How Do You Decide What To Read Next?

So many books, such little time! So how do you decide what to read next?

My system goes like this:
Any book I have a vague interest in reading gets added to my To-Read Shelf on Goodreads. Books usually make their way there when I read an interesting review of them, a friend/family member recommends them or I read something else by the author and like it. Every few weeks or so I go through it and pick out around 7 books that I feel like reading soon, then search the (painfully slow) Angus Libraries Catalogue to see if the library has them in stock, reserving them if so. Any that the library don’t have I stick onto my amazon wishlist where I buy them second-hand once they become cheap enough (I tend to limit myself to only spending £10 a month on books as I’m on a tight budget which usually means somewhere between 2 and 4 secondhand copies. I love seeing a book is available for £0.01!). I visit the library (with my little boy, who also loves it) at least once a week and collect the reservations that have come in for me (the librarians know me by name and sight and will get my books lined up on the counter when they see me – now that’s good service!). I then make my way through them, one at a time, in whatever order I feel inspired to, before moving onto my recent secondhand purchases (I always feel like I should read library books first, so that I can return them and let someone else have a turn). Once my “to-read-immediately” pile gets down to 2 or 3 books I start the whole process again.

There are exceptions to this: sometimes I will hear about a book and HAVE TO HAVE IT NOW, in which case I will reserve/buy it even if I’ve just done a bulk reserve/buy-session (it’s worth noting I always get books from the library if I can, with the exception of graphic novels which I prefer to own, though I will sometimes borrow them from friends/family). I am also lucky enough to receive books as gifts, whether for my birthday/Christmas or just randomly when people pass them onto me* and these I tend to either read immediately or at some random point in time when I feel inspired to pick them up. I also occasionally read books for review on this blog, in which case I read them as soon as possible (though to be honest I decline 90%+ of the requests I get to review books as if they’re not something I’d want to read of my own accord – I won’t read them just to get a free book, especially when I don’t keep my books anyway!).
* I pass on almost all the books I buy once I have read them. I don’t have time to sell them on again (it doesn’t seem worth the hassle for the tiny return when I’ve bought them for a penny!) so I move them along to friends, family or the charity shop. I used to want to own all my books, but nowadays unless they are true favourites or graphic novels I’m not bothered – we don’t have much space (especially space that can’t be reached by toddlers!) and I enjoy not feeling tied down by “stuff” generally.

What about you? Do you have a “system”, or just read books you are inspired to at that given moment? Do you usually know what your next few reads will be, or choose spontaneously once you have finished your previous book? 

(Photo by me.)

Series Review: Paper Aeroplanes & Goose by Dawn O’Porter

★★★★ (4 stars – 3 for Paper Aeroplanes and 4 for Goose, but I’m feeling generous.)

Synopsis from Goodreads:
(Paper AeroplanesIt’s the mid-1990s, and fifteen year-old Guernsey schoolgirls, Renée and Flo, are not really meant to be friends. Thoughtful, introspective and studious Flo couldn’t be more different to ambitious, extroverted and sexually curious Renée. But Renée and Flo are united by loneliness and their dysfunctional families, and an intense bond is formed. Although there are obstacles to their friendship (namely Flo’s jealous ex-best friend and Renée’s growing infatuation with Flo’s brother), fifteen is an age where anything can happen, where life stretches out before you, and when every betrayal feels like the end of the world. For Renée and Flo it is the time of their lives.
(Goose) It’s a year and a half on from Paper Aeroplanes, and Renée is now living with her Aunty Jo. They even have geese, and Renée likes to sit and watch them, wondering if she’ll ever find ‘the One’ – someone who will love her no matter what, and be there for her no matter how bad things get. She and Flo are in their final year at school, and they’ve got some tough choices to make – like will they go to university? And if so where – and will they go together? Renée’s usual ambivalence on the matter shocks Flo, who had assumed they’d continue as they were, the best and closest of friends, forever. She feels as though she needs Renée’s support more than ever, so when a handsome young boy enters Flo’s life, she finds herself powerfully drawn to his kindness, and his faith. Renée and Flo’s friendship will soon be tested in a way neither of them could have expected – and if Paper Aeroplanes was a book about finding friendship, Goose is the novel that explores whether it’s possible to keep hold of it.

