How do you know a book is going to be good?


How do I know a book is going to be good? Well, I can tell you what does not necessarily help:

  • A description that sounds good
  • A blurb by an author I like
  • Reviews that make it sound great

I’m always getting sucked in by these marketing ploys, but even when they are from trustworthy sources, people who usually like the same kinds of books as I do, I’ve been sorely disappointed. And even when I’ve read and enjoyed other books by the same author, I can get a huge letdown.

Almost nothing can reliably tell me whether I will like a book, it seems, except for actually reading it. If after about 50 pages my interest is still not sparked, I now tend to drop the book and move on to other things.

There have been a few times when after pressing myself further my opinion turned around, but that is rare. Usually, if the style or subject matter grates on me from the beginning, or if I feel hopelessly befuddled or bored, it’s a sign that things are not going to get much better — for me, anyway.

What are your go-to ways of telling whether a book is going to be worth your time?


Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Do you find some book titles confusing?



With the ever-proliferating number of books out there, it’s hardly surprising that some titles are similar or identical. What I do find surprising is that some of these books are not separated by years or genres, but are published close together, making confusion quite likely. One would think publishers and authors would take more care to make their books stand out and be different from the crowd. But perhaps it’s a way to get their books read, jumping on the bandwagon of someone else’s publicity? Perhaps uniqueness is not a value in the publishing world? Who knows what goes on in those inscrutable minds?

In a special category of confusion verging on the infuriating is the titling trend “X of Y and Z” which I already wrote about here. Recent examples in addition to my original list include Worlds of Ink and Shadow, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Whispers of Shadow and Flame, House of Ash and Brimstone, House of Salt and Sorrows …  I simply cannot understand why there are so many of these, and I wish the trend would stop!

But aside from that, there are some other titles that are especially hard for me to keep straight — thus today’s topic, and the examples below. Do you have the same experience? What titles do you find most confusing — and does it bother you, too?

Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (2006)
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafón (2001)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)
One Day by Gene Weingarten (2019)

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)
A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders (2014)

The Great Library, series by Rachel Caine (started 2015)
The Invisible Library, series by Geraldine Cogman (started 2015)

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

What counts as reading?

As I keep track of my reading, I have to make some decisions as to what makes it onto my list of completed books. Does it count if I skim or skip a substantial portion? What if I stop reading partway through and then take it up again — should I start over from the beginning? What about reading aloud, where there are often interruptions — my husband reads one night instead, or my son takes the book and reads part of it on his own? How about collections of essays, poetry, short stories and such, where sometimes there are pieces that just don’t speak to me and that I don’t want to spend time reading?

When there are are substantial gaps like these, I usually don’t count those books as “read.” To do so would make me feel guilty, as though I were perpetrating some deception. But am I being too strict? Do I have to read every single word of a book in order to put it on my list? Do you have a rule of thumb in these cases — a percentage, or a page count that you could skip and still consider that you’ve read the book?

Then there are format questions. Some people seem not to consider audiobooks as “real reading,” which I think is nonsense. Yes, a voice actor has taken over some of the activity that normally goes on in your head, but you still have to pay attention and take in the words. The book comes alive in your imagination through listening,  just as much as when you process it by reading. Still, it is a somewhat different activity, even if we don’t have a different word for it in our language.

E-books raise questions for me as well. Of course this is just another way of taking in words on a page, so it’s certainly “reading” from that point of view, but after completing an e-book — especially a complex and many-layered one, like Awakenings — I often feel as though I haven’t really grasped it. When only one fragment is available to me at at time, the whole seems to slip beyond my reach. Can I truly say that I have “read” it, that I have gradually come into possession of that wholeness which is the book?

Trifling questions, perhaps, yet they nag at me. What are your thoughts? How do you decide which books to count as “read”?

Does reading get better as you age?

I used to be nostalgic for my childhood reading, when every new discovery was so fresh and exciting and the worlds on the page seemed vividly real. I still look back with fondness to that particular magic, but lately I’ve grown to also appreciate being a more mature reader. I understand more, I have more connections to make with both literature and life, and the excitement of learning still never grows old.

This question came to mind as I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my son. It was never really meant as a children’s book, though I think lots of us do come to it in the middle grade years. And though as a fantasy lover I dutifully read it a few times, I have to admit I was somewhat baffled. Now, I can see better what Tolkien was doing, his strengths and weaknesses, perceiving the echo of ancient sagas and also his innovations. I’m less thrown by his sometimes confusing or archaic writing style, and I certainly enjoy the story more thereby.

