These days, I only ever rate books with the highest marks possible if they can create an actual physical reaction from me: laughter (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1979), shock (Brave New World, 1931), creeped out (The Haunting Of Hill House, 1959), gutted (Neverwhere, 1996), tears of heartbreak (The Amber Spyglass, 2000), for example. The first book I read in 2015 was The Death House by Sarah Pinborough. It brought at tear to my eye and engendered feelings of sadness and loss. My review said “You might feel like your heart has been stomped on.” Herein lies the problem with reading great books. Other books have a lot to live up, and sometimes, expectations let you down.
For example, I’ve just finished reading The Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke, I was taken in by the wonder and admired its ambition. The nature of the plot and concepts Clarke employed all registered with my sensibilities. I have a not so secret love of fairies. However, it didn’t ring my emotional bell. Maybe due to the length – at more than 1000 pages it took me a couple of months to read (I’m a slow reader, sue me!). Cho’s novel follows similar narrative paths, albeit without the depth. I enjoyed it, especially the themes of female empowerment and dodgy foreign policies, and dragons, but for some reason – and I think probably the appropriately formal prose – I didn’t relate to it, and therefore, gets a rating lower than Strange and Norrell.
There was something about The Death House. Something that elevates great fiction. Almost intangible. As well as the usual plaudits a book gets (interesting plot, great writing, clever sub-text, etc), it is one of those books that stays with you. You think about it long after reading it, and out of the blue recall a scene, or a character’s motivation, or a theme. Another book that I read this year that had a similar effect was Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge. Not as good as Pinborough’s but it had characters that I really warmed too and the prose was eminently readable. It was a book I thought a lot about in the weeks after I read it, often while reading other books.
So here’s the rub: if I hadn’t read The Death House or Cuckoo Song or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, would I have liked other books more? Even those books I’ve read this year with no direct comparisons to these and other great books have left me a little flat. Here’s a short list: The Chimes (2015) by Anna Smaill, The Empress Game (2015) by Rhonda Mason, Steeple (2015) by Jon Wallace, Uprooted (2015) by Namoi Novik, The Night Mare (1989) by Kim Newman, and The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro. Books I’ve read this year. I contend that these are all better books than I gave them credit for, but because I’d read books that had blown me away, or affected me in some emotional way, I thought less of them.
Is there a solution? Is it possible to judge every book on its own merit? I think not! Otherwise every meal would taste amazing, and every song you hear would be like falling in love for the first time. Of course, you can’t like all books equally. What you get out of a book is what you carry with you through life, and what you bring to it. Your emotions, experiences and interests are all reflected in the choices of fiction you read and what you think of those books. That’s why books are so special, and why unfortunately, some books are going to have less impact than others. Which is the problem with reading great books.