I have to admit I’m unsure if I’d have read this series was it not written by Dawn O’Porter (I’m not familiar with most of her recent, more fashion-focused, TV work, but enjoyed the documentaries she made in her mid/late 20s): although I enjoy YA fiction I’m not so into it that I have to read everything in the genre and reading the synopses of the novels they do sound pretty average. That said, their Guernsey setting intrigued me, as well as the fact they, like my own teenage years, are set in the mid/late 90s (not that the decade plays a huge role in either book: there are some pop culture references especially in the chapter titles, and of course no mobiles or internet but otherwise it didn’t feel too different to today).

Both novels are told in the first person with the narration alternately switching between Renée and Flo. I enjoyed both their voices (and my teenage self could relate to a fair few aspects of Renée’s personality, especially when it came to messing about at school) though, particularly in the first novel, they didn’t feel as distinctive from each other as they perhaps could or should have. That said, both novels were easy to read and quite gripping – with the alternating sections being only a few pages long each it was all too easy to keep promising myself I’d stop after “just one more”.

The series is filled with classic YA tropes: lessons and homework, fake friends, real friends, drinking too much, boy troubles, the quest to lose one’s virginity and family issues. It was set apart however by the uniqueness of both characters’ family situations (Renée’s mum passed away from cancer at a young age, her dad has gone abroad and she lives with other family members; and Flo is stuck with a mum who seems to hate her whilst using her as a babysitter for her much younger sister) and the way the “boy troubles” were handled, particularly in Goose which deals with rejection and the double-standard relating to how many different people men and women “should” sleep with. Both Flo and Renée develop infatuations which to an outsider seem ill-placed and illogical (as infatuations tend to do) but which to me reflected their wishes to belong and to be loved (feelings that they didn’t get from their families). In Goose, Flo joins a church which presented issues that aren’t very prevalent amongst mainstream YA novels: Flo’s Christianity, Renée’s atheism, the reasons both ways of thinking made sense to the person concerned and whether they could still be friends whilst holding such different beliefs .

I’ve held back from giving the series five stars as I just didn’t love it, and Paper Aeroplanes in particular didn’t feel like it was bringing anything new to the YA genre (I also disliked the Sally storyline in that book – although I liked the idea to include a “frenemy” within the novel she was just too much enemy and not enough friend to be believable – though the way the story was developed in Goose was unexpected and with a greater, in both senses of the word, level of depth). Had I read these books in my early/mid teens I’m sure I would have loved them though, and even at the ripe old age of 30 I intend to read the rest of the series (apparently another two books are planned for it).

Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: With her career, live-in boyfriend and loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the rebellious young woman who got mixed up with drug runners and delivered a suitcase of drug money to Europe over a decade ago. But when she least expects it, her reckless past catches up with her; convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at an infamous women’s prison in Connecticut, Piper becomes inmate #11187-424. From her first strip search to her final release, she learns to navigate this strange world with its arbitrary rules and codes, its unpredictable, even dangerous relationships. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with tokens of generosity, hard truths and simple acts of acceptance.

