Issue 11: Vhcle Books
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And so, reluctantly, grudgingly, digging my heels into the sand as I'm dragged towards the inevitable destination, I have to admit that there is no objective measure of a good book.
But where does that leave reviewers in this fog of subjectivity?
Well, simply to give their own view of a book. There are those who would dismiss any opinion from anyone who has not read a prescribed list of classics (a list that would, of course, vary at least slightly from person to person). Perhaps because I have rarely read the books they name I shy away from that view, but it has its merits. A reviewer needs the knowledge and the references to know whether a plot is formulaic, whether a character is a stereotype, and whether the author is lazily rehashing elements of their previous work.
Of course, the reviewer owes it to the reader – and the author – to try to look at the book from a wider angle. If the reason you struggle through Ulysses is not its narrative style as such but the fact you were reading it on the 7.05 commuter train and being constantly jostled by fellow passengers, it would not be fair on James Joyce or his prospective readers to slate it.
Our reviewers all love books, although they might love very different books. So here's what we'll do: give an honest opinion having made an effort with the book, supported as much as possible by the text itself rather than external factors. We'll say what we enjoyed or disliked, and why. We won't spoil the ending if you want to read it yourself (and yes, saying 'you'll never guess the twist!' is definitely spoiling the ending).
We also won't pretend it is anything other than one person's view. This is also why we're not – for now
– using a ratings system. The reviews themselves are not long, but underneath each one there'll be a one-line summary if you're in a hurry.
I hope we can offer intelligent, thought-provoking reviews of new and old books. It won't all be fiction, although that's our focus for the first few issues. There's no particular type of fiction we want to review, although we'll tend towards the literary over the genre, and the adult over the children's (and perhaps there'll be a future essay on those distinctions).
For now, please enjoy this inaugural Books section. If you've any comments or suggestions, do get in touch. Happy reading!
This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 11


Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.
Read other articles by Jamie Thunder
HELLO, and welcome to the first ever Vhcle Books section.
This issue we have three reviews: one of a classic, one of a favourite, and one of a recent title plucked from Amazon's 'new releases'. We're always looking for new ideas and contributors, so please get in touch if you're interested:
We'll also have a book-related essay in each issue. As section editor I've taken the liberty of writing the first one, asking a question that any reviewer should ask themselves: what do we mean when we say a book
is good?
It seems simple enough. A good book is a... is a... a...
Alright. Let's start with what is not good. It's easy, and can be a lot of fun, to point and laugh at terrible writing, whether Dan Brown's strikingly predictable descriptions of his protagonists, or E L James's description of an orgasm as 'like a washing machine on spin cycle... wow', or James Patterson's routine cliffhanger sentences.
And yet. Millions of people buy their books, and even if they do not consider them great art they enjoy them. It doesn't follow that popular books are necessarily good books (popular books often owe their popularity to factors outside the text, such as the strength of the publicity machine behind them), but it would be snobbish and short-sighted to insist that their popularity means they are bad books.
Maybe what is a good book is an individual, personal reaction. Yet such an egalitarian and relativist view doesn't sit comfortably. It feels certain, so obvious, that some books in particular are by any measure better than other books in particular. A code that puts, say, Kazuo Ishiguro on a level with Lee Child seems like no code at all.
Delve into why that should be, however, and you immediately hit a bedrock of opinion. Is it that one deals with deeper themes? Perhaps, but it does not follow that the deeper the themes the better the book – and the themes that matter will vary from person to person. Is it that one can enthrall me, surround me with its world? Perhaps, but The Hunger Games did that to me recently, and I would not want to elevate that above 'enjoyable'.
Is it that one has a coherent plot, characters I believe in, and dialogue I can imagine spoken by those characters? Perhaps. Yet that seems to require my imagination to do a lot of work, and different people's imaginations can handle very different requirements.
And then there are the people who say the novel is dead; its ore has been exhausted, the gems long discovered; those who continue with this spent form are merely displacing dust and rocks. They might point us towards ergodic literature, which embraces non-linear (and even incoherent) plots that require considerable effort from the reader.
Ah yes, the reader. What a reader brings to a book should not be ignored. They bring a state of mind, an imagination, a linguistic ability, an environment in which they are reading the book. They also bring a reading history, which, depending on the history and on the book being read, might enrich or diminish the experience, either by noticing references to other works or missing them entirely. (My enjoyment of The Hunger Games turned into amusement as I realised it was going to end exactly like Battle Royale; had I not read the latter, I'd have enjoyed the former more.)
We associate certain books with certain times, or even music. Norwegian Wood was the first book I read after a breakup; I will always associate Remains of the Day with All Eternals Deck by the Mountain Goats as I read it with that album on repeat. Even now, listening to it reminds me of the book. Any review I wrote of either book would inevitably be coloured by those situations. They were part of
the experience.
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Vhcle Books, March 2013 Vhcle Magazine Issue 11
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