End of the Eclectic Reader Challenge

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I wasn’t sure I was going to get this finished in time. I was doing well at first. In fact, I was well ahead of reading one book a month. Then suddenly, I had three to read and not very long to do it in. And for all of them, I had no book in mind. However, thanks to Goodreads recommendations and an Amazon voucher for my birthday, I have managed to read them with a month to spare.

It’s been a mixed bunch this year. Some of the genres were not ones I would normally read. As ever, the challenge forced me to read some books that have been on my shelf for a long time and even though I didn’t enjoy all of them, it was good to have read them.

My favourite books from this year were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for the genre paranormal romance. I was definitely not looking forward to this genre but I was hooked by this novel from the very start. Next was Chavs by Owen Jones, an excellently angry analysis of the way our culture has demonised the working classes. Finally, Small Island by Andrea Levy had been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I was really glad to have been made to pick it up as it was a very interesting read.

Disappointments were plenty as well. I decided to read The Power of Beauty by Nancy Friday for the psychology genre, thinking it might be an interesting feminist analysis but I just ended up irritated with it. I was in a mood for the entire time it took me to read it. (About a month, it seemed to go on forever!) For the first time in a long time, I decided to read a Stephen King novel for the serial killer genre and I don’t know if it was just my tastes have changed but it was very disappointing. It must have been 20 years since I last read one so that is definitely a possibility. Perhaps I was a bit hard on it. I used to love Stephen King and so was expecting greatness. Joyland definitely didn’t give me it.

For all that, I’ve enjoyed the challenge and I’ve enjoyed reading things I might not normally read. I’m not sure whether I’m going to sign up again next year. I’m thinking I might not do any reading challenges at all. I quite fancy going back to just choosing any book of my shelves and reading that.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Behind Closed Doors – B. A. Paris

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Genre: Thriller, Debut Author 2016

Narrative Style: First person, chapters divided between past and present.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2016unknown-2

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Grace and Jack Angel seem to have a perfect life. They are newly-weds who can barely stand to be apart from each other. Jack is a renowned lawyer who works with battered women and is chivalrous almost to a fault. However, behind closed doors, the story is completely different. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Debut author in 2016

I don’t tend to read books as soon as they come out unless they are by an author I already like and even then, there are only a few I would dash out and buy straight away (Margaret Atwood and Julian Barnes are two that spring to mind). As a result, I didn’t have much of an idea who to read for this genre. I decided to look at the Goodreads awards for debut authors. Behind Closed Doors looked interesting and it had quite a lot of four and five star reviews so I decided to give it a go.

I have to say I was disappointed. Although if I’d realised that it was published by an offshoot of Harlequin, I’d have known that I wouldn’t like it. I’d also have realised that it wasn’t going to be very challenging. All of the ‘twists’ were signposted so clearly that there was very little suspense and the characters were so flat it was impossible to care whether they lived or not.

What is most troubling about this novel is the archaic sexual politics. It reminded me of an essay Iread when I was at university by Joanna Russ called ‘Someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my Husband‘ which is about the modern gothic, books she describes as being in the tradition of Rebecca. There is a heroine in peril with a husband who appears charming but may, in fact, be a killer. This seemed an old-fashioned trope to me and one I could not get to grips with.

Part of the problem is that there is no ambiguity. We know that Jack is evil before we even start to read. It says on the back cover that Grace is a prisoner. There is no ‘is he isn’t he’ about this. The only tension exists in wondering exactly how much of a psycho Jack is. Quite a big one, it turns out.

Still, it was hard to care. Grace has no personality of her own but is merely a foil to Jack’s great evil. I found it difficult to cope with a novel that so squarely placed man as aggressor and woman as victim. There was a little interest in seeing exactly how she would escape – because escape she would, that was equally apparent – and that was the only thing that kept me reading.