Like many people, I came to this book via the TV show of the same name (which I find enjoyable due to its mixture of humour and pathos. It’s also refreshing to watch a show that focuses on women rather than men for a change). I’ve long had a fascination with prisons (and institutional life) in general too, so it’s a wonder I’d not read this before. So, let’s get the book/TV show comparisons out of the way first. Many of the TV show characters are not present within the book, or are amalgams of people who Piper met in prison. Others share the same name as TV characters but not their characteristics – e.g. Pennsatucky is friendly; and in general Piper portrays her fellow prisoners much more positively here than they come across in the TV show (which makes sense, as the TV team want/need to create tension). The racial and age makeup of the book is slightly different to that of the TV show too – although the TV show represents women of colour and women over the age of 40 far more than pretty much every show going, there are more women falling into one or both of these categories in the book. Larry does exist, and is a far more likeable person in the book than on the show (where frankly I can’t stand him!). Piper predominately had relationships with women before meeting him, as opposed to the TV version where she had been with men until meeting Alex – the fact this was changed for the show saddens me as it indicates they didn’t think viewers would warm to a “mostly gay” character as much as a “mostly straight” one. Finally, Alex is called Nora in the book, and is older than Piper and described as being less attractive than TV show Alex. They don’t go to the same prison either (or rather they do, but only for a very short time – I won’t say more than that) and there is definitely no romance between them (if you were hoping for some: sorry!). These changes mean that there is a lot to learn from and enjoy in the book even if you’ve watched the TV show, and I don’t think it would matter too much which way around you experienced them as it’s clear the book was largely only an inspiration for the show (much like Rae Earl’s My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary).

I learned a lot about the US justice system and how it treats people, especially women, working class people and people of colour (Piper, despite only ticking one of these “boxes”, appears aware of the way these issues intersect each other and of her own privileges). Many comments are made on the “War On Drugs” and how it has resulted in a huge amount of imprisonment (the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world), including the imprisonment of women, most of whom are mothers, who have often not directly supplied drugs to others but rather carried drug money (like Piper herself did), allowed their homes to be used for the transfer of drugs or taken messages relating to their sale. (This isn’t to underestimate the amount of harm drugs like crack do to individuals/families/communities, but rather to highlight the futility of locking people up for it, when it doesn’t appear to affect the supply or demand.) Furthermore, imprisonment damages people’s life chances (particularly in terms of finding employment in the “mainstream economy”/outside the black market) and that of their children who miss out on time with their mothers and sometimes have to go into foster care. Particularly heartbreaking for me as a mother (and currently pregnant) were Piper’s accounts of women being taken away at the last minute to give birth (in some cases in shackles the entire time) and then returned to the prison without their babies. I know people are put in prison for a reason, but Orange Is The New Black will make you question whether the punishment is appropriate for their crime.

Prison is often assumed to have rehabilitation as an aim, but Orange Is The New Black highlighted how poorly this is carried out, at least in the prison Piper spent time in. Information and support given around the time of release was absolutely minimal, as were the support services (education, mental health etc.) within the prison itself. Although there were no guard-prisoner romances within the book (and less between-prisoner relationships than in the TV show) it did highlight the vulnerability of women within prison who were often, Piper included, subjected to verbal abuse from (often male) guards or frisked/body searched in ways that were far more intimate than necessary.

A quick note on the style: whilst it was clear Piper is not a novelist, the book was not badly or cheesily written. It was well-structured and blended stories and information together well.

There was little I disliked about Orange Is The New Black. A similar book about the Scottish prison system would have been more pertinent to my life, but many of the issues cross over. The two things that held me back from giving this five stars were its occasional use of non-inclusive language (despite Piper’s general attitude of inclusiveness and non-judgemental approach to fellow prisoners who were of different races and backgrounds to her) and a slight smugness on behalf of Piper – did she really need to tell us repeatedly how well-liked and popular she was in prison? Or how many people were surprised that a middle class white girl ended up there (again, this last point slightly undermined some of her generally inclusive approach). Still, I would recommend it to anyone interested in prisons, and particularly issues relating to women in prisons.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Why did I read this book?
Mostly to see what all the fuss was about. After all, it’s not often I see this when I log onto Goodreads:

Plus, I like YA fiction now and then (or lately it seems, lot of the time: I’m pregnant and tired and just want to read straightforward, chatty, narratives).

Favourite thing about the book:
As mentioned above: I just want to read straightforward, chatty, narratives, and The Fault In Our Stars delivered this. It is told in the first person by Hazel, and her voice was friendly, honest and often humourous. The storyline moved at a good pace and I read the entire book within two days.

