Blogging and stats, and why we do it

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It is two and a half years since I started blogging. In that time I have published 216 posts. My front page says I have 1,292 followers (thank you!) and I get between six and a dozen likes per post. Whilst there is definitely a gradual increase over time, I know this is not that great, especially after this amount of time and I have often pondered why this is the case. No great revelations to come – maybe what I write just isn’t that interesting! I look enviously at the five and six figure followers other book bloggers have but, to quote Matt Haig quoting Theodore Roosevelt:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I subscribe to a few ‘blogging bloggers’ (!) who write lots of tips about how I can increase my following, but, to be honest, I don’t read a lot of the posts exhorting me to do x or y, or find out how z increased their following to so many hundred thousand in a week. As a busy mother of three with a part-time job, I find I don’t really have the time to read all these emails, let alone follow the advice. And frankly when I want to read, I’d rather read a book!

At the end of 2018, I spent some time reflecting on what my life’s priorities are and what I want to achieve in the year ahead. I turned fifty last year so that also gave me pause for thought. There’s no point doing things in life that don’t serve you. I like blogging, I like writing about the books I read, it helps me to enjoy them more, reflecting on what I’ve learned, so that’s why I do what I do. I don’t do it for followers, or for money (sorry, blogging bloggers, I don’t want to do ads), and whilst I accept a bit of social media is important, I don’t want to do it ALL the time. I blog because I like to communicate my thoughts about books, and it’s a great thrill when someone comments and you can engage in a conversation. (It’s also made me realise that I should comment more on other people’s blogs that I enjoy.)

So, forget the stats, ignore the number of likes, self-worth should not be dependent on that. In 2019 I’m going to do what I enjoy and enjoy what I do!

Do your blogging stats ever get you down? What do you do to try and increase your reach?

I would love it if you could follow me!

 

 

Book review: “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan

I haven’t read that many books by Ian McEwan – about four I think, not as many as I would like. Each time I read one, I am so overwhelmed by the quality of the work, the writing, the ideas behind each novel, that I wonder why on earth I haven’t read every single thing he’s written, especially as most of them aren’t terribly long. I’ve just finished The Children Act which was my book club’s choice for January. I read it in just a couple of days; the story was not only utterly compelling, but the prose was a joy. McEwan’s easy brilliance just draws you in and I found it hard to put down – one of those books you just have to pick up while you wait for the kettle to boil, just to enjoy the next couple of paragraphs. I felt similarly about On Chesil Beach which I read in 2017, but I’d go so far as to say this book is even better.

The central character is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family law division. She is considered brilliant at her job. She deals with both high-profile celebrity divorces, as well as complex and difficult cases. Not just difficult, but the kinds of cases that most of us would find virtually impossible to adjudicate, such as one particularly challenging case we are told about of two conjoined twin babies. Left together, both would eventually die, but separation would mean doctors could save the stronger of the two, but with the certain and immediate death of the weaker one. In essence, killing one baby to save the other. Fiona reaches conclusions on these kinds of impossible moral dilemmas.

Fiona is 60 and married to Jack, an academic. They have no children, but plenty of nieces, nephews and god-children. They seem settled in their comfortable, affluent, London life until, on the eve of a difficult case, Jack announces that he is finding their marriage sexually unsatisfying and would like to go and have a final fling while he still has it in him. Fiona is horrified and they argue bitterly. The evening ends with Jack leaving the flat, to go off to the young woman he plans to have an affair with, Fiona presumes.

The case over which Fiona is about to preside is an urgent one and she must immediately switch off from her marital crisis in order to focus on her work, where she feels in control.

“No denying the relief at being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems.”

The case on which she is being asked to rule concerns Adam Henry, a teenager, three months short of his 18th birthday, who has leukaemia. His proposed treatment involves a combination of drugs which will also require him to receive a blood transfusion, but, as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents object to this course of action, and so, it is reported, does Adam. The hospital wants to proceed with the remaining treatment and the transfusion, and to do so immediately in order to save his life, and wishes the Court to rule that, as a child, he can be forced to have it (if he were an adult he would have the right to refuse treatment). Fiona hears the evidence from all sides and decides that before reaching her decision she will visit Adam. The visit affects Fiona deeply, more than she will realise.