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes by Owen Jones

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Journalism, politics

Narrative Style: Academic

Rating: 5/5unknown-1

Format:paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jones investigates where our current image of the working classes as layabout, trouble making chavs has come from. He analyses political decisions made by Thatcher, New Labour and the current Tories as well as analysing newspaper headlines and shows such as Little Britain.

Reading Challenges: Non-Fiction Challenge, Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre Investigative Journalism

When it comes up in conversation, I tend to say that I come from a working class background rather than I am working class. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I now have a lot of the trappings of a middle class life. I’m a teacher, I live in suburbia, I read the Guardian and have a veg box delivered and people are keen to point that out. I don’t really believe that class is something that you shrug off the minute that you start to earn more money. Just like if you are upper class and you lose all your money, you are still upper class, you just have no money. It makes more sense when you think about it that way round but it is just as true of working class people who have climbed up the ladder a little bit.

The other reason is less pleasant. I want to disassociate myself from the popular image of the working class chav. I want to say I’m working class like it was perceived 30 years ago when I was growing up rather than working class as it is perceived now. Having read Owen Jones’ book, I feel more than a little ashamed of myself.

It’s not that the things that Jones discusses were news  to me and it’s not like I’m supportive of measures to cut benefits but it is easy to forget that there are genuine reasons and real people behind the stereotypes.

Jones outlines the systematic destruction of working class culture by first, Thatcherism, then New Labour and finally, the Tories again. It is easy to see how this program of cultural demolition has pushed many of the working classes into the open arms of the far right. The role that Labour used to play in many working class communities has left the ideal space for the BNP and UKIP. Cleverly, the BNP have started to play a community role in some of these areas, organising events and dealing with problems.

As Jones points out, the demonisation of the working classes has allowed this Government the most almighty get out clause. It has allowed them to avoid dealing with tax evasion, instead focusing the public’s eye on the much smaller problem of benefit fraud. It paints working class people as lazy and shiftless rather than deal with the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and a lot of the jobs there are are insecure. Focusing working class minds on the problem of immigration has allowed them to avoid putting in place legislation which would stop businesses being able to pay lower wages to immigrants. The list goes on, each item more deplorable than the last.

It is very easy to see why immigration is seen as such a big problem in working class communities. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss this as racism but as Jones points out, this is a far more complex problem than that. Immigrants who are willing to work for a low wage – but probably higher than they were earning at home – drag the entire job market down. Similarly, immigrants are less concerned about having permanent contracts so jobs become more insecure. It is in this atmosphere that parties such as the BNP and UKIP thrive, playing ruthlessly as they do on these insecurities.

Jones describes an experience he had while knocking on doors during the run up to the 2010 election. He describes what seems like a normal working class conversation about immigration except that the woman was Asian. I had a similar experience more recently in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Pupils were very keen to share their opinions (or their parents’ opinions, I suppose.) One Asian pupil was particularly vocal about how we should leave so we could get rid of all the immigrants. There was no point in saying that at some point, somewhere in his family history, they must have emigrated to this country. At the time, I was annoyed with him, I must admit. It seemed unfair that he should wish to stop the very process that had at some stage brought his family to this country. Having read, Jones’ book, I feel like I understand a little more. It is to do with feeling threatened and insecure and that is the motivating factor for the working classes and the issue of immigration, not racism.

After reading this, it is easy to see why so many working class people voted for Brexit. At the mercy of right wing politicians who made promises they could not keep and abandoned by mainstream politics, it is little wonder so many voted to leave. It is the logical result of the systematic ruin of working class communities.

Jones is rightly angry and after reading this book, you will be too. It is frustrating to think that things are only going to get worse when we eventually leave Europe. Brexit will compound problems in working class communities without actually doing any of the things that it promised to do about immigration.

