Monday, 28 November 2016

Buying books for Christmas

I refuse to believe Christmas is here given it's still flipping November. But it is, alas, probably time to start thinking about buying presents (unless you want to tear round the shops on Christmas Eve panic buying novelty socks that is). Although I think books can make great presents, they can be quite tricky to get right. Therefore, I  - being the benevolent person that I am (cough)  - thought I would share my tips for choosing the perfect book for a loved one. 

Check that they read
The first, and fairly obvious thing, is to establish whether your intended recipient actually likes reading. While they don't need to have their head in a book every time you see them, it's probably a good idea for them to show signs of not being adverse to reading. For example, they actually own a few or have been known to read the odd book on holiday. If they seem to prefer films/TV etc, take the hint and get them something else.

Check how they read
These days, there are multiple ways to read a book - such as hardback, paperback, or ebook. People will often have a preferred format for reading and may even actively dislike certain formats. I, for example, am not a fan of hardbacks. I do most of my reading while commuting to and from work, so don't really want to lug a heavy book with me on my travels. Someone else, on the other hand, may prefer hardbacks because they like to read a book as soon it's been published etc. It's worth figuring out how they like to read because this may affect whether or not you can actually buy them a book. Rather annoyingly, in the UK at least, you can't buy an ebook for someone (well, via Amazon anyway). Therefore if they only read ebooks, perhaps get them a ebook voucher. I know that's not the most personal gift you can give but, believe me, no avid reader will be upset about an opportunity to buy more books.

Check what they read
Here you have two options - A: Do a covert search of their bookshelves. B: Just ask them what book they want for Christmas. Personally, I think B is the safest bet. Even if you are able to discover who their favourite author is by stealth, buying them a book can still be hit and miss. If their favourite author has a new book out, they may already have pre-ordered it if they are that big of a fan. Also just because they like a particularly author, doesn't mean that they like everything by that author. A Poirot fan is not necessarily a Miss Marple fan and vice versa.
If you live with someone, then clearly knowing what they like to read - and what they have and haven't already got - is a lot easier. Still, just to be on the safe, check before buying. Them knowing what you're getting them for Crimbo is a lot better than them having to have to slog to the shops to take back the version they've bought themselves (or multiple copies if other relatives have also bought it them, so basically tell everyone what you plan to buy).
To keep the element of surprise, you could always get them a first edition or nicely bound copy of their favourite book (depending what it is and your budget). The Folio Society and Persephone Books (which focuses on books by 20th century female writers) are renown for their beautiful books.

Check what you have read
I love giving books I've enjoyed to friends and family - I think it's a nice way of showing you care; you want them to experience the same pleasure you have had. This, of course, depends on how similar they are to you; if you're polar opposites, then there's a good chance they won't like the book you so admired. Failing giving them a book you like, you could always give them a book that you think they might relate to or reminds you of them in someway. (Not a good plan if said book is a horror novel; probably won't go down too well if you tell them that they immediately sprang to mind when you read it).

Check your thoughts
It's naff and a cliche but ultimately, it's the thought that counts. It doesn't really matter if they don't like the book or don't end up reading it; what matters is that you've put thought into choosing the book. A good friend of mine bought me a book (one that I heavily hinted I wanted to be fair) for my birthday this year. By no means the best book I've read this year, I treasure it because of the effort she took to send it to me (sent it to the hotel where I was staying while working at a conference). Therefore as long as they know you spent time and effort choosing something they might like, I'm sure they'll appreciate it.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

I'm purposely not loyal to authors

No matter how much I love a book - contrary to what you might expect a "bookworm" to do - I rarely seek out further books that its author may have written. In fact, I actively avoid reading any books that they may have written (at least for a while). 

My innate pessimism is probably the key reason why I do this. I'm concerned that the author's other books won't be as good and may even negatively affect my feelings for the book (yes, I'm aware that this sounds a tad mad). One of my favourite - if not favourite - books I've read this year is Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry, Planet . I'm reluctant to read her follow-up novel A Closed and Common Orbit (not a sequel as such but it has some of the same characters) because I don't think I could cope (first-world problems, I know) if it was rubbish or just OK. It's Chambers' second book and they are renown for being "difficult". Even Zadie Smith - now seen as one of the UK's best authors - got a fair of bit flak for her second novel (The Autograph Man) after her astonishing debut (White Teeth).

