Tricksy Bookses

At the weekend, I (mostly) read. No surprise there. The only real shocker was that I only read one book. It was a book I thought I’d love, one I picked up and paid for without even reading the back cover blurb, and which I settled down to read without any hesitation, sure in the knowledge that I’d devour it.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.

I’d heard nothing but good things about this one. I’d read so many reviews which told me, in glowing terms, about its ‘fairytale roots’ and its ‘innovative style’ and its ‘refreshing narration’. I read about its brave and adventurous heroine and its feats of imagination. None of this was untrue – the book does have all these things, and more. It has wonderful ideas. It has twists of cleverness and whole passages that are so beautifully written that I found myself caressing them with my eyes, reading and re-reading and getting every last drop of joy out of them. Every reviewer mentions the same passage, in fact, when they’re describing the writing style – there’s a scene when a character is blowing a kiss after September (the protagonist), but she runs too fast for the kiss to catch her. The passage ends with the beautiful lines:

‘As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.’ (p. 210)

This is undeniably beautiful, and it’s the most poignant scene in the whole thing. I did love that bit, unreservedly. Nonetheless, I struggled with the book overall. The funny thing is, though, it’s actually a book I’d recommend to other people – but I think I’d choose who I suggested it to with great care. For me though, from about halfway through the book, reading it just felt like work. I forced myself to finish it because I refused to give up on a book that I so desperately wanted to love.

The book (and this might shock some of you) is Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’.



It sounds like something that’s tailor-made for me to love, doesn’t it? You’d think so.

I’m so disappointed with myself. This is a book that deserves to be loved. It’s definitely a book I admire. It’s a book I’m glad I’ve read. It’s a book which, if I met it at a cocktail party, I’m sure would keep me entertained for a while (though, no doubt I’d depart from its company with a slight headache). If it was giving a lecture, I’d pay to attend, and I would really try to listen to every word. I would make copious notes.

If it’s possible, this is a book that I respect, but not one which I love. I respect the way it was made (the author crowdfunded it before it was picked up by a mainstream publisher, which is amazing), I respect the author’s talent, and I respect the world and characters she has created. But I just couldn’t warm to the whimsical, deliberately ‘old-fashioned’ style of writing. I thought it was fine – charming, even – for the first while, but after about ten chapters it began to wear on me. It felt deliberate, it felt laboured, and it felt contrived. It kept distracting me from the story and bringing me out of the imaginative world of Fairyland, and September’s adventures there. I’m wondering if the problem is with me – perhaps I wasn’t in the ‘right’ frame of mind to read this book – because no other opinion I’ve read has concurred with mine. I’m a bit worried for myself. I’m worried for my future as a reader.

This anxiety is being compounded by the fact that I’m currently just under halfway through another book which everyone else in the known world loves with a passion. I’ve been halfway through it for about a week, and I might well stay halfway through it for a long time. It was another book which I picked up without hesitation, knowing I’d love it because it ticked all the boxes – great story, great style, strong female characters, adventure, &c. It’s Elizabeth Wein’s ‘Code Name Verity’.



I really hate myself for not eating this book up. It should’ve barely had a chance to gather dust before I’d read it right through to the end – yet it languishes beside my bed, unfinished. What’s not to love, I hear you ask? This is a book about female WWII pilots captured in Nazi-occupied France, a woman tortured for her knowledge of British intelligence, doing her best to string out her own execution, Scheherazade-style! It’s clearly a work of genius!

I can’t even begin to explain what’s holding me back on this one. I do enjoy the book while I’m reading it, but it’s an effort to pick it back up again after I’ve taken a break from it for a day or two. The latest break has been the longest yet. I do hope I will pick it up and give it the respect it’s due, though. I will finish it, but I suspect it’ll be similar to the Valente book. It will be a book I admire, but not one that I love.

The problem, just in case you’re wondering, is not with my ability to read. I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ in one sitting earlier in the week. I had no trouble focusing on it, on shutting out the world until I’d reached the end, and I enjoyed every word. So, it’s not that my brain has packed its bags and decided it’s going to sit beside a pool in Marbella for a while. I’m still in full possession of my faculties.

So what else could be wrong?

All diagnoses gratefully accepted…


9 thoughts on “Tricksy Bookses

  1. MishaBurnett

    It took me thirty years to finally struggle through all of “The Lord Of The Rings”. I had to fight to finish Phillip Jose Farmer’s “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” and never could read any of the other Riverworld books. Read “The Vampire Lestadt” and thought it was okay, didn’t even try with any of Anne Rice’s other books.

    Sometimes books that other people love–even other people whom I admire–just don’t work for me. And vice versa–I’ve stopped recommending Robert Anson Wilson to people because I got so many people telling me they tried reading him on my recommendation and hated it.

    Reading is a very personal relationship, and sometimes a reader and an author just don’t click. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a matter of personal style and taste. Personally, I’ve decided I’m not going to force myself to read books I don’t like–if I’m not engaged by the end of the first chapter, I move on.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Intriguing. I’ve never read Robert Anson Wilson or Phillip Jose Farmer. I’m such a book nerd that I want to check them out now, even though you definitely didn’t recommend them. Every time I read a new author’s name I’m like ‘Hmmm. Putting that on the mental to-read list!’

      I loved LOTR. I first read it when I was 12 (before I read ‘The Hobbit’, actually), but I don’t think I fully understood it at that age. I remember I even picked my way carefully through the appendices! I read it again in college, so it’s probably due a re-read now, but I think the movies have spoiled me. As for Anne Rice – I loved ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and ‘Memnoch the Devil’ (even though a man I know who worships the ground Rice walks on considers it her worst book). Besides that I’m not much of an expert.