It is tense reading as we wait to find out what Fiona will decide. No spoiler here, I won’t tell you her conclusion. Suffice to say that her decision has repercussions, which are primarily about her going through a kind of breakdown, of all that she has believed and taken for granted up to now, and this affects also how she responds then to Jack and the situation of their marriage.

This is both a touching and deeply affecting novel about one woman’s internal struggles and about human relationships in general and the nature of marital love in particular. And at the end we are invited, in a way, to judge Fiona, the Judge. McEwan has some brilliant turns of phrase which left me breathless with admiration and his economical style of writing makes him highly accessible and exciting to read.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

Which McEwan shall I read next? What is your personal favourite? 

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Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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New rules for life?

I dip into self-help books from time to time and have a reviewed a few on here, from Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, which aims to improve our relationship with the things in our home, to Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, which helped me to change my mindset about my right to be creative and to think of myself in that way. Both very powerful. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (audiobooks seems to take me much longer to get through), which I have found immensely enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to say it was inspirational. I also picked up Jordan Peterson’s much-hyped 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos although I’m afraid I found it quite turgid and didn’t get very far before I had to take it back to the library for the next person on the reserve list.

So, I originally planned for this post to be a compare and contrast between the two, but it’s going to focus more on the Haig, which, from what I read, was better anyway. Matt Haig has suffered with depression and anxiety for much of his life and it sounds as if this has at times been debilitating. Mental illness is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, rightly so, and it is very much a spectrum from occasionally feeling down or going through periods of stress and anxiety, to full-blown depression that afflicts people for years, to suicide. Matt Haig does not use this book directly to examine or discuss his own battles with depression, it’s not a memoir, but he does refer to it throughout as a way of illustrating his points.

Matt Haig’s book is more about how modern life is placing almost unbearable pressures on human beings today. He is particularly concerned about young people, and the impact of social media on their mental health. Social media forces us all into unrealistic comparisons where we will inevitably fall short. And the fact that we are constantly connected, constantly reachable and how it is so difficult to ‘switch off’ (both literally and figuratively) makes so many of us vulnerable. It is ironic that at a time when we have more ‘friends’ and followers than ever before, we seem to be more lonely than ever. This topic has been in the news again this week as new research undertaken by the BBC is revealing the extent of loneliness felt amongst young people in particular.

Notes On A Nervous Planet is, in my view, required reading, especially for young people. There are lots of people on my Christmas list who will be getting copies. I listened to it on audiobook and found Matt’s lovely, warm voice, made it particularly compelling. I will  now buy the book, however, it’s one I’d definitely like to read again.

By contrast, the little bit I read of Jordan Peterson’s left me rather cold. I think with self-help books, there are just the ones you like and the ones you don’t, and I’m afraid 12 Rules for Life probably falls into the latter category. His rules include “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. I’m sure there is some real wisdom in some of these more cryptic headlines, but there are a lot of words to plough through before you get to it and, sadly, it did not resonate with me. I fell asleep several evenings, just reading the (very long) Foreword! I’ll give it another go, when my turn comes around for the reservation, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy it. As a general rule, I don’t do very well with ‘Rules’ and prescriptions, particularly for something as chaotic as life.

If you have read either of these books, I’d be interested to know what you think.

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Book review: “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie

This is my second Agatha Christie this year. Having never in the past felt a particular desire to read her work, I have to say that I am completely won over! I chose this book for August in my Facebook reading challenge, which happened also to coincide with my summer holiday. When I stop and think, there is something a little odd about choosing books about death and misery for the kind of escapist material I usually seek for holiday reading, but there is a kind of unreality about the two books I have read, a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. I do also love the sense of place that Christie evokes; I found this to be true also of Murder on the Orient Express, which I read in January, although in this novel, there are some anachronistic references to the Egyptians which make a modern reader wince slightly.

Death on the Nile imgIn some ways, there is not a great deal to say about Death on the Nile that you couldn’t say about any other Christie novel, I suspect: there is a situation, in this case, a Nile cruise, being undertaken by 10-15 characters, all for different reasons. Conflicts and tensions are set up amongst the different characters, mysterious aspects of their personality or behaviour are noted, one of their number dies and then there is a process of detection to work out whodunnit. I did largely guess the correct outcome in the case of this novel, although I didn’t with Orient Express.