One thing is for sure, this idea that we are all middle class now or that class no longer exists is a big lie. It is unlikely to be challenged any time soon, as it is so helpful to the Government. I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. A stronger Labour party who were genuinely concerned about working class issues would be a start but until they can stop all the in-fighting, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016: Queenbreaker: Perseverance – Catherine McCarran

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Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, chronological29117059

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis: At the beginning of Anne Boleyn’s reign as queen, Mary Shelton is sent to court. She must learn to survive in a world of secrets, lies, and ambition. Will she get what she most desires – a good marriage – or will she fall victim to those around her who are fighting only for their own interests.

Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – YA Historical Fiction

I have always had a bit of an interest in the Tudors since doing it for my A-Levels so a book about life at court under Anne Boleyn seemed like a good choice for this genre.

The novel is written from the point of view of Mary Shelton as she learns to navigate  her way through life at court. She is a country girl and is treated as such. She is unable to see through the lies of others and as such finds herself – more than once – in a situation that will bring shame on her family. This element of the novel is convincing as it captures what I imagine the intrigue at court would be like.

Mary herself was difficult to like and I found I watched dispassionately when she found herself on the wrong end of John De Vere’s lies. It was hard to feel sympathy for any of the characters or to care about their reasons for revenge. Maybe reading this as a younger person, I would have had more sympathy for Mary who was trying so hard to be one of the grown-ups. At least she had the excuse of actually being a teenager. The rest of them just behaved like spoiled children.

It was a little hard to keep on top of exactly who was double crossing who. A lot of the women had two names and I found it difficult to remember who was who and who was one whose side. Mary ends up with a finger in every major intrigue which seemed unlikely. Would a teenage girl, not aristocratic or from London really have become such a lynchpin?

Towards the end, it becomes clear that someone must rescue Mary from her plight (as there are two more books in the series) and I felt that removed some of the tension that there might have been. By that point, I just wanted the story to be over as it had become a little repetitive. I can’t imagine that I will read the next one.

 

 

The Non-Fiction Challenge – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Science

Narrative Style: First person, scientific and philosophical discussion

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback9781846570377

Published: 2006

Synopsis: Dawkins endeavours to explain where our need for religion comes from evolutionally and why he is so passionately against religion. He explores the morality of the bible in close detail as well as looking at the psychology of religion. 

It’s hard to know whether Richard Dawkins is better known as a biologist or as a religion hating atheist. As such, I was keen to read this work. I am familiar with Dawkins writing having read The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth previously.

At the beginning of the book, Dawkins explained some of the reasons he is so against religion and his tone was almost preacherly as he called for atheists to band together in order to challenge religion’s privileged position in modern society. This tone, accompanied by Dawkins superior attitude towards anyone who believes, is what most people find difficult about Dawkins when he talks about religion. Indeed, I was a bit troubled by it myself. I don’t think it helps that religious people feel Dawkins looks down on them. Dawkins calls himself passionate and that is fine but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with you. It seemed ironic that he should be asking atheists to band together – to form a religion as it were. There is a further reason why I think this will never happen. For me, and I am sure other atheists, part of the reason for not belonging to a religion has to do with not wanting to be a member of an organised group.

Thankfully, this polemic does not carry on throughout the whole book otherwise I think I would have stopped reading. Instead, Dawkins moved on to what he is good at – talking about science. He discusses how he feels that religion has developed in an evolutionary sense and what it might mean about humans psychologically that we seem to need a God figure. He also assesses whether we really do use the Bible as a guide to morality and finally what he feels to be the worse problems with religion. This is really interesting and as  I already consider myself an atheist so I could consider Dawkins evidence quite dispassionately.

Towards the end, Dawkins advocates stopping adults passing their religion on to their children an act he considers a form of child abuse. I have to admit that this made me a little uncomfortable. While I understand that children can suffer because of their parents’ beliefs, I feel that this would be a huge infringement of personal freedom and would probably be unenforceable anyway.

Ultimately Dawkins misunderstands the nature and strength of belief. After all, the whole point of having faith is that you have faith. All the reasoned arguments in the world are not going to change that. This would seem to be borne out by the reviews of this book on Goodreads which seem to be split along religious lines. If you believe, this book makes no difference. Personally, I don’t have an issue with religion in most of the ways I come across it. Most of the people I know who are religious are kind, loving and don’t feel the need to foist their religion on to others. Perhaps it is naive of me to separate this from the problems – war, homophobia, abortion doctor killing extremists – but that is how I feel. I don’tthink Dawkins would approve.