      I think I’ll have to give up on my old determination to finish a book ‘no matter what’ – if I’m struggling to read something I think I’ll take your advice and just move on to something else. There are too many books I want to read to waste time with ones that make life difficult!

      1. anna3101

        I totally agree – there are too many wonderful books out there to stick to those you with which you have no chemistry. I used to struggle and finish each and every book because I thought to do otherwise was “bad” and sign of “lack of willpower” but I don’t care anymore 🙂 If I don’t like the book after a couple of chapters, I leave it be. Too little, too many books! And our life is really too short you know 😦 When I think of all the things I won’t have time to discover in this life, I feel sad…

  2. aanderand

    I know how you feel. Usually, when I put down a book, I just move on and forget about it but lately, I have tried to figure out what was the problem. I guess because now that I am writing I want to know what keeps a reader reading.
    I think I have mentioned the two most recent books where I stopped reading, Cloud Atlas and American Gods. Cloud Atlas to me was just wrong, I wanted the book to be something other than what it was, and there was not enough redeeming value on what was there to make me want to finish it. American Gods on the other hand is like an abstract painting that keeps drawing my attention but I can only look at it for so long before it begins to loose my interest.
    I have been reading the NaNo novels of some other writers. Two of which, I took a day each to read. One was a zombie tale which was okay and the other a vampire/romance tale which I loved and I am looking forward to the other six volumes that are planned. The current read is a romance novel, I think, probably a YA romance novel at that, I not sure of the author’s intent. I am finding it hard to stay with it, reading a chapter a night. I keep wondering what you would think of it. The writing is fairly polished, it was editied before he released it, but I think what brothers me about it is that it reads like so many case studies of messed up YA lives.
    So, I guess what I am trying to say is that, maybe I should just go back to putting the book down an walk away because trying to figure out the ‘why’ is just messing up my mind.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      It’s funny – I read an interview with David Mitchell this past weekend where he spoke about ‘Cloud Atlas’, and it got me really interested to read it. I was thinking of you and your reaction when you tried it! I said to myself ‘if Rand didn’t like it, chances are it’s not worth bothering with.’ 🙂 But it might happen one of these days that I’ll decide to give it a whirl. Certainly Mitchell made it sound very interesting in this interview, but I guess that’s his job! Perhaps it’ll be a bit like the books in my post – I’ll admire it and enjoy the concept but won’t be able to warm to the book itself.

      As for ‘American Gods’ – we’ve spoken about that before. Just read it, man.

      I think a lot of contemporary YA romance novels read like messed up YA lives! If you’re not used to the genre it can seem overwhelming. I’m glad you’re enjoying your NaNo reads. Maybe it’s a good idea to just enjoy the story and not to worry about dissecting it too much. Everyone’s a critic, eh… 🙂

  3. Maureen E

    I think we all have books like that–I know I have several that other reading friends have LOOOVVEED and I thought were just okay. In this case, I’ve read both of the books you mention and liked both. I can totally see how Valente’s very stylized narration might not work for everyone. Have you read anything else by her? I love her short stories. CNV is one of my absolute favorite books from last year, and some people have mentioned that they become more engaged part way through. But there are always going to be those books that just don’t work for whatever reason–a sad fact of the reading life.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thank you for this comment! I really love your book reviews (and I’ve just slipped over to have a look at your ideas about Valente’s work), so I really appreciate you stopping by here to give me your opinion. I’ve never read any of Valente’s short stories, but I probably will. I may even read ‘The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and led the Revels There’, just because I really admire what Valente has done in ‘Circumnavigated…’ It sort of left me feeling like it was all a performance, though, and I didn’t really connect emotionally with the characters. But I *wanted* to. I don’t know if the lack was within me or the book. But there was definitely a lack somewhere.

      Thanks for your thoughts on CNV. I’m determined to finish that one. Determined! 🙂 It just makes me worry when my own opinion differs so radically from *everyone* else’s. I wonder if I’m losing my touch! 🙂

  4. anna3101

    Please don’t “hate” yourself for not loving a book!!! You wouldn’t force yourself into loving a person just because you think they deserve it, would you? (I hope you wouldn’t!) I have a feeling that it doesn’t work like that. I imagine books as people. Some you love, some you like and some you are indifferent to (and there are even some you hate with a passion :)). You can’t always explain why you have this or that reaction to people. You just feel it intuitively that you click or you don’t. And I often realize that, objectively speaking, this person is a good one. Or that this one has his/her drawbacks. But still I avoid the first one and adore the second one. Of course, it’s worth trying to have a “working” relationship with as many people as possible but I wouldn’t dream of forcing myself to like all of those that I think are nice people. Too little time. I often feel it, almost physically, how the time is slipping from my hands. I’ve only learnt it recently – to say no to people and events that I don’t feel passionate about. Now each time there’s some meeting I don’t particularly feel like saying yes to, or a book that I’m not really into, or even when it’s the middle of a learning course and I suddenly realize I’m not enjoying it – well, I just say no and quit. Because I have this picture in my mind: me, dying and thinking about my life. Was it a good one? Did I use my time wisely? Or someone I love – gone, forever. Will I be able to say to myself: I’ve used up every opportunity to be with this person or did I waste my time on those I didn’t even care that much about?

    Please, do not read the books you don’t like. Your time is far too precious.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes, you’re entirely right.

      (And no – I wouldn’t force myself to love anything or anyone. I was being overly dramatic with the ‘hate’ comment, I guess. I meant it in relation to the fact that the book is about such an important and worthy subject, which I felt deserved to be loved and read with enjoyment, and I hated that I wasn’t able to give it the time it deserved.)

      You’re right about time being precious. I also use the idea of being old and looking back over my life – what would I like to have achieved, or have done? Who would I want to have spent my time with? It’s a powerful tool for keeping things on track.

      A bit morbid, maybe! But definitely powerful. 🙂


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