Thursday, 1 October 2015

Sampling September: A round-up & some lessons

What I learned from sampling 30 books in a month

Throughout the month of September, I decided to embark on a project: to work through as many books as possible from my 2015 to-read list, reading only a sample of each - usually the first 2 or 3 chapters. Based on these samples, I then wrote mini-reviews of the books and decided whether I'd want to carry on reading them. September is over, although I haven't quite run out of books to sample yet (I'll probably never run out of books to sample), and all in all, I tried a grand total of 30 books. Many of them might best be categorised as literary fiction, but I also tried YA fantasy, science fiction, crime, dystopian adventure, a romantic novel and a feminist satire - all sorts of things.

Of the 30, my standout favourite was Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire. It's also the longest - 944 pages; if I finish it, it'll be by far the longest book I've read this year - so it remains to be seen whether it can sustain the momentum built up in the first six chapters. But if it does, it's going to be an amazing book.

There's a couple I've already finished, having felt compelled to read on straight after starting them: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, which was exceptionally suspenseful and difficult to put down but not entirely satisfying, and Dietland by Sarai Walker, an uproariously funny satire about the diet industry and the media, with a fantastic central character.

There's a handful of others I'll definitely be finishing at some point: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, The Offering by Grace McCleen, Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright, The Chimes by Anna Smaill, Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp.

And those I have reservations about, but am not willing to write off completely: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan, The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

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So what did I learn from doing this?

I've become much more picky about thrillers and crime. I now find a lot of books in these genres predictable and dull. It takes something special and different to make me want to read on.

I'm much more likely to casually add books to my to-read list if they are new, relatively popular, and originally published in English. I seem to contemplate translated fiction a lot more carefully; even if I haven't yet bought the book, simply the idea of reading any translated novel in the first place is a much more considered decision. 

I find sampling to be a useful method for getting down my thoughts on a book in a completely honest way. If something's just not for me, it feels a lot better to say that after a few chapters than to read the whole thing and write a bad review.

Reading bits of so many books within such a short time sometimes made me feel as though I was inhabiting many different worlds simultaneously - or like all the stories were somehow taking place within the same world. Quite a pleasant side effect, really.

This whole project was a bit exhausting - especially towards the end - but it was also rewarding. Clearing books off my to-read list makes me feel weirdly productive, not to mention the fact that it makes said list more manageable. From now on, I'm going to make an effort to set aside at least a couple of days a month to sample 3 or 4 books I might want to read and make a definite decision about them.

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Here's the full list of my Sampling September blog posts and all the books I tried:
  • Booker Prize nominees: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy; The Chimes by Anna Smaill; The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan
  • Fiction by men, Part 1: Arcadia by Iain Pears; The Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller; City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. Part 2: Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright; Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp; Alice and the Fly by James Rice
  • Fiction by women, Part 1: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall; The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips; The Offering by Grace McCleen. Part 2: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller; Dietland by Sarai Walker; The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
  • Light reads: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon; The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall; Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Science fiction & fantasy: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers; The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan; The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy
  • Thrillers & crime, Part 1: Orient by Christopher Bollen; Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight; The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton. Part 2: Bitter Fruits by Alice Clark-Platts; Freedom's Child by Jax Miller; The Crooked House by Christobel Kent
  • ... And finally (couldn't think of any category for these, sorry): The Honours by Tim Clare; Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry; The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

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