Reading as I grow older doesn’t lose any of its savor, but just seems to get richer and deeper — especially when taking on such complex, many-layered works. It’s satisfying to contemplate how reading has enriched my mental life, and to know that there is still much more room to grow.

If you are a reader of a certain age, how has your reading experience changed? Do you also think it’s gotten better?

Should books be illustrated?



All books, in a sense, exist in order to bring forth pictures in the mind. But should those pictures be specifically embodied in a visual medium? When are illustrations helpful, and when are they distracting or disturbing? Is it better for readers to make their own images? Or can a good collaboration between author and illustrator create a result that is more than the sum of its parts?

When I reread the Oz books as a picture-less electronic text, I was struck by how different this experience was from reading them as a child. The images by John R. Neill, who illustrated all but the first of the original series, had made a deep impression on me. Full of life and vivid character, they contribute a piquancy that Baum’s text sometimes lacks, in its pallid or generic descriptions. I’m quite sure that this visual element was as important to me as the words for making Oz seem a real and attractive place.

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

We expect children’s books to be illustrated, but what about books for adults? We’re being increasingly shaped by visual media, and every time I go to the bookstore I see a mind-boggling array of visually stunning volumes. But novels still are seldom illustrated, nor are works of philosophy or science or history usually given an artistic, interpretive treatment.

There are some specialist publishers that do this, The Folio Society being the main one that I know of. I always get a kick out of seeing Folio do illustrated versions of unexpected works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, or The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud — even if I wouldn’t buy them myself, I think it’s an interesting experiment to make.

The books I’m more drawn to are the narratives, and here I often have mixed feelings. I am usually not coming at them afresh, but looking at a text that I already know and judging whether the pictures give the same impression as the reading experience. Not whether they match pictures in my head — I don’t visualize characters or settings so specifically. But the words give me certain feelings; do the pictures evoke the same feelings? Or do they go in another direction, that jars against my vaguely but often strongly held impressions?

I may like some aspect of the artist’s vision, but not be completely satisfied. One case in point is the Folio edition of The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (you are all reading Robertson Davies, aren’t you?) I love the idea of combining characters and incidents from the book, saints and figures from the Tarot. That was brilliant, and the artist did not shrink from portraying the chthonic emotion, the archetypal mythic currents that Davies seeks to expose beneath the prim moral exterior of Canadian provincial life. But I find his style too aggressively ugly overall, and thought there should have been some element of beauty and mystery as well. To me, that was an important element of the trilogy too. (I do love the cover, which is perfect.)

Cover of the Deptford Trilogy, design by Peter Suart

It’s rather like the problem of translation: a work translated into another language can never be the same as the original, but it can strive to give a similar experience, based on the particular conventions and associations in the second language. Is it archaic, formal, wild, deliberate, transgressive, prissy, melodious, laconic, flippant? These qualities can be conveyed using the tools available in another language — which may be quite different from those in the first, but still reach toward a similar effect.

So in the “language” of art one can try to strive after such similarity of effect. Opinions will differ about the success of such projects, because each reader has a somewhat different experience of a text. And there can be multiple treatments that are satisfying in different ways, too. I don’t think there’s any definitive or right answer to the question of how to represent a book’s contents, but it’s a rather fascinating question.

How do you feel about illustrated books? Are you attracted by them, or do you prefer your text unadorned? Are there some illustrations you find more successful than others?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Do I have to read depressing books?


Since reading is not part of my job, nor am I currently in school, I don’t really have to read anything. But maybe because reading is and has always been a major avenue of self-development, we in the bookish community often carry a heavy sense of obligation. We feel as though there are books we ought to be reading, because they form the basis of a good education, or they delve into important topics, or they have been declared Great by Those in the Know.

But why is it that many of these books tend to be depressing? In general, it seems that gloom is considered more serious and worth spending your time on than joy. Self-improvement (in the conventional view) consists largely of facing hard facts and becoming habituated to disappointment. To do otherwise is to remain in a carefree, childish state, incapable of coping with real life.

There’s something in that. A reading diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer, while delightful, would leave one ill-equipped to handle certain necessary realities. But can a book be serious and uplifting? Is there hope to be found in the dark?

Depression doesn’t have to do with facing the darkness. It means getting stuck in the darkness and seeing no way out. If one has even a little bit of leverage — a spark of humor, a glimpse of a better world, a flash of curiosity as to how we got into this mess and how we can emerge from it — then the quicksand hasn’t fully taken hold.

And so certain books that initially appeared daunting or grim to me have become some of my favorites, because they give the hope that grows from knowledge rather than blithe insensibility. They may make me feel angry, or sad, or appalled — but also energized by the challenge of grasping such difficult content. My view of the world has expanded, with shadows giving richness and nuance, and that’s a good thing.