Not a Good Year for Reading

I’m not sure what I’m doing differently but I seem to be picking a lot of bad books at the minute. I don’t know if I am getting harder to please as I get older. (This does seem to be a genuine problem for some readers. My father in law has been like this for some years and now seems to just read tried and tested authors or books that he already knows.)

For the last few years, I have tried to read different genres more and to expand my reading behaviour. I was stuck in a rut. Now I feel like I have the opposite problem. There is no end of reading choice but a lot of it sounds dreadful.

Following big sellers such as the Hunger Games series and thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to be grabbing at any opportunity to gain the same possible success. Most of these books are dreadful. It is the same in cinema, a proliferation of genre fluff  follows every a big success until eventually the genre is drowned in a sea of mediocrity. It’s making me wary of choosing anything.

Maybe I read too much literary fiction to ever be fully happy reading popular fiction. Maybe I am an intellectual snob. (No maybe about it, some would say.) Undoubtedly this is where my longing for more comes from – more depth, more characterisation, more distinctiveness. Like with watching Indie films and then trying to go back to watching blockbusters, maybe I’ve just spoiled the mainstream for myself.

It’s very easy to wax nostalgic about books and films – “but blockbusters were better when I was young” and so on. Maybe that is true. Or maybe it is just that tastes change and refine and what you like when you are twenty is inevitably going to be different when you are forty. Or maybe the search for the next big money spinner is genuinely ruining the  viewing and reading experience.

Top Ten Tuesday – All About the Villains

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is villains which is pleasing in a number of ways. We may all wish for the hero to survive but it is villains that really stick in the mind. A poor villain ruins a book much more readily than a poor hero.

Here is my ten – in alphabetical order because I couldn’t decide who was the most villainous.

  1. Joffrey Baratheon – Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin – There are many potential possibilities for the most villainous GofT character. Joffrey gets my vote because he is unequivocally bad. There is no ambiguity. And his death was perhaps the most satisfying in the whole series.
  2. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. This is not an easy read and is probably the most brutal book I have ever read. In the end, it may be that the killings are a desperate attempt by Bateman to create some sort of identity for himself in a world of designer labels and meaningless fashion trends.
  3. Big Ger Cafferty – The Rebus novels – Ian Rankin – Cafferty is Rebus’ nemesis in a number of the novels. Rebus has a suitably morally ambiguous relationship with the ageing gangster.
  4. Count Dracula – Dracula by Bram Stoker – Dracula is the archetypal vampire and upper-class villain. He has a mask of respectability that often slips when his plans are frustrated.
  5. Mr. Hyde – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – Mr. Hyde represents that part of all of us that would wish harm on people. Here the bestiality of man is given a free range with suitably horrible results.
  6. Hannibal Lecter – Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I’ve read the third book in the series but I didn’t like it so much. Lecter is fascinating in a way that makes you question your own morals. It’s hard not to imagine Anthony Hopkins but the books stand up well against the movie versions.
  7. Long John Silver – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Another morally ambiguous character, Silver constantly tries to judge which side is going to win and then place himself on that side.
  8. President Snow – The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins – It is hard to imagine Snow in the books without thinking of Donald Sutherland in the films. He manages to show exactly how creepy and controlling Snow was. A ruthless tyrant responsible for many deaths.
  9. Voldemort – Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. There are other Potter bad guys but ultimately Voldemort is relentlessly evil throughout all  of the books.
  10. Annie Wilkes – Misery by Stephen King. Who will ever forget Paul Sheldon’s misfortune at being rescued by his number one fan, Annie Wilkes? I’m glad I had read this before I saw the film as Kathy Bates was even more frightening than the character in the book.