Both the Christie novels I have read are Poirot novels (these make up a third of Christie’s impressive oeuvre) and he is, of course, a marvellous central character – quirky, consistent, charming, and with a brilliant mind. David Suchet played Poirot to great acclaim in the wonderful UK television series, and although I am familiar with them I have to confess I never actually watched them! Suchet was in my mind, however, as I was reading the book.

I found the book unputdownable. I was eager for each new chapter, each new revelation; you can argue until the cows come home about whether this is “great literature” or something more “popular” but you can’t ask for much more than that, in my view. Wonderful characterisation, brilliant plotting, vivid imagination and storytelling that keeps you gripped to the end.

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Quite a back catalogue!

Reading these two books this year has definitely made me want to read more Christie. I find the novels quite quick reads, just as well since there are nearly 70 of them! I feel the need now to start with the first Poirot novels, to see how his character begins and how the author develops it over time. I also fancy like to binge-watching all those Poirot television dramas – there must be a channel somewhere showing them! A project for when the nights start drawing in, perhaps.

 

 

 

Christie is such a clever writer and one who clearly understood her readership and gave them what they wanted. Yes, I suppose they are rather formulaic, but when the world feels rather unpredictable there is no harm in getting what you expect from a book!

Recommended.

What appeals to you about Agatha Christie?

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Why book ratings are pointless!

If  you have read any of the book reviews I publish on this blog, you will note that I do not give star ratings, marks out of ten or anything like that. I will recommend or not (usually the former – even if I have not enjoyed something, I will try to think about who might like it) and, particularly in the case of the children’s books I review, I will say what age group I think it’s appropriate for and any issues parents might like to be aware of. For example, books marketed for, say, 11-13 year olds might contain references to violence or death, which will be okay for some kids, but not if they’ve just lost a pet, grandparent or are on the sensitive side. Star ratings, on the other hand, are a blunt instrument.

I am a keen member of the Goodreads website and I write short reviews of most things I read (haven’t caught up on the back catalogue I listed when I joined, though!). I hate giving the star rating and find even my own ratings are inconsistent from one book to the next, so how on earth can a reader compare a 4-star rating one person has given to a 2-star rating from someone else? If you read the review, I guess that gives you the reader’s justification for their rating, but the trouble with star ratings is that you are immediately drawn to the high level score rather than the longer-form explanation.

(The erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey gets the same score of 3.66 on Goodreads as Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey! But are they comparable?)

What justifies a star-rating anyway? Is it how much you’ve enjoyed something? Or how GOOD you think it is? They are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I recently reviewed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on this blog and on Goodreads, after I set it as the book for March on my Facebook Reading Challenge. I think it is fair to say that most people involved in the Challenge did not love the book, and yet it is one of the great classics of world literature. I loved it (but then I love the classics generally), but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I sat wrapt for every moment I was reading it. This 19th century novel was definitely hard work in places for a 21st century reader. Yet, there are plenty of books I’ve read recently which I could not put down. One that comes to mind is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but you would probably not say it was a classic; it’s the sort of book you’ll find in the hospital League of Friends bookstall! The Goodreads rating for Madame Bovary is 3.65 and for The Secret Life of Bees is 4.02, but will the latter still be in print in 150 years time?

I’m not really sure what this very unscientific comparison tells us, except that readers’ tastes change all the time. I gave Madame Bovary 5 stars because I recognise it as a great book, and acknowledge its longevity and its place in world literature, but others who hated it will have given it 1 star. But my enjoyment of it was a different kind of pleasure to reading The Secret Life of Bees.

I recognise the inconsistencies in my own ratings too – I am more likely to give a book a higher rating if it has met my expectations or if it was appropriate for the time I was reading it. This would explain the 1 star I gave to George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in The Bardo and the 4 stars I gave to Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox – the latter struck a political chord and moved me, but it’s not literary. And when I’m reviewing a children’s book, I try to rate it from the point of view of how much I think the target audience might enjoy it. But children’s tastes can be difficult to predict!

So, the answer really is to ignore the star rating and read the review – would you agree?

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