It’s also worth adding that I enjoyed this enough that I have already reserved the rest of John Green’s fiction at the library and intend to watch the movie version ASAP.

Other positives:
+ Minor spoiler: they visit Amsterdam! One of my favourite places in the world.
+ I found the handling of Hazel, Gus and their friend Isaac as “cancer kids” refreshing. So often we are encouraged to see people in their shoes as “other”, people who are there only to feel sympathy for, but in The Fault in Our Stars they were at times angry, bewildered, accepting or just trying to live their lives regardless, which felt much more realistic. (Though I’d love to read a review of this written by a teenager with cancer and hear their take on the matter – I looked but couldn’t find one.)
+ I enjoyed the existential musings (lightweight as they were) within the book, and appreciated that the book gave respect towards religious (well, Christian) views whilst for the most part following a humanist/atheist angle.

Least favourite thing about the book:
I didn’t feel Hazel and Gus were realsitic teenagers (especially after recently reading the much more authentic My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary by Rae Earl!). I get that teenagers with cancer will have different concerns, and will have considered other aspects of life in depth to the majority of teenagers (again, see: My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary) but they both read like people at least a decade older than they were supposed to be.

Other negatives:
– I guess this book was meant to make me cry, but it didn’t. Perhaps primarily because of the reason outlined above: Gus and Hazel just didn’t feel real to me. Also, I knew what was coming, plot-wise – I think we can all guess that there is only one way this story can end – so was mentally prepared for it and thus not that saddened by it (heart of stone, that’s me). I will say though, that the book scared the crap out of me! Cancer terrifies me anyway, so reading about it in depth like this perhaps wasn’t the wisest move (and the book I’m now reading mentions it too. Argh.). I was probably most moved by Hazel’s mum’s experiences (and related to her more than I did Hazel).
– I found the Peter Van Houten/An Imperial Affliction-obsession storyline boring, and it was one of the main plots within the book. Even the final “twist” relating to it failed to move me, and (minor spoiler alert) I wasn’t surprised at all by his behaviour in Amsterdam.

Favourite character:
Hazel’s mum. I also quite liked Isaac.

Least favourite:
Peter Van Whatnot.

I recommend this book to:
Is there any point in me recommending this to anyone? You’ve probably already read it, or at least know what it is about and thus know for yourself whether you’re going to read it or not.

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Join everyone’s favourite unconventional couple Don Tillman and Rosie in the next chapter of their love story. With the Wife Project complete, Don settles happily into a new job and married life in New York. But it’s not long before certain events are taken out of his control and it’s time to embark on a new project… As Don tries to get to grips with the requirements of starting a family, his unusual research style soon gets him into trouble. To make matters more difficult, Don has invited his closest friend to stay with them, but Gene is not exactly a prime example of marital happiness, and as his life with Rosie continues to be unpredictable Don needs to remember that emotional support is just as important as his practical expertise…

Quick, spoiler-free review: I read The Rosie Project earlier this year and enjoyed it considerably, therefore I was very keen to read its sequel (though I had heard mixed, largely negative things about it from the off, which perhaps influenced my opinion though I tried to keep an open mind). On the plus side, it shared many of the same attributes that made me love its predecessor: a strong, unique, narrative voice in the form of first-person protagonist Don; some farcical and amusing set-pieces and a general sense of feel-good-ness that is always welcome in my world. The book was hard to put down and easy to immerse myself in, and I liked pretty much all the supporting characters (especially Sonia and George). Also, it’s quite fun to read a book with a pregnant character whilst you yourself are pregnant (as long as everything goes well for mother and baby, of course!).