I also suffer from "Fear of missing out" (Is FOMO still a thing in 2016 given so much stuff has happened that we'd rather have missed out on?). If I just stuck to the same authors, I might miss out on some wonderful books by authors unknown to me. It is a policy, to be fair, that works. Of the books I've read this year, most were by "new" authors. Admittedly some weren't great, but most were and several were "five-star" reads (see my previous post about how I rate books).

Then there's the law of diminishing returns. In the past, I've found that the more you read an author's work, the more you're able to spot their writing patterns. For a while, I went through a phase of trying to read a Dickens' novel every year. I was really enjoying doing this until, after reading about five of his books, I started to spot a pattern. I tried to read Nicholas Nickleby and it was all too obvious who the "baddie" was going to be - mind you, it's not like Dickens sets out to make it a surprise; it's just frustrating that the main character can't spot it. I can't remember if I read far enough to meet the love interest, but 10 to one she's was a demure, kind-hearted, creature whose greatest wish is to help her family - that was the character of the female love interest in most of the Dickens' novels I have read (well apart from Estella, but she had issues).

There are some authors whose work I do lap up. Kazuo Ishiguro is my all time favourite author. So much so that I'm prepared to forgive him the odd duff piece of work. In his short story collection, Nocturnes, which I read earlier this year, there are several stories that are - well - a bit ropey when it comes to plot. Ishiguro is obviously having a bit of a play about with story telling and it's not always successful. But this is the man who wrote The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant (both beautiful in my view), so I am willing to overlook it. Hell, The Beatles came out with interesting songs now and again but that doesn't stop them from being one of the best bands that ever existed.

I am starting to re-think my whole policy of not reading books by the same author - seems somewhat hair-shirt wearing at times to deny myself the pleasure of a book just because I've already something by that author. For that reason, I actively going to read more of Jeanette Winterson's and Hilary Mantel's works because I really loved the stuff of theirs I've already read. I think the trick is not to read too many books by the same author in too short a timeframe (which I think is where I went wrong with Dickens).

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Book confession: I love Doctor Who novels

I have, over the past few years, developed a rather concerning habit - reading Doctor Who spin-off novels. That's right I, the world's worst book snob, like to immerse myself in stories about the eponymous Time Lord (in his various incarnations) and his ever-changing companions. 

The main reason I like them is that they are easy to read and have predictable plots (they are, after all, aimed at children). You know no matter how terrible the baddie is or how fiendishly clever their plot is, good will conquer evil - particularly comforting given recent events. Plus, because they are "cannon" (ie. officially part of the Whoniverse), nothing that can happen that could affect the events in the TV show - the idea is that the adventure is happening "off screen" during the timeline of that version of the Doctor and that particular companion. For example, I've just read a book featuring the 10th Doctor and the fourth series companion Donna Noble (The Doctor Trap by Simon Messingham). They both face a fair bit of peril in the story but you know that they will survive it because they are alive and well throughout the fourth series (well apart the final episode, which I am still not really over). 

I also like the books because I get to spend more time with my preferred Doctor and companions. Matt Smith did a good job playing the 11th Doctor, but I think David Tennant had the edge as the 10th  - Smith's version of the Doctor seemed like a (charismatic) big kid whereas Tennant's had a bit more pathos and you felt less embarrassed that you were an adult watching a kids' show (though, given its popularity, I think you're "allowed" to like Doctor Who because of its cult status). By reading the novels, I can pretend Tennant never went off to do Broadchurch (forgivable if it wasn't for series 2), Rose never got stuck on a parallel world and Donna still remembers the Doctor (less bothered by Martha as she only really came into her own when she wasn't with the Doctor). 

Finally, the books may never be contenders for the Man Booker prize but they are all well written (mind you, I've only read five of the seemingly gazillions that are available so chances are some of them are a bit ropey). In fact, some of the authors are established authors in their own right. For example, Ben Aaronovitch, author of Remembrance of the Daleks (written to tie in with four episode he wrote of the same name), is the author of the popular Peter Grant series of novels (an apprentice wizard who is also a detective). "Chic lit" author Jenny Colgan has also penned a Doctor Who novel (as "Jenny T Colgan") as has Doctor Who affectionado and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss (he's also written episodes of the TV show).

I am not sure why I am so embarrassed about my predilection for these novels. It's not like I have a rep to protect. As a colleague recently said  - in what I am deciding to see as affectionate tones - I am the "biggest nerd" she knows. Ultimately if you like something, presuming it doesn't hurt anyone else, you should just enjoy it. Life's not only too short to read bad books it's also too short to worry about reading the right type of books. On that note, I am going to dive into the new book I've just bought, the deeply unhip A Street Cat Named Bob (By James Bowen)