However, sometimes I’m not in the mood, or I don’t have the strength to manage depressing topics and stories. I need restorative, up-building books at those times, and that’s all right. In time, when I’m feeling stronger, I can confront them again.

Meanwhile, books that wallow in pure nastiness, or seem determined to grind human endeavor to a fine gray powder, are always unappealing to me. And I’ve decided that I don’t have to read them, no matter how “great” they may be. I’ll spend my time in other ways.

Are there books you feel you ought to be reading, but don’t want to? How do you deal with that?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Who wants to read Robertson Davies?



A couple of days ago I saw the following tweet by librarian Nancy Pearl:
Well, I’ve read all of Robertson Davies’s novels, and as much of his nonfiction as I could get my hands on, and even his published diaries and letters and a biography … you could call me a fan. I agree with Nancy Pearl that he deserves more attention, and I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage he gets within our usually literate book blogging community. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a Robertson Davies Reading Week, to celebrate one of my favorite writers, and help introduce him to some new readers.

When should it happen? I’m thinking maybe in August, to celebrate his birthday — or perhaps earlier in the summer. It will be a pretty free-form event, with posts focusing on various books and the chance to share thoughts about whatever you may have been reading yourself.

I have some bloggers in mind to ask for guest posts, but if you’d like to volunteer, please let me know. In the meantime, go to your local bookstore or library and get whatever RD material you can. You can read my post about Tempest Tost to learn more about why I think he’s so great.

Who would like to join me? Let’s give Nancy one less thing to be depressed about!

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Which books should I keep?



As I mentioned recently on my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, I’m going through a big transition in my life. My husband got a job in Switzerland and has just moved there to start working, while I plan to follow with our son when the school year ends.

It’s been six years since our last move and I well remember what an ordeal that was. Now, I’m facing doing all that packing up, clearing out and hefting stuff again, this time overseas. I’m tempted to get rid of as much as possible and keep only the truly essential — but what is that? Particularly when it comes to books, it’s hard for me to know what I will need or want in the future.

It won’t be so easy for me to find English-language reading material, so I definitely want to bring along some to sustain me. Compact and multi-volume collections get the most words into the least amount of space, like my Library of America editions of Willa Cather, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Steinbeck, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thornton Wilder. I could happily read from those for some time. The Complete Earthsea and Robertson Davies’s three-volume trilogies (the Deptford, Salterton and Cornish trilogies) will definitely come along too.

Another consideration: in the last few years I have overcome my resistance to e-books and it can’t be denied they are incredibly convenient for traveling. I hate spending money on them, but I’m tempted to buy some of the Delphi Classics collections to have a large, inexpensive supply of classic literature, which is always worth reading. And I wonder if I can get a library membership or e-book subscription that will keep me connected to a good assortment of books. (I know there’s Kindle Unlimited, but I am resisting the Amazon behemoth as much as possible.)

I’ve spent a lot of time and money building up hardcover collections of my favorite authors, but now when I look at them I just think how bulky and heavy they are. Will I really read them again? Will the joy of possessing them outweigh the hassle of moving them? Wouldn’t e-books from the library be easier?

Then there are books that are not just for reading, but for helping me make and do things: cookbooks, knitting books, travel books and so forth. The internet has made finding this kind of instruction much easier, so although I still love paging through these books, I don’t use them as often as I once did. Which of these are truly essential? What information do I really need on paper, and what can I trust to be kept in my head, or in some more lightweight form?

It all makes for some hard decisions, but I hope I’ll come to a solution I can live with. Have you ever had to move your books and decide what to keep? How did you make those decisions?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

How do you organize your TBR?



Recently I went through my Goodreads “want to read” list and took off almost 200 books. Now I have a little over 100, which feels more manageable.

I removed books that I’ve already read (duh), books I own (I don’t need a virtual reminder when I have a physical copy), and books that have been on there so long I no longer remember why I wanted to read them. There are also books associated with interests that were once strong for me but have lapsed, or reading challenges I’m not pursuing any more. Those were jettisoned as well.

I’d like to do a periodic purge of this nature to try to keep my list more streamlined, but the question remains of how to organize what I have left.

I like Goodreads as a tool; it has the information I want and it’s easy to add books and connect with other readers. So I’ll keep using it as a handy place to store my list of books I’m interested in, but am not ready yet to buy or check out from the library.

Whenever I add a book, I put it in at least one category (nonfiction, historical, around the world, fantasy, etc.) so when I’m in the mood for a book of that nature, I can narrow down my choices easily.