On the down side however, The Rosie Effect‘s narrative was very predictable (though to be fair you know what you’re letting yourself in for when you pick up a novel of this ilk), the ending abrupt (more on that below) and Don himself had been reduced to a series of stereotypes. His (probable) Asperger’s (or rather three traits potentially linked to it) seemed to dominate his personality far more than in The Rosie Project and thus almost every page contained some example of how rational and effective/systematic he was, and how he was unable to process any “language input” in anything but a completely literal way. Asperger’s is a far, far, more complex “condition” (I’m unsure if that’s the right word as it brings with it too many negative connotations)/way of thinking than the book gives credit for and this lead to a feeling that it (and Don himself, somehow) was being exploited for the author’s gain. Finally, I didn’t feel that there was nearly enough of Rosie in this book or that it portrayed women well in general – male characters overwhelmingly dominated it and the few women that did appear were (with the exceptions of Sonia and Claudia) one-dimensional. Bonus points (or not) to Graeme Simsion for his stereotyping of Lydia the social worker as, to put it bluntly, a total bitch and of the gay women in Don’s “Lesbian Mothers Project” as scientific-method-disrupting man-haters.

Other things that annoyed me which I can’t discussed without a spoiler warning:
• Why didn’t Rosie do more to save her marriage? I get that she was supposed to be busy with her studies, but she didn’t attempt to instigate even one conversation with Don in order to put things back on track, and surely she knew when she married him that she would need to take the lead in such discussions? A huge amount of aggro could have been avoided had she made a little more effort to keep an open dialogue with him. I liked Rosie a lot less in this book than in the previous one.
• Rosie gets pregnant by choosing to stop taking her birth control pills without telling Don about it. Obviously this is not a fair thing to do to anyone and again it made me dislike Rosie more but also added to my anger about Graeme Simsion’s portrayal of women as it was implied this is something women regularly do in order to “trick”/”trap” men (come to think of it, maybe Graeme Simsion doesn’t have much faith in men’s maturity/emotional intelligence either if he thinks they often only have children if tricked into it).
• Furthermore, I never understood why Don would have wanted to marry Rosie. Have a relationship with her, sure, live together, yes; but undergoing a ceremony to obtain a piece of paper legitimizing your relationship in the eyes of the state seems a bit irrational and out-of-keeping with Don’s commitment to rationality, no? Though perhaps it has impacts on taxes and other bureaucracy in Australia that I am not aware of but made it seem worthwhile to him.
• There were way too many plot contrivances for The Rosie Effect to even be remotely believable. Don and Rosie get evicted? No problem, Don happens to have just met a really rich dude who’ll let him live in a giant apartment for free!
• The ending. It was obvious that they would get back together, but I wasn’t convinced that the Don-with-baby video would be enough of a catalyst to change Rosie’s mind when she had seemed so certain about leaving only a few hours previously despite Don’s best efforts/reasoning. And the airport scene was just too cheese-tastic.

With all this in mind it’s surprising I even gave it three stars, but I didn’t hate the minute-to-minute experience of reading the book and was at times reluctant to put it down so it seems unfair to give it less than that. I’d still read a threequel, too (and even kind of hope there will be one).

Quick Review: My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary by Rae Earl

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: It’s 1989 and Rae is a fat, boy-mad 17-year-old girl, living in Stamford, Lincolnshire with her mum and their deaf white cat in a council house with a mint off-green bath suite and a larder Rae can’t keep away from. This is the hilarious and touching real-life diary she kept during that fateful year – with characters like her evil friend Bethany, Bethany’s besotted boyfriend, and the boys from the grammar school up the road (who have code names like Haddock and Battered Sausage). My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary evokes a vanished time when Charles and Di are still together, the Berlin wall is up, Kylie is expected to disappear from the charts at any moment and it’s £1 for a Snakebite and Black in the Vaults pub.

