So this happened. I started Jar City, by Arnaldur Indriðason, as usual, folding down the pages with the quotes that I like. And therefore I can tell you that, according to the Reykjavík cops, the typical Icelandic murder is ‘squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence’. And I can tell you some other stuff too. It’s a fine book. But you may know that already because there are already quite a lot of reviews of Jar City, what with it being one of the classics of Icelandic crime. And as I got further into the book I realised that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s a taut, tight thriller, sure. From the reviews I’d read I thought I’d get something angry, a real exposé of ethical mishaps in genetic research. And although, sure, ethics is a big theme, it is less of a thing that I was expecting, and my experience reading the book was…not necessarily worse but…different.
Now the whole point of reading a book review is that it should give you a different experience. Either it prompts you to read the book in the first place, or it gives you pointers for you to pick up, or it helps you marshal your thoughts having read it. Speaking personally, getting to marshal my own thoughts is precisely why I do reviews. I did all my Borgen stuff because I wanted to really get into the programme and explore the themes that Adam Price and the gang were leading us through. And now I find it an important part of the reading process.
The reviews on this blog get far and away the most views of anything I write. Far fewer people want to read me spouting on about politics. (Tough.) But I wonder what readers get out of them. Normally I don’t read reviews before reading a book – Jar City was atypical: does reading too many reviews get between the reader and the text? How is that different from reading an interview with the author, whose words on the page should speak for themselves?
I mentioned earlier on that I fold down the corners of pages of books. A book with loads of folded pages is a real treat, with lots of tasty thoughts or phrases that I want to refer to again and again. But the language of the book review all too often requires a reference to whether a title is a ‘page turner’, a term I think is unfortunate because although it is meant as a compliment because you keep on reading because you don’t want to stop, some of the best books have you stop, think, and start again. Jihadi, which I reviewed recently, is not in any sense a page turner. It took me months to read because I kept stopping. But it is a particularly fine book. And my copy has many pages with the corners turned down.
I don’t know if this will work, but I am interested in hearing from the rest of the book (and other media) blogging community. Do you see yourself as a curator, sorting through the new releases to guide your readers to the best? Is it important to judge the writer’s technical prowess? (Sometimes I do if I think it’s interesting but other times I think it’s plain irrelevant.) Is it about the piece of art or about your views as the reader? Is it about the plot or the ideas? And if a series or title has been reviewed many times already what is the extra perspective we can provide? I’m very interested in your comments below and please link to your own sites.
And then there are the books which can be both page-turner and page-folder, which I need to read two or three times to get the full impact. But alas, times are not kind and do not allow for much rereading at present. I also often find that reviews written straight after reading a book, in the heat of the immediate impression, can be quite different from those written at leisure, a few days or weeks later. Sometimes the books which didn’t immediately wow me are the ones that truly make into my Top 10 reads of the year.
Couldn’t agree more! Sometimes it’s great to leave a book for a couple of weeks before attempting to review it. I read The Bird Tribunal several weeks ago, but haven’t had time to look at it again until tonight; it has been fermenting in my mind to good effect. Equally, you can go back to a book that you enjoyed at the time to find it was just so much froth.