My physical TBR pile mainly consists of two kinds of books: nonfiction that I’ve bought at some point because I thought I ought to read it, but which was superseded quickly by other distractions; and classic literature I’ve bought in nice editions that look lovely on my shelves, but that I haven’t gotten around to actually cracking open yet.

I hope to make a dent in both of these during the next three months, by not acquiring anything new, and only reading from my own shelves. Meanwhile, I can still keep adding to my online TBR list — making the number slowly creep up again …

That’s about it for my organizing; my picking up of book recommendations is usually pretty random, and I just park them on the list (or in the pile) until I need ideas for my next read. I’ve shed most of the challenges and review commitments that I scrambled to keep up with during my first years of blogging. Right now, I feel like reading according to the whim of the moment, though I may get back to a more structured approach at some point.

How do you manage your TBR list? Do you keep a physical pile, or an online list, or both? How do you like to organize them? Do you have goals for this year’s reading from the TBR?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

What is a children’s book?



Somebody once defined a children’s book as “any book that a child will read.” Which could be nearly anything–some children will read very strange and unexpected things, while other books earmarked for children languish on the shelf. I think our usual definitions have to do more with what adults think children will read, or more typically, what they think children should be reading.

I started thinking about this question because I just reread The Owl Service, which won the Carnegie Medal, the British prize honoring children’s literature, upon its publication in 1967. It would certainly be considered YA today, but I see no reason to define it even in this way. With its complex, subtle treatment of themes of sexuality and class, within a masterfully imagined framework of mythological recurrence, and written in an oblique style that demands a high level of sophistication from the reader, this has much in common with books we would certainly consider “adult.” Just because it’s about teenagers does not mean only teenagers will want to read it, nor that it’s necessarily suitable for them.

It’s a pity when such books are pushed onto young readers who maybe are not ready for them, and segregated from the adult fiction with which they could just as easily belong. But nor do I think any child who wants and need such a book should be deprived of that experience. It’s hard to know how to create definitions that do not also become limitations.

There are at least three interrelated factors to consider: subject matter, style, and complexity of narrative. What subjects are children interested in, and what should they be shielded from? Sex and violence are the usual taboos, although I’ve been surprised on rereading some childhood favorites at how much violence they contain. Children are generally just not interested in adult relationship problems, at least in the most naturalistic way. These can be conveyed symbolically in fantasy and fairy tales, in a form suitable for slow digestion into adulthood.

As for style, it’s repugnant to me when a children’s book is written in a twee, simplistic, or sentimental style for the wee ones, or in a lazy, cliche-ridden way because they’re thought to be too unsophisticated to notice. Language in a book for children should be crafted with great beauty and care. It goes deeply into a child reader and becomes a formative force. It does not have to have lots of big words or convoluted sentence structure in order to be thoughtful, artistic, and intellectually nourishing. But this is not an issue limited to books for young readers. I wish many adult books would pay more attention to this principle as well.

Complexity, the difficulty of following what is going on, is the main factor that struck me with The Owl Service. This is not a straightforward tale; there are lots of gaps and implications for the reader to wake up to in order to make sense of the narrative. This is part of what makes it such a potentially exciting and rewarding reading experience, but for a reader unprepared for such heavy lifting it could be just confusing and opaque. I think that’s why I didn’t like it at all when I first read it as a teen myself, along with the adult subject matter to which I could not relate.

A book like The Blue Sword, which I also reread recently, was just my cup of tea, on the other hand. Reading it now, I’m more impressed than I was back then by Robin McKinley’s dignified, lucid style (especially since her later books became tangled up in increasingly convoluted sentences). The general subject is that of innumerable adventure stories and folktales: the training and testing of a hero, who must depart from her own land in order to find her true self, ending with reconciliation of the two worlds. From that point of view, it could be for readers of any age.

But the story upon adult reading is so straightforward as to be almost boring. Where are the challenges, the surprises, the conflict and ambiguity? The writing is so fluent and the imaginative world so attractive that it carries you along, but what’s underneath is surprisingly thin.

Such lack of layering and complexity is not unique to children’s literature, though. There are plenty of adult books that don’t demand much of the reader other than to follow along where the author leads — and there’s nothing wrong with that. There can be different kinds of books for different moods or reading preferences, and an undemanding story can at times be a great gift. At other times, we might appreciate being challenged and woken up more. This is as true for children as for adults, I believe.

So my question remains unanswered, except to say that the definition above might be the best one. What do you think? Can you say what makes a book “for children”?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!