mystery fiction is something I’ve read a decent amount of in the past year, so I feel in a good position to review a book like this.

I think Walter does a great job of misdirecting the reader’s attention and focus throughout this book, and I think there are enough elements that you’re unlikely to correctly guess the whole plot. The characters are all fairly unlikeable, and I think this really aids the misdirection; there’s no character you completely trust, and therefore nothing is out of the question

I really enjoyed the non-linear structure of the narrative, because it kept the mystery alive and fed details through in a way that at times became more confusing the more that was revealed. I’m a big fan of crime novels that manage to keep readers at the same level of understanding as the characters in the novel and yet feed them pieces of information that the characters are missing. This book definitely achieves that.

The only downside to this book comes from its genre: at times it does rely quite heavily on classic crime genre tropes. There’s only so much difference a murder mystery can have, and the idea of the looming dinner party does give it a unique twist, but there was nothing I haven’t read before in this book. Of course, there’s nothing necessarily bad about a book not being completely unique, but some of the events seemed far too theatrical for the realism of the plot because it follows crime tropes more fitting in less reality-based novels.

Overall, if you like crime and murder mystery fiction, definitely give this book a read. You won’t miss out on anything ground-breaking if you don’t read it, but you won’t regret it. I read this in one sitting, so it’s definitely captivating and a good mystery to explore.

In-Depth Review

I think the plot is very clever because as much as it uses tropes from the crime genre, it also alludes to and dismisses others. From the start, it becomes fairly clear that Rachel should be the main suspect. She stalks them to London, is found snooping around their house, and is the one holding the bloody knife. Walter alludes to the classic stalker murder story line, and then recovery’s your suspicions onto Titus. We’re shown his grandparents and Charlie convincing him to get his story straight and lie after the murder, he seems to be captivated by Rachel and is frustrated with his controlling father. Again, a son kills father narrative is alluded to, when finally Charlie is highlighted as the suspect. But the blame extends past his physical murder.

I thought it was clever to extend the mystery beyond the murder itself, and it becomes clear that the events themselves echo Charlie and Matthew’s relationship: perfect from the outside, messy and broken on the inside. Their model gay relationship is really a sexless and fading one, their perfect family is shrouded in the guilt of Matthew’s murder of Titus’ biological father, and their new book club member is determined to expose them for all their misdeeds.

I went down many wrong paths whilst reading this in an attempt to guess the plot. At first I thought Matthew was responsible for Rachel’s mother’s death (wrong family member but close!), then I thought she was in love with Titus (very glad I was wrong about that) and many more theories that were disproved. I guess that stands testament to Walter’s ability to write an effective mystery. I think that’s what makes this book really work, because you end up vaguely guessing the right events but getting the characters involved wrong, or vice versa. The events themselves (an affair, revenge for a family member, a stalker) aren’t exactly unique, so I think without this misdirection and Walter’s carefully planned release of information this book would be underwhelming.

In terms of the characters, Walter creates people that are unlikable, but still realistic. No-one is reduced to a stereotypical villain, and they all retain a crucial aspect of humanity that keeps the book firmly placed in reality. This is part of the reason why I found the ending a little problematic, because the theatricality of Rachel recording her conversation with Charlie and using it to blackmail him and Matthew’s mistress started to creep into the stereotype. I understand it sets up the potential for a sequel, and it did create a final sense of dread that undercut the resolution of the crime, but it just felt a bit odd considering the rest of the story felt like it could happen to anyone.

Concluding Thoughts

I think this is a really good example of a murder mystery that is firmly grounded in reality, and yet has all the twists and turns that make it theatrical in its own way. If you’re a huge fan of the crime genre it’s definitely worth a read, but I don’t think it would be anything new to you. For me, it’s a great murder mystery that demonstrates how stereotypes and tropes can be used without it feeling repetitive or already done.

I’m giving The Dinner Guest by B.P. Walter four stars.

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