This book was a very enjoyable and often funny (though I only laughed out loud once) read. Not a lot happens, by virtue of this being an edited version of Rae’s actual teenage diary, and the lack of narrative arc is what pulls me back from giving this five stars. There is also a lot more about the “fat” side of Rae’s life than the “mad” side, which isn’t a criticism (though her constant, but forever unfulfilled, promises to herself to diet did start to grate on me after a while due to their repetitiveness. It’s her body, I don’t care whether she diets or not (and for the record, don’t think that she should just to fulfil others’ expectations; and I know that going back and forth about how one feels about their body and whether one wants to diet is normal for many people) but I did wish she’d make up her mind about it, embrace body positivity (this would obviously have been preferable) or just that some of these sections had been left out of the published version. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about Rae’s relationships with her friends*, the boys she hung out with at the pub (especially her relationship with Haddock, which had more than a hint of Mr Darcy about it) and her mum (I’d have liked to have known more about this particular relationship as it seemed that her mum had a lot of issues of her own). Rae’s discussions of school work also brought me back to a time where homework, classes and essays (arguably pointlessly) dominated my life. Without wanting to sound too judgemental, I found Rae a tad immature for 17 (18 towards the end of the book) as her concerns/diary entries felt more like mine at 14 than 17 (and by 18 I had moved out of my mum’s house), but maybe people grew up more slowly in the 1980s than the late 1990s/early 2000s?
*Although I was surprised to read in the Author’s Notes that Bethany is actually an amalgamation of three people. Why make such a change? I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which “Bethany” had said/done a particular thing.

The minor concerns mentioned here aside, My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary was an unabashedly fun book and I don’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of YA literature, adults who want to relive their teenage years or people who love books told through diaries/journals (that’d be me!). I hope to read its sequel soon.

(The TV series of the same name is also worth checking out – I enjoyed them both for different reasons: the TV show is set in the mid 90s (closer to my own teenage years), Rae goes to a state college instead of a private girls’ school (again, more relatable) and as a whole the TV version has a more obvious narrative arc. The show is definitely “inspired” by the book rather than being a direct adaption of it, but that’s no bad thing as long as you are aware of that before diving into either.)

~

Whilst I’m here, I should confess that before starting My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary I tried to read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I enjoyed the first section until a load of unexplained fantasy-type stuff got thrown at me, and flicking ahead I didn’t think I’d enjoy the later sections very much so decided to give up on it for now. Maybe I’ll get it out of the library again another year when I have more time and energy, or maybe I’m just not smart enough for David Mitchell’s work, as I gave up on Cloud Atlas too, though I loved Black Swan Green.

Three Years Of Blogging

Today is What Hannah Read’s 3rd anniversary! I’ll celebrate in my usual way: by summing up the past year in blogging.

I’ve reviewed 58 books this year, which is 7 more than last year, and 18 more than in my first year of blogging. I’ve also recently interviewed two authors.

During the past 12 months, What Hannah Read has:
★ Got 71 new followers on Twitter, for a total of 327 followers.
★ Been liked by 11 more people on Facebook for a total of 89 “fans”.
★ Had 14, 427 views, for a total of 28,079 views.
★ Reached 249 followers by email/on WordPress (143 more than last year).
★ Reached 38 followers on Bloglovin’ (13 more than last year).

My pageview stats seem to be doubling every year, which is great. To be honest I write this blog for myself (hence doing nothing to promote it besides maintaining the Twitter/FB pages. Well, that’s partly why I do nothing to promote it, the other reason is that I find promotion boring) so it’s always a bonus if anyone else finds it worth reading.

I’ve also introduced the Two View Book Review series, which has been a lot of fun.

The Top 5 most viewed posts written in the past 12 months are:
A review of The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh
A review of Autobiography by Morrissey
A review of All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
An author interview with Mark Robertson
An author interview with Ocean Capewell

Looking forward to What Hannah Read’s Fourth Year:
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m currently pregnant with my second child (due in February), and I’m not entirely sure what that will mean for this blog. It may mean that only a little changes or it may mean that it becomes more low-key for a wee while – shorter reviews, fewer reviews, a combination of the two? I would like to include more features here (both by myself and by guest bloggers) but I’m not going to promise anything. What Hannah Read won’t be disappearing though, I’m sure of that.